Love on the Shattered Lens: Brief Encounter (dir by David Lean)

Flames of Passion is a British film from 1938.  I’ve seen the trailer but I’ve never actually seen the film and that’s kind of a shame because it’s a really good trailer.  Not only does it feature romance and adventure but it’s apparently based on a novel called Gentle Summer.  As someone who is fascinated by the power of a good title, I have to give credit to whoever changed that one.  Flames of Passion is far more intriguing than Gentle Summer.

Another reason that I want to see Flames of Passion is because it was apparently “Epoch-Making!!!”  In fact, they say so right in the trailer:

Unfortunately, I’ll never get a chance to actually see Flames of Passion.  As you probably already guessed, it’s a fictional film.  (I’m going to guess that “Epoch-Making” gave it away.)  It’s a fake film that plays a very important role in real film, the 1945 classic Brief Encounter.

Taking place in Britain shortly before the start of World War II, Brief Encounter tells the story of two people.  Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is respectable, middle class, and middle aged.  Every Thursday, she takes the train into a nearby town where she does the shopping and catches a matinee.  Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is a doctor who rides the train every Thursday so that he can help out at a local hospital.  Dr. Harvey volunteers at the hospital because that’s the type of person that he is.  He also volunteers, one Thursday, to help Laura get a piece of dirt out of her eye.

The next Thursday, Laura and Alec run into each other again.  They have coffee.  A week later, they have lunch.  A week after that, they go to the movies and they see the trailer for Flames of Passion.  Laura and Alec enjoy each other’s company and they quickly find themselves growing very close to one another.  The only problem is that, occasionally, Laura’s friends see the two of them together.  Laura knows how quickly gossip can be spread.

Actually, that’s not the only problem.  There’s actually an even bigger problem that neither Laura nor Alec know how to deal with.  Both of them are married and both of them have children.  In fact, Laura would appear to have the type of life that a lot of people would envy.  She has a nice home.  She has wonderful children.  She has a husband named Fred (Cyril Raymond) and there’s no doubt that Fred loves her.  Fred’s a good man but he’s boring, safe, and set-in-his-ways.  He’s the type who, when Laura mentions that she’s made a male friend and that she goes to the movies with him, barely looks up from the newspaper.

What is Laura to do?  She soon finds that her life is now centered around those Thursday meetings with Alec but are they worth the risk of losing her family?  And when Alec tells her that he’s been offered a job in South Africa, Laura realizes that she will soon no longer even have Thursday to which to look forward.

Brief Encounter is an interesting film.  From the minute that Alec and Laura meet, you know that they’re destined to fall for each other but nothing else about the film plays out in the way that you would expect it to.  As much as being a love story, it’s also a story about two people who have reached a point in their lives where they’ve reached the halfway mark of their lives and now they’re asking, “Is this it?”  It’s not just that Laura is attracted to Alec, though she certainly is.  It’s also that she knows that Alec represents what is probably her last chance to do something grand and romantic with her life.  Once Alec leaves, it’ll mean accepting her life as it is, with the good and the bad things that go along with it.

The film’s dialogue is as erudite and witty as you would expect from a cinematic adaptation of a Noel Coward play and David Lean keep the action moving along at a brisk pace.  Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are absolutely perfect as the two would-be lovers, with Johnson especially giving a powerful and sympathetic performance.  (If you don’t tear up during Laura’s final scene with Alec, you may want to check to see if you have a heart.)  It helps that neither one of them was a traditionally glamorous movie star.  (Trevor Howard may have been handsome but he was no Cary Grant.)  They come across as being very real people and it’s easy to imagine them being very happy together.  They’re such decent people that they even feel guilty for walking out on Flames of Passion, which Laura apparently did not feel was a particularly good movie.  Watching Brief Encounter, you wish that Alec and Laura could have met earlier but you are happy that they at least had their Thursdays.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Doctor Zhivago (dir by David Lean)

Klaus Kinski is the main reason to watch the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago.

The legendarily difficult and erratic Mr. Kinski shows up about halfway through this 3-and-a-half hour film.  He plays a cynical and unstable prisoner on a train.  The train is full of passengers who are escaping from Moscow and heading for what they hope will be a better and more stable life in the Ural Mountains.  (The film takes place during the Communist revolution and the subsequent purges.)  That Kinski taunts everyone on the train is not a surprise.  Both Werner Herzog and David Schmoeller (who directed Kinski in Crawlspace) have made documentaries in which they both talked about how difficult it was to work with Kinski and how several film crews apparently came close to murdering Klaus Kinski several times throughout his career.

Instead, what’s surprising about Kinski’s performance is that he’s even there to begin with.  Doctor Zhivago is an extremely long and extremely stately film.  It’s one of those films where almost every actor gives a somewhat restrained performance.  It’s a film where almost every shot is tastefully composed and where the action often slows down to a crawl so that we can better appreciate the scenery.  It’s a film that stops for an intermission and which opens with a lengthy musical overture.  In short, this is a film of old school craftsmanship and it’s the last place you would expect to find Klaus Kinski luring about.

When he does show up, you’re happy to see him.  Even though he’s only onscreen for about five minute, Kinski gives the film a jolt of much-needed energy.  After hours of watching indecisive characters talk and talk and talk, Kinski pops up and basically, “Screw this, I hate everything.”  And it’s exciting because it’s one of the few time that Doctor Zhivago feels unpredictable.  It’s one of the few times that it feels like a living work of art instead of just a very pretty but slightly stuffy composition.

Just from reading all that, you may think that I don’t like Doctor Zhivago but that’s actually not the case. It’s a heavily flawed film and you have to be willing to make a joke or two if you’re going to try to watch the whole thing in just one sitting but it’s still an interesting throwback to a very specific time in film history.  Doctor Zhivago was designed to not only be a spectacle but to also convince audiences that 1) TV was worthless and that 2) Hollywood craftsmanship was still preferable to the art films that were coming out of Europe.  At a time when television and independent European cinema was viewed as being a real threat to the future of the film industry, Doctor Zhivago was a film that was meant to say, “You can’t get this on your black-and-white TV!  You can only get this from Hollywood where, dammit, people still appreciate a good establishing shot and treat the production code with respect!”  Even today, some of the spectacle is still impressive.  The beautiful shots of the countryside are still often breath-taking.  The scenes of two lovers living in an ice filled house are still incredibly lovely to look at.  The musical score is still sweepingly romantic and impressive.

It’s the story where the film gets in trouble.  Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie) while Russia descends into chaos.  The Czar is overthown.  The communists come to power and prove themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Romanovs.  The revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Roddy McDowall) is in love with Lara and helps to bring about the revolution but is then declared an enemy of the people during the subsequent purges.  The craven Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) also wants to possess Lara and he’s so corrupt that he manages to thrive under both the Czar and the communists.  Alec Guinness plays Yuri’s half-brother and is the most British Russian imaginable.  Doctor Zhivago is based on a Russian novel so there’s a lot of characters running around and they’re all played by a distinguished cast of international thespians.  However, none of them are as interesting as the scenery.

As for the two main actors, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie convince you that they’re in love but not much else.  Sharif is never convincing as a poet and he feels miscast as a man who spends most of his time thinking.  Reportedly, Lean’s first choice for the role was Peter O’Toole and it’s easy to imagine O’Toole in the part.  But O’Toole had already done Lawrence of Arabia with Lean and didn’t feel like subjecting himself to another year of Lean’s notoriously prickly direction.  So, the role went to O’Toole co-star, Sharif.   Julie Christie turned down Thunderball to do both this film and Darling, for which she would subsequently win an Oscar.

(Speaking of the Oscars, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and, though it won five other Oscars, it lost the big prize to The Sound of Music, of all things.  1965 really wasn’t a great year for the Oscars.  The only 1965 Best Picture nominee that still feels like it really deserved to be nominated is Darling.  Of the other nominees, Ship of Fools is ponderous and A Thousand Clowns is almost unbearably annoying.  And The Sound of Music …. well, I prefer the Carrie Underwood version.)

Doctor Zhivago is a big, long, epic film.  It’s lovely to look at and it has a few nice scenes mixed in with a bunch of scenes that seem to go on forever.  In the conflict between the state and the individual, it comes down firmly on the side of the individual and that’s a good thing.  (The communist government attempts to suppress Yuri’s love poems because they celebrate the individual instead of society.  And though the government might be able to destroy Yuri’s life, they can’t destroy his spirit.  Again, it’s a message that would have worked better with a more thoughtful lead actor but still, it’s a good message.)  It’s a flawed film but watch it for the spectacle.  Watch it for Klaus Kinski.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Great Expectations (dir by David Lean)

“My Christian name was Philip Pirrip, which I pronounced Pip….”


Seriously, there’s a lot of good things that can be said about Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations but most readers simply can’t get past the fact that the narrator insists on being called Pip.  I don’t necessarily blame them, as Pip might be a good nickname for a child but, by the time you’re 16, you should be demanding that everyone call you Phil.  That said, I’ve always liked Great Expectations.  Despite the fact that Charles Dickens could be a terribly pedantic writer, the plot of Great Expectations is genuinely interesting and the book is full of interesting characters, the majority of whom don’t demand to be known by their childhood nicknames.  Plus, I’ve always related to Estella.

The 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations was at least the third movie to be made from the novel and it would be followed by many more.  (In 1998, there was a modernized version where Pip was wisely renamed Finn.)  Still, the 1946 adaptation is the best.  As directed by David Lean (and based on a stage version that was put together by none other than Alec Guinness), Great Expectations remains true to the source material while, at the same time, cutting away a lot of extraneous material.  As a result, Lean’s film version of the story maintains a clear narrative momentum, which is something that eluded Dickens in his sprawling original.

John Mills plays Pip, an orphan who is being raised by his wicked aunt and her husband, the simple but kind-hearted blacksmith, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles).  One night, Pip helps out an escaped convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) and, though Magwitch is eventually recaptured, that one act of kindness will determine the rest of Pip’s life.

Pip is invited to visit the mansion of a recluse named Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) and it’s there that he first meets and falls in love with the beautiful but rather cold-hearted Estella (Jean Simmons and then, after Estella grows up, Valerie Hobson).  Of course, what Pip doesn’t realize is that Miss Havisham has specifically raised Estella to destroy the hopes and dreams of every man that she meets.

Eventually, Pip grows up and discovers that he has a mysterious benefactor who feels that Pip should be transformed into a gentlemen so that he might be able to meet the “great expectations” that the benefactor has for him.  Pip, of course, assumes that it’s Miss Havisham but even those who haven’t read the book will probably suspect that there’s more to it than just that.  Pip moves to London, where he stays with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), a pale young man (for that’s how Dickens described him) who teaches Pip that a gentleman does not use his knife as a fork.  Herbert was always my favorite character in the book and he’s my favorite character in the film, largely because he’s played by the totally charming Alec Guinness.

Anyway, Pip becomes a bit of a snob but eventually, he discovers the truth about his benefactor and the last few years of his life.  It causes him to not only rip down a lot of curtains but also to reconsider what it truly means to be a a gentleman.

It’s all very well-done, largely because David Lean doesn’t allow the fact that he’s making a film out of a great novel get in the way of telling a good story.  The film is well-acted by a wonderful cast of British thespians, all of whom manage to make even the most artificial of scenes and lines seem naturalistic and believable.  Even though Pip is a bit of a jerk, John Mills manage to turn him into a sympathetic character.  (Mills plays Pip as if he himself cannot stand the fact that he’s turned into such a snob.)  Both Jean Simmons and Valerie Hobson do a wonderful job of bringing the potentially problematic character of Estella to life and Bernard Miles is wonderfully empathetic in the role of the Joe Gargery.  The scene where a nervous Gargery first meets Pip after Pip has become a gentleman is a true example of great acting.

Not surprisingly, Lean also does a great job of bringing 19th century England to life.  Watching this film is a bit like stepping into a time machine and going back to the Dickensian era.  As filmed by Lean, London is as bright and vibrant as Pip’s childhood home is dark and constraining.  When Pip finds Magwitch on the beach, Lean directs the scene as if it were from a film noir.  When Pip enters the darkened home of Miss Havisham and meets the beautiful but destructive Estella, the film flirts with becoming a Rebecca-style gothic romance.  And when it’s just Pip and Herbert Pocket talking, it becomes a comedy of manners.  Not surprisingly, Great Expectations won Oscars for both its art design and its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

Great Expectations was also nominated for Best Picture.  However, it lost to Gentleman’s Agreement.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: In Which We Serve (dir by Noel Coward and David Lean)

“This is the story of a ship….”

The 1942 British war film, In Which We Serve, opens with footage of the HMS Torrin, a destroyer, being constructed in a British shipyard.  When the Torrin is finally finished, the men who worked on it cheer as it leaves on its maiden voyage.  The film then abruptly jumps forward to the year 1941.  The Torrin is sinking, the victim of German bombers.  The surviving members of her crew float in the ocean, holding onto debris and watching as their home for the past few years capsizes and slowly goes underneath the surface of the water.  Even as the Torrin sinks, German planes continue to fly overhead, firing on the stranded men and killing several of them.

As the men fight to survive both the ocean and the Germans, they remember their time on the Torrin.  Captain Kinross (Noel Coward, who also wrote the script and co-directed the film) thinks back to 1939, when he was first given command of the Torrin.  He remembers the early days of the war and the time that he spent with his wife (Celia Johnson) before leaving to do his duty.  As the captain of the ship, Kinross was a tough but compassionate leader.  He expected a lot out of the men but he also came to view them as his second family.  Meanwhile, Shorty Blake (John Mills) thinks about his wife and his newborn son back in London.  Everyone on the Torrin has left their families behind.  Some of them even lose their loved ones during the war, victims of the relentless German Blitz.  But, even as they float in the ocean, everyone continues to fight on, knowing that there will be bigger ships to replace the Torrin and that Britain will never surrender.

In 1942, British film producer Anthony Havelock-Allan approached Noel Coward and asked him if he would be interested in writing the screenplay for a morale-boosting propaganda film.  Coward agreed, on the condition that he be given complete control of the project and that the film deal with the Royal Navy.  Though one might not immediately think that the author of drawing room comedies like Easy Virtue and Private Lives would be the obvious choice to write a war film, Coward’s family actually had a long tradition of serving in the Navy and Coward based a good deal of the film’s action on the wartime exploits of his friend, Lord Mountbatten.  Though there was initially some concern about Coward’s insistence that he should play the lead role on top of everything else, the Ministry of Information fully supported the production of In Which We Serve.

However, Corward knew that he would need help directing the film.  He asked his friend, John Mills, for advice and Mills suggested that Coward should bring in, as co-director, “the best editor in Britain,” David Lean.  Though Lean was initially only meant to handle the action scenes, Coward quickly discovered that he didn’t particularly enjoy all of the detail that went into directing a film.  As a result, David Lean ended up directing the majority of the film.  This would be Lean’s first film as a director and he would, of course, go one to become one the top British directors of all time.

(Also of note, frequent Lean collaborator Ronald Neame served as the film’s cinematographer.  Neame later went on to have his own career as a director.  In 1972, Neame directed another film about a capsized ship, The Poseidon Adventure.)

As for the film itself, In Which We Serve is an unapologetic propaganda film, carefully crafted to inspire the British people to support the war effort and also to win over the sympathy of American viewers.  (During the film’s production, America had finally entered the war but there were still skeptics, at home and abroad.)  Along with being a war film, In Which We Serve is also a rather touching and heartfelt tribute to the strength and determination of the British people.  Though it’s a rather grim film at times and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that lives are going to be lost in the battle to defeat Hitler, it’s also a rather inspiring film.  The sacrifice will be great, In Which We Serve tells us, but it will also be worth it.  The entire ensemble — including future director Richard Attenborough, making his film debut as a frightened sailor — does an excellent job of creating memorable characters, some of whom only appear for a few fleeting moments before meeting their fate.

In Which We Serve was a box office hit in both the UK and the US.  It was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture of the year, though it ultimately lost to another film about World War II, Casablanca.

Cleaning Out The DVR #2: The Bridge on the River Kwai (dir by David Lean)


Last night, after I watched Captains Courageous, I continued to clean out the DVR by watching the 1957 film, The Bridge On The River Kwai.

The Bridge On The River Kwai is a great film but it’s not necessarily an easy one to review.  It’s always easier to review a film when you can be snarky and dismissive but The Bridge On The River Kwai is one of the few films that can truly be called great.  Everything about it — from the directing to the cinematography to the script to the acting (especially the acting!) — works.  It’s a 3 hour film that never drags.  It’s a rousing and exciting adventure story that also works as an anti-war film.  As directed by David Lean, it’s probably about as perfect as a film can get.

The Bridge On The River Kwai takes place during World War II and really, it’s two films in one.  One film tells the story of Shears (William Holden), a POW at a Japanese prison of war camp in what was then Burma and what is now Myanmar.  Knowing that, under the rules of the Geneva Convention, officers are exempt from manual labor, Shears pretends to be a commander.  However, when the camp’s commandant, the harsh Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), announces the all prisoners — regardless of rank — will have to build a railway bridge over the River Kwai, Shears manages to escape.  With the help of local villagers, Shears makes it to an Allied hospital.

It’s at the hospital that Shears has a two-scene romance with a nurse because the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, was worried that the film was too male dominated.  It’s also at the hospital that Shears is informed that he will be returning to the POW camp, with a group of British commandos, on a mission to destroy the bridge.  When Shears explains that he’s not even an officer, British Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) explains that’s why the Americans have agreed to let the British use Shears for their mission.

The film’s 2nd storyline deals with Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), the senior British officer at the POW camp.  When we first meet Nicholson, he’s in a battle of wills with Saito.  When Nicholson insists that no officer will work on the bridge, Saito first forces all of the British officers to spend an entire day standing in the heat.  When that doesn’t work, Saito has Nicholson locked in an iron box.  However, Nicholson refuses to back down and becomes a hero to the other prisoners.  Realizing that the bridge will never be finished on time and that he will be required to commit suicide because of his failure, Saito decides to take a different approach to dealing with Nicholson.

After releasing Nicholson from the iron box, Saito shows him the poor job that the British prisoners have been doing on the bridge.  Saito appeals to Nicholson’s vanity.

And it turns out that Col. Nicholson is a very vain man indeed.

Soon, Nicholson is ordering his men to do a good job on the bridge, announcing that they are going to show the Japanese what the British can accomplish.  Nicholson claims that the project will be a morale booster and that the bridge will be a permanent monument to British ingenuity.

This part of the film is an unexpectedly nuanced character study and Guinness gives a brilliant performance.  For the film’s first hour, Nicholson is our hero but then, just as suddenly, he reveals himself to be a far more complicated character and our feelings towards him become much more mixed.  We’re forced to reconsider everything that we previously felt towards him.  Was Nicholson standing up for his men because it was the right thing to do or was he doing it because he desired the camp’s adulation?  His motives are complicated and difficult to figure out and the implications are, at times, rather frightening.  About the only thing that can definitely be said about Nicholson is that he becomes so obsessed with showing what the British can do that he loses sight of what the Japanese are going to do with that bridge once it is complted. Nicholson’s short-sightedness become a metaphor for blind nationalism and war in general.

When these two storylines finally intersect, it leads to one of the most justifiably climaxes in cinema history, one that leads one of the film’s few surviving characters to exclaim, “The madness, the madness!”

As I mentioned earlier, The Bridge On The River Kwai won the Oscar for best picture and for once, not even I can disagree with the Academy.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Omar Sharif Edition

Today the film world received news that legendary actor Omar Sharif passed away at the age of 83. The acclaimed Egyptian actor would make quite an entrance with his very first English-language film: David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia.

Omar Sharif would go on to star in such film as Dr. Zhivago, MacKenna’s Gold, Funny Girl and Behold a Pale Horse to name a few. He might be recognized by the younger generation in such films as The 13th Warrior and Hidalgo. He would be the vision of the noble romantic whether it was as a warrior, a poet or a leader. He would bring a bearing on-screen that exuded steadfast nobility yet still with a streak of roguish charm.

With each passing year we lose more and more of our classic performers. Now Omar Sharif joins the others who have gone before him but will always live on in our memories of him up on the screen.


Lawrence of Arabia (dir. by David Lean)

Lawrence of Arabia (dir. by David Lean)

Dr. Zhivago (dir. by David Lean)

Dr. Zhivago (dir. by David Lean)


MacKenna’s Gold (dir. by J. Lee Thompson)

Hidalgo (dir. by Joe Johnston)

Hidalgo (dir. by Joe Johnston)