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David Lean x 4: This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Madeleine, & The Sound Barrier

If it weren’t for Lawrence of Arabia, I might well not be typing this out.

David Lean x 4: This Happy Breed, Great Expectations, Madeleine, & The Sound Barrier
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films

If it weren’t for Lawrence of Arabia, I might well not be typing this out: probably some other movie would’ve sparked nascent cinematic consciousness when I was 10, taking me over the hump from ingesting every G- and PG- rated piece of garbage I was allowed to see (getting out of the house was very important in the post-divorce days) to actually thinking about what I was watching as something other than the easiest time-killer around, but who knows. Lawrence of Arabia is a moment-of-truth moment for a lot of kids, because it’s famous, fairly popular in revival (would I have been the rep-going freak I am without it? It’s a one-movie argument for the importance of big-screen viewings), and the kind of widescreen spectacle you don’t need actual human experience and interaction to respond to. Of course, Lawrence is a great epic not just for its dunes—though I like to think my taste for the most static-framed kind of arthouse formalism gestated here as well—but for its acute psychological understanding of a man who surely ranks among the least explicable mass of contradictions ever to serve the British empire, something that took more years to appreciate.

Film Forum’s David Lean retro is the series I’ve been most excited about since their Don Siegel fest two years ago. It looks like NYFF press screenings won’t let me make it to every single damn film (poor me etc.), but I’m pleased to have filled in more of the gaps before the killer one-two of Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence (and, uh, Doctor Zhivago, har har). This isn’t an overview—turn to Dan Callahan for that—just notes on four films that all deserve your time, one way or another.

1944’s This Happy Breed is the worst of the four films I caught. As noted far and wide, Noel Coward’s lower-middle-class dialogue is a tricky beast, skimming condescension while suggesting a world where everyone speaks in cups of tea and the pseudo-majestic deployment of “we” when referring to oneself in a barely-discreet argument. It’s time spent between the wars, and it makes you miss Billy Bragg. Still, guilty Anglophile consumers like myself may find something to dig in an atmosphere where cliches eventually start coming to life. Patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) makes the inevitable speech comparing the maintenance of British public life to the slow, careful changes that come over a garden: this can go as far back as Richard III, with John of Gaunt’s famous description of England as “This other Eden, demi-paradise” and forward to the time of This Happy Breed’s making, when arch-Englishman George Orwell spent hours puttering about his garden (and writing it up in his regular newspaper columns). This Happy Breed, in hindsight, has shed some of its class issues: it is, if nothing else, how England wished to think of itself during the war: “Little England,” soldiering on, dull but dependable. All of these are, of course, stock phrases and sentiments, but to see them in action, you might as well turn here. Though initially annoying in its schematic family drama, This Happy Breed can grow quite affecting in its banalities if you let it.

The 10 British films that began Lean’s career have been meticulously restored by the BFI, and This Happy Breed’s amazingly muted Technicolor is a minor miracle in itself. One final thing to note: the great Terence Davies has publicly slagged This Happy Breed, in part for the class reasons I kind of cavalierly dismiss above, and since it’s roughly his generation the film is about, he should know. But there’s two moments here I feel almost positive must have influenced him, and they’re the highlights. In both scenes, characters abandon the set momentarily—in one case, a runaway daughter leaves a living room late at night and the camera nervously glides, waiting for the parents to enter and discover her note; in the other, a tragic piece of news has to be conveyed to the parents in the garden, and the camera slides around, waiting for the devastated wrecks to walk into the room. In both cases, the camera and viewer are left alone to take in and be haunted by the trappings of these people’s lives; Davies, whose camera seems never happier than when gliding through the empty architectural and decorating pieces people leave behind, may have had his imagination sparked here.

1946’s Great Expectations is generally hailed as the great Dickens adaptation, which seems fair. Dickens’ carnivalesque work is unadaptable without slimming-down and homing in on the core plot—by definition, exactly the opposite of “Dickensian”—but Expectations’ basic plot doesn’t need people like the delightful Wemmick to propel it along. It’s one of the few times in my life where a book is so imprinted in my memory that I can’t help but find the film disappointing in comparison, which is never fair. Intriguingly, when Roger Ebert wrote the film up for his “Great Movies” column, he made note of some of the inclusions. “The scene in which Wemmick brings Pip home to meet his Aged Parent,” Ebert writes of a particular favorite of mine, “is typical of the appeal Dickens makes to our imaginations; there is no reason such a peripheral character as the “Aged P’’ needs to be preserved in a film version—but we remember how the Aged was deaf and loved to be nodded to, and a lot of amusing nodding goes on.”

True, but it’s a token sop; in a way, I almost wish Expectations had been pared down into creepy noir, rather than teasing me with the things I love that there aren’t time to get into. Then again, that would have been missing the point entirely. Then again, Pip’s humanization comes about from his slow realization of the great humanity and patience of (among others) Wemmick and Herbert Pocket, something that’s not so much in evidence here. Compromises etc. Great Expectations is, in essence, flawless filmmaking, and I can’t tell if I find it fairly bloodless only in comparison. One of the great myths about Lean is that his career suddenly took a schizophrenic about-face in the epic period, but the desire for physical grandeur is pretty much everywhere here: the opening shots of Pip running across the moors (a gorgeous cirrus sky—in reality a seamless matte) anticipate Lawrence of Arabia by a lot. (Ray Carney’s argued that Capra’s protagonists, at moments of crisis, lapse into wordless trances, unable to express the visionary currents they have; Lean’s protagonists often react the same way in relation to their overwhelming settings.) The only real mistake is the ending—the one that’s on the page might be unadaptable, but the solution here, well, isn’t.

1950’s Madeleine is criminally underappreciated. Armond White was able to make the screening of The Passionate Friends (for boring reasons, I couldn’t), and (for once) I’ll take his word that it may be even greater than Madeleine. In which case, this is one essential double-feature. Lean—always over-sensitive to popular response—hated the film, considering it his worst. It’s great precisely for the reasons Lean (and contemporary audiences) hated it: since no one knows if Madeleine Smith was a murderess or not, Madeleine is shrouded in perpetual ambiguity. Meticulously depicting the circumstances leading up to Smith’s murder trial (and the trial itself), Lean never gives an emotional center. On the one hand, Madeleine (Ann Todd)—an 1850’s deb whose illicit love died from arsenic poisoning—is your typical Edith Wharton heroine, a victim of an oppressive society. Her family is oppressive and Victorian to an extreme, so you might conclude she’s the victim of a sexist, hateful society. And yet Madeleine is also careless of basic feelings: she is, as Todd said, “a bitch.”

Madeleine’s fundamental ambivalence is transferred to the audience, shifting the blame from society at large to Madeleine’s father to Madeleine herself to her suitor and so on, never landing in one place. Lean re-creates the unknowable, giving off great moments of family melodrama, but the film seems to be rushing towards a solution it never resolves; it’s as enigmatic as its heroine. Zodiac isn’t the same movie at all—Madeleine ostensibly plays by melodramatic rules, at least up until the end—but they both purposefully frustrate the audience. Anyone hoping for a nice, easy bashing of Victorian England will come out gnashing their teeth. Like This Happy Breed, Madeleine begins with a spine-chilling entrance into an unoccupied house, but it ends firmly on the face of the unknowable Madeleine. Fortunately, the years have dulled Lean’s analysis-induced attempts at Freudian symbolism: at one point, a dropped walking-stick is supposed to indicate an orgasm. It’s a masterpiece, and I fear to say more for spoiling it; rediscovery is essential.

1952’s The Sound Barrier is a case study in social pathology; for an ambitious grad student somewhere, a career-making thesis awaits. A series of flawless flying sequences (like James Cameron’s films, Lean’s work doesn’t date for technical reasons) interpolates with the chilly saga of John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), one of those hardy men the Empire was built on, a monomaniacal aircraft tycoon who doesn’t care how many people plunge to their death replicating the same accident over and over as long as they break that damn sound barrier. Daughter Susan (Todd again) doesn’t understand why, and when her husband Tony (Nigel Patrick) tries to explain it to her in suitable terms, she doesn’t know. “Why did Scott need to go to the South Pole?” he asks, invoking the famous British myth of gentlemanly explorers (Scott being the man who froze to death unnecessarily on an Arctic expedition); the story of Scott was supposed to inculcate proper stiff-upper-lip values, but a baffled Susan just replies, “I really don’t know.” All the men in Sound Barrier can seem, if not subliminally gay for each other (c’mon, that’s just too easy), downright autistic: dullards whenever not in pursuit of adventure, ridiculous in the moment. Sound Barrier isn’t exactly great filmmaking—its domestic scenes are heartless—but it’s a compelling specimen all the same. Lean’s work dances around its relationship with the Empire at the best of times, an ambivalence that was never really resolved; Sound Barrier is as much a part of the puzzle as Lawrence.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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