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.