David Lean Directs Noël Coward
With “David Lean Directs Noël Coward,” Criterion has presented a quartet of classic films that chronicle the highly successful and challenging collaboration between director David Lean and writer/producer Noël Coward. The pair created four films together, all of which hum with Coward’s wonderful language, Lean’s tremendous craftsmanship and the affecting photography of both Ronald Neame and Robert Krasker. These films, as well as the provided supplements, offer a fascinating education on Coward’s postwar illustrations and Lean’s beginnings as a master technician.
The 4K restorations supervised by BFI and ITV have given these films new life, which is evidenced by the excellent transfers contained herein. The set contains a fine collection of special features, as well as a 44-page booklet.
David Lean began his career as an editor, but would eventually become one of cinema’s most skilled directors with films like Great Expectations and Lawrence of Arabia. His first effort would be Noël Coward’s In Which We Serve, a gorgeously realized World War II propaganda, much like Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (which Lean edited). In Which We Serve tells, as the somber narrator puts it, “the story of a ship”—a British destroyer to be precise. During a remarkably staged battle sequence, the HMS Torrin is capsized by strafing German planes. While its crew clings to life atop the wreckage, awaiting death or rescue, the film flashes back to the days before they set sail. During these flashbacks, we see hesitation and fear, but duty always prevails. Coward co-directed with Lean and also stars as E.V. Kinross, the HMS Torrin’s noble captain.
Criterion’s transfer of these brilliant black and white images exhibits excellent contrast, balanced black levels and fine detail. The wear and damage that remain is easily forgivable given the apparent effort. And the provided uncompressed English monaural track is nearly free from bothersome hiss and distortion. Special features include an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, a short documentary about the making of the film, an audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Noël Coward completed his play, This Happy Breed, in the days leading up to World War II. The play, as well as David Lean’s filmed adaptation, is a drama centered around a working class family whose story we observe in the time between the Great Wars. The film stars Robert Newton and Celia Johnson as Frank and Ethel Gibbons, weary heads of their bustling household who struggle to retain presence in the face of societal changes, the concerns of class ordinances, the youthful ideals of their maturing children, and eventually the approach of a second World War. Coward’s play is a reverent examination of bourgeois perseverance in a postwar/ prewar bubble, and Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame’s Technicolor realization translates with great acuity.
Criterion has brought David Lean’s first color film to the home stage with stunning clarity. Detail is vastly superior to, well, that one time I saw it on television. Color fluctuates at times, but overall stability is greatly improved. The accompanying LPCM English monaural track is also a huge step forward. The audio is clean and clear and dialogue comes through perfectly. Special features include a new interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, an interview with cinematographer Ronald Neame, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
“Nope, I can’t touch you—isn’t that honorable?”
In the name of research for his supernatural detective story, novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites local medium and eccentric, Madame Arcati (an exuberant Margaret Rutherford), to perform a séance in his home. Charles turns the evening into a sort of Dinner Game-esque affair when he also invites a group of upper class friends to snicker at Madame Arcati’s shenanigans. Unfortunately for Charles, his little game backfires when his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), is summoned forth from the other side. This, of course, comes as quite an inconvenience, especially to Charles’s current wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings). Flippant even in death, Elvira torments Ruth and schemes to murder Charles so that they may be reunited—all in the most playful manner, of course. Ruth investigates any and all ways to expel Elvira back to the void while Charles sits back and enjoys the whole “terribly interesting” farce, usually with drink in hand.
Blithe Spirit is an absolutely charming film, stripped of the syrupy romanticism and wide-eyed whimsy typical of romantic comedies of the time. David Lean’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s play is brilliantly designed and employs clever special effects to bring Elvira into the land of the living. This gave audiences who were thrilled by the stage version an entirely new and intimate way to experience Blithe Spirit. And the actors make a splendid show of the cheeky material. Coward’s sharply written dialogue is all flashing wit and barbed sexual innuendo, and the fact that neither of Charles’s marriages were particularly loving makes the earthly vs. ethereal contest for his marginal affections all the more macabre. (An advocate for monogamy, Blithe Spirit is not.) And I can forgive the film’s misogynistic undercurrent, if only because I’m used to Rex Harrison characters devaluing women. Get your own slippers, Henry Higgins!
Criterion’s transfer corrects many of the faults found on previous editions. Gone are the instances of color bleeding, softness and haze. Skin tones are much more accurate and serious damage is virtually nonexistent. The LPCM English monaural track provides crisp dialogue and a lovely reproduction of Richard Addinsell’s music. Special features include a new interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, a 1992 episode of “The Southbank Show” about the life of Coward, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Brief Encounter is the story of a man and woman struggling against morality, temptation and traditional reticence in postwar Britain. When housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) crosses paths with respected physician Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a train station café, their immediate chemistry turns to afflictive desire that threatens to consume them both. The film opens with the affair reaching the most desperate moment of its inevitable conclusion. Laura then returns to her life and the story begins in earnest as she sits across from her oblivious husband (Cyril Raymond)—whose cuckolding genuinely pains her—and silently recounts her lost love. The filmmakers accomplish this cinematically by ingeniously presenting the film from the perspective of Laura’s memories, which are narrated by way of a fantasized confession to her husband. Brief Encounter’s progressive narrative approaches Laura and Alec’s love affair as neither tawdry nor frivolous, but as tragedy.
Brief Encounter marked the final collaboration between director David Lean and writer Noël Coward. However, it is perhaps their most astonishing work. For the filmed adaptation of Coward’s play (originally titled “Still Life”), Lean returned to black and white. With Coward’s words and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s striking images, Lean created his most nuanced and articulate work to date. The entire film is alive with romantic evocations: the fog, the rain, the shadows, the train station. Brief Encounter aches.
Criterion updates their original DVD with a lovely new high definition transfer. The black and white images are stunningly reproduced and exhibit much better detail and contrast than the other-region Blu-rays available. The uncompressed English monaural track is all but free from hiss and pops, but is nonetheless impressive. Dialogue is clear and crisp and the sobering Rachmaninoff score sounds wonderful, even confined to a single channel. Special features include the Bruce Eder commentary from the original DVD, a new interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, a short documentary on the making of the film, a 1971 documentary called “David Lean: A Self Portrait,” and the film’s theatrical trailer.
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