Correctly heralded as one of the giants of cinema, David Lean simply knew where to put the camera—to tell stories through images that convey a sense of mood, place, character, and conflict. Early in Hobson’s Choice, a drunken middle-aged shoe-store owner (Charles Laughton) staggers home drunk, attempting not to wake his three daughters, but the oldest is waiting for him to usher him to bed. His pride is greater than her moral prurience, and brushing her aside, he does a brisk, reckless, and wobbly dash up the single flight of stairs, and Lean’s camera makes a vertiginous movement as it cranes up, as if leading Hobson to the top step, where he nearly takes a drunken spill but nimbly pirouettes. The moment is pure Lean, in that it’s a breathtaking image that’s also empirically British (the character, though lower class, is willful in his attempt to retain the upper hand with his daughter) and consummately well acted.
Lean’s splendid frames specifically work to show the high and low status of a social grid. In the first scene, the shop owner wants to get straight to the top, but the following morning, after he lumbers around his shop berating his three unmarried daughters, the appearance of a wealthy elderly matron makes him promptly drop what he’s doing and fall down on one knee in deference to her. When the older woman starts making demands about the shoes that have been crafted in his shop, and from underneath the floorboards pop up “working poor” laborers with seared faces and closely-cropped haircuts who are so humble they can barely mumble a few words of acquiescence.
Having set the theme, it’s not long before Lean settles into the main narrative about Hobson’s eldest daughter (Brenda De Banzic, elegant because she’s unashamed of the creases of life experience in her face) willing herself into a marriage with top shoemaker William Mossop (John Mills, effortlessly genuine). Their courtship is dominated by industrial props hanging in the shop, with work life and love life comingled to the point where their romance starts out as a practical business arrangement (their back-and-forth dialogue is a marvel of brisk screenwriting and editing).
Lean, who is mainly remembered for epics about bridges, deserts, and snow-covered steppes, had a gift for domestic drama (and, indeed, for sharp-edged comedy) that is practically unheralded beyond his heartbreaking Brief Encounter. It’s surprising that his Charles Dickens adaptations don’t engender the same level of critical adulation, and Hobson’s Choice (though based on a popular play) seems of a piece with those films, with Laughton’s delightfully nasty Hobson as vivid a grotesque as the blustering Mr. Bumble and the loutish Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Laughton’s performance hits the exact right note of bullying patriarchy, with just a touch of the immature brat, a dash of almost feminine vanity (Laughton’s hands dance around mincingly as if to underline the delicacy under his massive girth) and the secret insecurity that all bullies have deep down. He’s a fascinating walking paradox, his gigantic belly puffed out like some peacock, his lips curled as if bored by everyone, and the slump of his shoulders arousing pity; for all his talk of having a “stiff neck with pride”, he’s basically a little man who thinks he’s a big one.
Wow, Criterion gives Hobson's Choice a simply beautiful, painstakingly detailed transfer, to the point where you feel like you can see every grain in the wooden floorboards of Hobson's shop. The audio quality is also top-notch.
Even Armond White's most strident supporters (myself included) have moments where they feel his weekly reviews in the New York Press feel like the ravings of some kind of mean-spirited crackpot, but his elegant and eloquent article in the accompanying booklet serves as a reminder of why he's one of the most important critics we have. With enormous sensitivity, White interprets Lean's film through the clashing types of the British class system, but also highlights the "polished gleam" of the images. The title of his essay, "Custom-Made," views Lean's work not as muscular cinema, but a handcrafted house filled with ruggedly believable characters. His description of Laughton as an "existential acrobat" is a wonderfully precise and accurate one. The feature-length commentary by Lean scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini is a more predictable, though informative and utilitarian take on Lean's body of work, highlighting his perfectionism and giving historical perspective on his career, and factoids about the actors. They make useful observations about Lean's compositions, which use moving two-shots to convey "the shifting relationships in terms of character dominance." A 1978 BBC documentary about Laughton is a little trashy despite interviews with movie royalty like Lillian Gish, Elsa Lanchester, and Billy Wilder, which endlessly paints the actor as a wild-card paradox-arrogant yet insecure, a perfectionist who was "happy to appear in worthless films for the money," an "accomplished homosexual" married to Elsa Lanchester, etc. It's a surprisingly lame addition, which might have been greatly improved by less talking heads and more clips from the legendary actor's impressive body of work. A trailer for Hobson's Choice rounds out the disc, notable for the narrator chuckling at the on screen action as if to say, "Oh, that Hobson! What will that silly fellow do next?"
Hobson's Choice is a superb addition to the Lean canon, and a charming and surprising selection by Criterion.