In a late afternoon’s moment of desperate listlessness, a beefy, floppy square of a coffee-table book mysteriously leaps out from the shelf in the study, origins unknown and date of procurement forgotten. Finger the gray, splotchy, weather-beaten spine upon which the following title is embossed: “A Field Guide to British Ghosts, Apparitions, and Other Supernatural Oddities Lacking Steadfast Ecclesiastical Affiliations.” There’s no author or editor listed, as might be expected of a commercial tome concerning the otherworldly. Flip to the middle of the volume to obtain a cross-sectioned sense of its aesthetic. The waxy pages smell of oak, chocolate, tobacco, and—most eye-openingly—brandy. The print is fine, to accommodate rampant prolixity, and interspersed with daguerrotype-like images.
Leaf backward through the book, passing popular examples from, surprisingly, fiction presented with the eerie verisimilitude of tabloid: Charles Dickens’s doleful Jacob Marley, Henry James’s predatory Peter Quint, Oscar Wilde’s irascible Sir Simon. Reach, with ambling eventuality, the overlong and repetitive introduction, scanning in fits and starts such axioms as: “Ghosts from the United Kingdom typically lack the unfulfilled objectives of those from America or the murderous vendettas of the Japanese. Their intermediary presence is typically a piacular sentence both for themselves and their bereaved (un)loved ones; Earth, experienced in this spectral halfness, ironically doubles as purgatory.” Or the more curiously pungent line: “English ghosts love Technicolor, particularly three-strip.”
But are there not myriads exceptions to the former distinguishing thesis? Turn with increasing fascination to the index, then to the quintessential daemon of the domestic comedy, Elvira from Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. A garish cut-out of Kay Hammond from the 1945 film adaptation, looking cheeky and verdantly ectoplasmic, dominates the entire right margin, cutting strangely into the text without rendering it illegible. The reference reads: “The adenoidal, high maintenance Elvira, or rather her conjuring by the buffoonish faux-medium Madame Arcati into the country home of imperious novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife, has been tiresomely interpreted as a token of her widower’s fatal penchant for icy, masculine women, or as an exaggeration of the competitive gender dynamic inherited by the decadent upper-class milieu. Scrub away the flimsy hocus pocus, however, and her demeanor becomes far more encouraging. She proves, indeed, that death does not necessitate a farewell to the cocktails and witticisms one’s still-breathing mouth entertains. She represents the most inviting aspect of Judeo-Christian spiritualism (in other words, the least Judeo-Christian aspect)—that the ‘after’ life is simply that, a life afterward, made eternal and maybe even raunchier by a negligible dis-corporation. ‘No body, no hangover,’ she seems to say.”
It continues: “This is why Elvira comes to us not as a double-exposed hallucination or marshmallowy witch but a fully material being, her flesh the hue of vibrant chlorophyll—and what could be livelier? No camera or parlor tricks would suit her, though on film her arrival is heralded by rapid cutting and agile dollies even more ‘invisible’ than she is. It is fitting that her harried, loveably misogynistic ex and his considerably fresher bride follow her into the glow of the tomb, both by automotive booby-trapping. Elvira’s only ‘unfinished business’ is finding other ghosts she can needle into a veritable party…” The entry then dwindles into redundancy obviously meant to achieve a word quota, ending with notes of recent sightings of Elvira and Charles in Brighton and an odd cross-reference, “See also: Lean, David and Coward, Noël.”
It’s odd because the dyad was not known for Gothic material, nor were they known, in fact, as a dyad, aside from a quartet of jovial collaborations/adaptations produced in the early 1940s—at arguably the peak of Coward’s popularity and in the infancy of Lean’s. And yet a series of hurried page-turns reveal a blurb that spans multiple pages and notes nearly a dozen alternate entries with which one should acquaint himself, many of them straw-pulling to the laughably abstract. “See also: Ghost of Victorian Prudence, The”? Nonsense, surely. Or “Ghost of Empire Jingoism, The”? (Exercise patience here and remember that all ghosts are technically in the abstract.)
After impudently bemoaning the space such indulgence steals from more savory descriptions of bumptious poltergeists, pass an eye begrudgingly over a sentence from the article’s second paragraph: “...nor can the armed maritime-worship of their initial propagandist project, In Which We Serve, which was Coward’s sole directorial effort, be ignored as a wholly, that is to say successfully, exorcized entity. The wartime works of another duo—namely, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose One of Our Aircraft is Missing and 49th Parallel Lean cut—bedevil the enterprise from its ship hull-caressing introduction to its episodic, flashback structure. And, if it isn’t too much of a stretch to observe,”—ha!—“the unsettlingly Anglo if retrospectively sensical ethics of the Boer Wars fought by strapping young men two generations back haunt all four social-minded artists, along with the disappointments felt by a world moving ever-further from the moral conveniences of White Man’s Burden.” And then a mind-addling coinage: “The ghosts here outnumber the dead.”
Peruse the remainder and encounter the inevitable, tastefully tucked toward the back of a seemingly unrelated and easily eschewed paragraph on Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptive one-uppery of Coward’s Design for Living, the filmed version of which retained only the original author’s gender ratio and title (“See also: Ghost of Queerness, The”). Readying a knee-jerk reaction, race to the cited entry, which begins with conspicuous hedging: “This refers not to specters with effete sneers or those who shroud secrets of desire rather poorly beneath the bunches of their long, flowing uncanniness, but rather the gauzy, lonely, human effect achieved by draping a muslin veil of conservatism over a hothouse of social diversity. Ghosts of queerness involuntarily inhabit lugubrious antechambers adjacent to normative propriety, unsettling visions of what we are not wielding hateful reminders of what we cannot have.”
Later, on the same page: “...David Lean’s Brief Encounter, for example, adapted from a talky one-act by the openly secretively non-traditional Noël Coward, posits queerness as an irritating middle class sprite. Peripherally framed behind blurred beer taps in train station refreshment rooms, the racy whims of the proletariat are stretched as far as the supply side will allow, as immigrants and engine conductors and cashiers trip hopelessly into one another’s impulses. Meanwhile, the primary fortysomething love affair between sunken-eyed Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s less-than-dashing doctor, a ridiculous relationship wrung out of a few flirty lunches and theater shows, goes pitifully unconsummated. (Were they to succumb, they’d be weary of one another after an afternoon.)”
And even more potently: “The doctor’s ‘bachelor’ friend, played with a delicate lisp by the cross-irised Valentine Dyall, is the key to the affair’s tragedy. He objects to the use of his flat as a rendezvous not because of his objection to scandal, but because of his objection to scandals in his own residency that do not involve his own untamed passions. He’s the grim reaper who insists that the inner fires of others be extinguished because he has swallowed his own, and refuses to languish lonesomely in his lonesomeness.” This segment then becomes even more contrived, finalizing with the suggestion that Celia Johnson’s failure to commit suicide-by-flashing-railway—her refusal to allow the “phallic symbol” to annihilate her—before a group sisterly witnesses is a form of feminist or even lesbian denial. But, before this very strange coffee table can be again shelved, find a final cross-reference to follow. “See also: Happy Breed, This.”
Flip to a mercifully concise half-page crowded by a scowling bust of Kay Walsh. “The most successfully and busily haunted of David Lean’s early work, This Happy Breed converts ghosts of staginess into cinematic intimacy. The camera isn’t precisely a family member through the post-Great War decades in the London suburbs; the technique of Lean and photographer Ronald Neame is hardly so vulgar. The omniscience is rather a benevolent spirit quite literally watching over the Gibbons as they continually collide with the sylph-figured zeitgeist. Writer Noël Coward’s turn-of-the-century upbringing is explored as a series of fears morbidly made real, then rescued with instructive homilies…”
More: “The automobile? Its progressive wickedness is such that it robs mother and father Gibbons of their only son and his bride, leading to a quietly masterful, and gradual, pan across an empty supper table, the nightmare of the lower middle economic stratum. The Blitz? No one saw that coming, did they? And how wrong they were. The facts of life? They’re best dispensed directly before your offspring’s nuptials as a series of unhelpful gender generalizations. And women? Well, we all know how they have their moods. And yet, the mother/daughter twinning of Kay Walsh and Lean regular Celia Johnson cogently suggests the manner in which parental caprice can posses its progeny. The characters of both actresses are exhausted, demanding, and yet fiercely willing to follow their instinct even into ignominy, guilt. If their men weren’t portrayed as such clueless dolts the portraiture might be misogyny; as it is, it’s a kind of equal opportunity sensitivity toward the ghoul of arrogance in all its forms.”
The puzzlement of an entry winds down with a ham-fisted attempt at thematic relevance: “...and should one require a more legitimate ghost from all of this, Lean and Coward are all too hospitable to the suggestion. When the Gibbons matriarch and patriarch vacate their long-held track home, the former wonders drunkenly to a neighbor if houses don’t maintain ineffable vestiges of their various tenants. In the United Kingdom, at the very least, they most certainly do, and one should be aware that he’s never alone in an old house, and never not wedged between multiple regal presences in a castle. See also: All other entries herein.” Close the book, and lay it face down on the nearest table. Back away slowly.
The only image-related quibble one can possibly have with these affectionately and meticulously maintained and restored prints regards Blithe Spirit, which, owing to the difficulties of calibrating three-strip Technicolor classics for contemporary digital monitors, looks altogether too pink. The earthiness of This Happy Breed, however, is comfortably crystalline, perfectly encapsulating the suburban experience by varying shades of ugly city soot with the welcoming browns and greens of the nearby countryside and backyard gardens. The black-and-white entries, especially Brief Encounter, have a numinous clarity that allows us to assess with more precision how David Lean and Ronald Neame construct their cozy chamber with rack focuses and subtle shadows just as much as with dainty camera rotations and narratively concerned cuts. And the monaural sound, though choppy in places, completes the environment with aplomb.
It's sets like these that remind us that the Criterion Collection really does release every worthwhile supplement on hand and doesn't bother scraping up fluff to make discs seem worth their price. The supplements here are so exhaustive one feels, moving through them, as if he or she's lived a good deal of the three years over which the titular artists collaborated along with them. Cherry-picking some personal favorites, there are quite entertainingly discursive interviews on each disc with Coward enthusiast/scholar Barry Day; he explains the writer's displeasure with Blithe Spirit as completed and describes how each character in Brief Encounter was fitted with an elaborate backstory for the actors and director to consider. In other crannies, Neame dissects the desultory nature of his work underneath Lean's demanding control; the lives and careers of both Lean and Coward are abridged in brief if only decent television documentaries; and the accompanying booklet's facets range from Ian Christie's production note-heavy analysis to Farran Smith Nehme's performance adoration. The focus throughout is squarely on the films as individual confluences of talent from every corner, and the thesis is well argued, especially by the movies themselves.
This collection of ghosts, soldiers, and suburbanites—all of them unhappy—is unlikely to endear Britain's postwar film machine to the uninitiated. But anglophiles should prepare themselves for death-by-1080p-orgasm.