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The Great Directors: Vol. 5

Mar 10th, 2011

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Feature Filmography:

In Which We Serve (1942) [DVD]

This Happy Breed (1944) [Netflix Watch Instantly]

Blithe Spirit (1945) [Netflix Watch Instantly]

Brief Encounter (1945) [DVD]

After having honed his craft in the editing room, Lean eased into the role of director with these four Noel Coward adaptations, even co-directing In Which We Serve with the iconic playwright. And while it takes until Brief Encounter before we see that David Lean stamp, these are exceptionally achieved early works, movies that have sturdy, craftsmanlike constructs to them.

In Which We Serve is one of the more finessed and effective WWII propaganda films made in Britain in the early 1940s, and Lean is able to tackle the spatial issues of Blithe Spirit - it mostly takes place in one location - with a crackerjack sense of pace and tone. But of these four, Brief Encounter is the classic: This impassioned, ultimately unrequited romance starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard both hints at the kind of fervent, nearly-uncontrollable amorous themes that would reach a fever pitch in Lean's version of Doctor Zhivago and stands on its own as a dazzlingly-shot capture of both an affair - and, seemingly, a world at large - in a state of intense, unpredictable flux.

Great Expectations (1944) [DVD]

Oliver Twist (1948) [DVD]

Lean's Dickens films - his first two out-of-the-park mega-successes of his initial years as director - are phantasmagoric, chiaroscuro adaptations that bring characters like Pip, Fagin and the Artful Dodger to life with an elegant, unpretentious vivacity. Lean doesn't exactly modernize these well-worn tales - instead he approaches them as historical relics his cinematic interpretation has an opportunity to preserve.

Lean's later work would harbor overall thematic interests in the present - in the always dynamic act of discovery - but in these two masterworks, he crystallizes a time gone by without resorting to nostalgic grandstanding. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations may be distinctly-aged artifacts of an era long-past, but Lean knows that these tales remain as present in modern culture as they are for a reason: He mines Dickens' novels' rhetorical familiarity for modern richness, and his success in this can be proven by the fact that his films are as bold and provocative today as they ever have been.

(There have been rumors swirling for years that Criterion will update their DVD editions of the movies to Blu-ray - perhaps in 2012, they'll finally see the light of day....)

The Passionate Friends (1949) [Netflix Watch Instantly]

Madeleine (1950) [Unavailable]

This pair of movies - lodged between the critical and commercial Dickens smashes and the subtle beauty of Hobson's Choice and Summertime - exists within Lean's pantheon as exemplars of a career in an aggressive yet unreliable stage of development. In Kevin Brownlow's superb biography of Lean, the director is quickly to denounce The Passionate Friends - he took over from Ronald Neame soon after filming began and never really found his footing - and while Ann Todd's work in Madeleine is notable, the movie itself is rather slapshot. 

Luckily, Lean would bounce back from these setbacks with unquestionable filmmaking ferocity.

The Sound Barrier (1952) [DVD]

Hobson's Choice (1954) [DVD]

Summertime (1955) [DVD]

Before Lean dove deep into the epics that would define the glory days of his career, he offered to cinematic culture these three classics, a trio of intimate, consummately profound exercises. The Sound Barrier is, of course, the more electric of the three - it won British Film Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Robert Richardson) - but it would be foolish to underestimate the nuanced power of Hobson's Choice and Summertime.

Also a British Film Academy Best Film winner, Hobson's Choice is one of Lean's most atypical movies, a film with painstakingly-constructed visual acumen as well as a delightfully witty comic sensibility, thanks in no small part to Charles Laughton's bigger-than-life performance. And Lean may never have achieved as much pent-up romantic distress as he cobbled together in Summertime: As was the case with Brief Encounter, the amor in this Venice-set film starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi is notable not for its steaminess, but for its dramatic lack of consummation.

You'd better watch yourself with Summertime, though: I've seen the thing probably ten times, and when I watched it again last week, it again left me whimpering and distraught. Make sure your heart is sturdy before you press Play.

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