This Happy Breed

England between the wars takes up residence in a suburban home to raise a family. And that’s all there is to it, while “the envy of less happier lands” boils over in the tabloids.


Blithe Spirit

The play must be imagined in London at the start of the Second World War. The first wife is brought back from the grave, the second joins her (the maidservant wished the first one back, psychically), both are finally exorcized but, alas, the fleeing husband joins them in death.

This is a peculiarly English sense of humor in the situation, decidedly.

Neame & Lean present the ghosts initially with great élan stylistically (Neame expands on it for Jacob Marley in Scrooge). The Technicolor filming is very beautiful.

The performances are famous before the ghosts, when Coward takes over the play (he produced the film, so can’t have been surprised at the result).

An extremely funny film, of course, but that original laughter is much the loudest. Critics of the cinema do not seem to have divined it.


Brief Encounter

She sees him in the railway cafe and gets a cinder in her eye on the platform, he is a doctor and plucks it out. The many inconveniences (they are both married) stifle their affair.

They are in many ways ordinary, she is the slightest bit weak and he the slightest bit cheeky, a railway timetable provides the meeting every Thursday.

An Englishwoman defending her tea counter and a railwayman assailing it provide a certain mirror.

The English Anna Karenina, if Ryan’s Daughter were the Irish Madame Bovary.


Great Expectations

The famous rigmarole of Havisham and Magwitch that must be got through somehow if there are to be any expectations whatsoever.

An impossibly difficult, perfect film.

Beckett has this sort of vantage point, and a ride around the room. The packet-boat scene is already Huston filming Moby Dick.


Oliver Twist

Lean has Dickens’ humbugs and scoundrels exactly as it would be their last wish to be seen, exactly as they are.

Lean is bound and determined to get the job right, this shows in the famous transmutation of the film stock into a unique painterly medium of black-and-white not light-and-shade or chiaroscuro, and also in the climax so thoroughly well-prepared it might have been gratuitous instead of a new situation completely explored, with the examples before him of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn.

The Zhivago effect of light transforming the scene appears on the morning that follows Nancy’s death.


The Passionate Friends

This is really, later on, worked into Pinter’s Old Times, while here the themes of Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter (and even A Passage to India) are evident.

The monumentality of Lean is in not taking sides, which is how Renoir attains his intimacy.

Variety was aware of a good production and said so, silly ass that Crowther was he complained of Brief Encounter.

Among the sterling qualities of Lean’s hardened comedic sense is the one that has studied Lubitsch to all intents and purposes down to the last structural detail, here through That Uncertain Feeling to Angel, and no mistake.



The main tributary looks to be Wyler’s The Heiress, the main recipient Losey’s The Go-Between, at any rate Lean sorts out the affair in Hobson’s Choice, for here is a young lady who cannot do that and is left with a poor alternative that proves fatal to the lover she has taken in secret, he must be acknowledged and there’s an end.

The foreignness and the Scottish jurisprudence recur after a fashion in A Passage to India, the Glasgow arcade in a brief shot anticipates Summertime.

“Dramatically dead”, says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “a mistake for all concerned.”


The Sound Barrier

The allurements are fact, the aerial unit makes them plain, as plain as jet flight can be.

The structure is patent underneath all this, an RAF pilot on his first solo, a test pilot facing the inertia of air, another who overcomes it.

A Spitfire flown like a bird in the opening scene, and then the lickety-split creations of the jet age.


Hobson’s Choice

The best bootmaker in all of Lancashire (John Mills) works for John Bull of Salford (Charles Laughton), whose three daughters also in the shop can’t get hitched without a settlement from the smug boozing skinflint. The eldest daughter (Brenda de Banzie) takes things well and truly in hand.

A magnificent comedy played to the hilt and all the way, like that other great Manchester poem, a taste of honey.



It’s only a movie, as Lean makes painstakingly clear, the supreme accomplishment of his first period (his second is annunciated in The Sound Barrier), for which all his training and experience still needed a complete and faithful study of Chaplin, as would appear, in order to achieve this significant acquirement of Venice as City of Love.


The Bridge on the River Kwai

Lean reportedly wanted the soldiers to sing the “unedifying” words.


has only






has two but






has something



a-a-and Goebbels

has no balls

at all

An exceptional point of contradiction on the Bangkok-Rangoon railway, which originates in Singapore and is intended to continue on into India along graves of Allied prisoners.

The same train running as described, at the start of the film, plunges into the Kwai amid corpses of the men who destroyed it, at the end.

The main action is the ordering and destruction of the bridge, in two parallel scenes the action is understood as flight from duty and then as military inexperience.

The three positions are Axis bushido, British cricket, and commando effectiveness. The last two belong to the Allies, the first and last are seen as identical, or nearly.

Col. Nicholson is victorious over Col. Saito, both are defeated by Maj. Warden (cp. Booby Traps with Pvt. Snafu, etc.), who evidently “taught Oriental Languages at Cambridge” to James Bond, judging by the Force 316 training school in the botanical gardens at Mount-Lavinia Hospital, Ceylon, a coup de cinéma by the director. In defeat one is liable to “lose the name of action”, Lean has a language for this from The Archers, a flight of bats at the falls where the first shots are fired in anger, death on the wing.

From the author of Planet of the Apes, an allegory of Vichy (fine touch of Camus, the doctor “would rather not be a part of it,” he has the last word).


Lawrence of Arabia

The first two scenes (Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident, and his funeral at St. Paul’s) lay the groundwork for all that follow. Lean’s uncannily detailed and evocative perspectives of headquarters set one pole of the extremes needed for the proper range of his film. The other is the desert, and particularly the view of it from the mountains early on. Lawrence is revealed as a military genius surrounded by impediments and employers.

Critics of the restoration complained, as Pauline Kael did in her review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that there are no women. You will note that women figure prominently in the attack on Aqaba. Lawrence arrives at the Suez Canal by passing through a ruined army post, indicated by a sign on a door flung by the wind into the frame.

A most delicate indirection prevents the formidable impasse of vying with Lawrence’s actual career or with another theme closely allied, that of Siegfried Sassoon’s wartime experiences as notated by himself, for instance. “A violin in a void,” is our Lawrence. Beethoven, on the other hand, had no use for fiddlers except to play his tunes. The scale is apt to convince anyone of the vast point that is being made.

The same critics were not disabused of a certain notion by Lawrence’s confrontation with the Turkish Bey. Ten years after these events, Lawrence translated the Odyssey into vigorously idiomatic English. In scenes now reportedly lost, he speaks of writing poetry. Nice distinctions escape our critics.

At headquarters, Lawrence agrees to return to the desert, standing before a fresco, it would appear, by Blake. After Damascus, the Arabs bicker like emissaries to an ecumenical council.

You may, if you like, compare all this to The Old Man and the Sea. There is a rather more distinct precedent, Capra’s Meet John Doe. Lawrence walks among the wounded like Jesus in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He is explicitly described as a two-edged sword. As he is “going home,” a motorcycle is seen whizzing away in the desert. “In my end is my beginning,” Eliot quotes.


Doctor Zhivago

The life and death of the poet as told by his half-brother, a former policeman and now Soviet general, to an orphan girl working at a new dam.

Little enough of any real value is said of Yuri Zhivago, only a reading of the poems and a few records and eyewitness testimony yielding a romantic character, rather vague. Yevgraf Zhivago is the dramatic character at the center of the story, he suffers a sea-change after the revolution, with the certain knowledge of its value and meaning, as very subtly revealed in his tale of the good doctor.

The key is his identification with Strelnikov, who in Yevgraf’s telling oddly resembles the narrator, an idealized resemblance. Strelnikov’s rise and fall is only half the dilemma, there is also Komarovsky’s continuance as a Minister of Justice.

The strange style and unwonted performances reflect the imaginative and inventive powers of Yevgraf. The Dickensian formation of the poet is a gift from Lean, Bergman pays homage in The Serpent’s Egg to the city in Spain with its working tram cars.

Lean may nevertheless be said to be at tremendous and legendary pains to elaborate his mystery, how the State is put in disarray when a man does not put his house in order (Confucius), a sort of characteristically Russian Shakespeare, Hamlet as truly ineffectual as the academics conceive him (he does not exist, any more than Hitchcock’s Mitch with his mother screeching at him, When will you know?). Thus, changing trains in mid-continent, with Pasternak’s tale of star-crossed lovers before him, Lean is able to mount images and vistas like the two halted trains side-by-side, the field full of daffodils (set out by his crew), the change of seasons (trees wired with sets of leaves), and the dacha frozen inside and out (melted wax). It’s an object lesson in the spectacular aspect of cinema rendering impossible abstractions visible.

Amid all this fabrication, the astonishing resemblance of Julie Christie as Lara to Peter O’Toole as Lawrence might be taken as a joke on Hitchcock.

In general, Lean has learned from Stroheim that if you build a town as your set you have an instantaneous surrealism, which is entirely free to be photographed at its real or contrived points of contact with nature. Only the experience of filming Lawrence of Arabia could have granted him the audacity to attempt a definitive evocation of Russia in an altogether different place, or places. Also from Stroheim, as well as from De Mille, is the conscious employment of time and space in spectacular dimensions to impart or convey a rigorous experience (De Mille describes The Ten Commandments as “a pilgrimage”).

The poet lives at the point of his pen, humiliation and defeat are his sustenance (Borges). No critic is unfailingly correct in his estimations, and Truffaut was never more wrong than when he angrily dismissed Lean’s works as impostures pure and simple.


Ryan’s Daughter

Critics behaved very much like Lean’s Irish seacoast villagers, with Richard Schickel leading the pack (Variety retrenched for a thirty-minute cut).

The structure is in three parts, the schoolmaster, the soldier, the departure.

Pinter’s Cliffs of Moher, that “cuff and tussle with the sea”, the strange dramatic structure that left critics gawping, the extraordinary interlude of a love nest in the forest that made them sneer, and finally Kael adhering to Truffaut’s foolish viewpoint on anything by Lean.

The grandeur is Ireland’s, the jingling tunes by Maurice Jarre suit the elements of Bolt’s composition, a sea-rag of a stone village, an Army encampment behind wire, a priest, an idiot, an IRA commandant, a widowed schoolmaster, the publican and his daughter.

To them all the Major, blasted on the Marne with a Victoria Cross.

Ford and Hitchcock (and Flaherty) are the mainsprings. The ending is a gift of doubt.

The gift of Ireland is to have two minds and use them to compose, as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has it, “tiresome” verse (in an entry signed “G.B.S.”—not that one).

Today Ireland is more or less on the Continental System and prospering, after a fashion. Its films are not much worse than anyone else’s worst product, and literature is out of fashion anyway. It boasts a great painter, and this souvenir of its underpinnings if you like, not that Ryan’s Daughter need have anything to do with the Auld Sod.


A Passage to India

The marriage fable par excellence. There is only one question, willy-nilly. She won’t and she will, there is a romantic adventure of sorts, she does and she doesn’t.

Sunny India and rainy England offered as the selections.

Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman is a very good example of the structural model, and there is another very amusing type of consideration, Cukor’s Bhowani Junction, not to mention Renoir’s The River.

Canby identified the problem but did not recognize it as integral to the film.

Guinness’s sage performance has been uniformly slighted in reviews. All the cast are even in Lean’s treatment.

The very sharp editing is set off by brief inserts as an inward counter to the overall tightness of form.