Categories
British Drama Romance

Brief Encounter

Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

Elsewhere I recommended In Which We Serve, the first collaboration between Noël Coward and David Lean. As their partnership evolved, Coward ceded full directorial control to Lean and the two men made a series of films (now available as a boxed set from Criterion Collection) that both reflected and defined the image of Englishness for a generation. The strongest of their efforts is 1945’s Brief Encounter.

Expanded from a one-act play of Coward’s, the plot is so simple that it would have been slight in less talented hands. A plain-looking, thoroughly respectable suburban housewife and mother named Laura Jesson is waiting for her regular train on her regular shopping day. A train throws a piece of soot into her eye. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey comes to her aid and something sparks between them. They meet again by chance, a third time by intention mutually disguised as a trivial convenience, and then, guiltily, on purpose. A forbidden — though by modern standards, extremely restrained — romance develops. But where can it go, for two married parents with a lifetime of British socialization in their veins?

Other than The Browning Version, no British film conveys the nature of quiet desperation as achingly as does Brief Encounter. Coward wisely does not make the choices simple for the characters or the audience. Laura’s husband is gentle and devoted and her children loveable. Alec’s family is never seen, but the audience imagines something similar regarding his own responsibilities and constraints. Alec and Laura are drawn to each other not because they are fleeing violence, hatred or some other overt misery. Rather, they are running from dullness towards passion, which is underscored (pun intended) by perfectly chosen music by Rachmaninoff.

Lean and his frequent collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan understood the possibilities of film as well as any team in the history of cinema (Not incidentally, they went on to make many classics together post-Coward, including another of my recommendations, Great Expectations). This movie is one of their many triumphs. The tone, look, pacing and editing are all unimpeachable.

The other undeniable virtue of Brief Encounter is the acting. Trevor Howard, as Alec, is strong, but Celia Johnson tour de force as Laura, the more fully developed of the two characters, will stay with you until the end of your days. She might have been an unsympathetic character but Johnson’s evident humanity and emotional turmoil will elicit forgiveness from even judgmentally-inclined viewers. Johnson’s most unforgettable moment: Her character’s realization that her husband loves and trusts her so much that he will never suspect the lies she tells to cover up meeting with Alec. Johnson deservedly received a 1947 Oscar nomination for her performance. It came that long after the 1945 British release because a movie in which infidelity is not punished was long considered too scandalous to release in a number of countries, including the U.S.

Every moment, every look and every gesture rings true in Brief Encounter. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get out your hanky and watch this truly magnificent film made by a creatively matchless group of artists.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

They Made Me a Fugitive


Despite the end of the war, food, clothing and other essentials were rationed in Britain throughout the late 1940s, a policy so hated that it ultimately lead the voters to dump Atlee’s Labour government. Because post-war rationing was not seen as legitimate, many otherwise law-abiding people began buying goods on the black market. The spivs who ran the black market soon became the subject of a series of films. Like another of my recommendations (Brighton Rock), 1947’s They Made Me a Fugitive weds a story about spivs and the conventions of film noir with tremendous success.

Because much of the respectable British public was happily doing business with spivs, it was possible in this era to portray at least some of them as admirable, and that is the case with the protagonist here, Clem Morgan. Played with grit and style by Trevor Howard, Clem is that durable noir archetype, the embittered ex-soldier. Drinking heavily and out of work, he is drawn into a black market operation by his much nastier acquaintance Narcy (A superbly chilling Griffith Jones, whose film career inexplicably never really took off). Narcy, filled with class resentment, realizes that Clem’s upper class manners may come in handy and he also has his eye on Clem’s lovely girlfriend (Sally Gray, whose talents I highlighted in my recommendation of Obsession). Clem has no qualms about smuggling nylons and coffee, but when he finds that Narcy is also moving “sherbet”, he draws a moral line, and Narcy decides to frame him for a horrible crime. The struggle between the two men provides the meat of the rest of film, up to and including an appropriately unhappy ending.

They Made me a Fugitive is a well-acted, tough, thrilling tale of crime and vengeance which Director Cavalcanti and cinematographer Otto Heller carry off with many memorable visual flourishes. Narcy’s distorted face in a mirror as he metes out savage violence is one of several sequences that recall noir’s origins in German expressionism. Noel Langley’s screenplay, based on a novel by Jackson Budd, is another strength of the movie. There’s some terrific dialogue, nice touches of black humor and some hair-raising moments of unblinking cruelty. The sequence in which Clem, fleeing from the cops, gets help from a stranger who has her own grim motive perfectly conveys the dark, cynical outlook on humanity from which the best noirs draw their lifeblood.

The one disappointment in this film is that the final fight scene is poorly choreographed to the point of being almost unintentionally comic. Fortunately, this is immediately compensated for with a rooftop showdown between Clem and Narcy that is Hitchcock-level suspenseful (and has a Hitchcock-level joke embedded: Look at those three letters!).

Some elevated types in Britain hated movies like this for their “morbid burrowing” into the dark reaches of the human psyche…but that’s precisely where drama, excitement, and intrigue are often found.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Offence

The James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would garner even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A monster has been victimizing little girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by DS Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

The Offence (1972) - Blu-Ray Review

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Vivien Merchant absorbs Connery’s brutality but is unable to reach her husband, making him even more rageful but also more pathetic. In a scene of fewer than 15 minutes the two actors let the viewer grasp everything about the long agonies of this unhappily married couple and how they have disappointed and torn at each other over the years. The scene with Howard is almost as good, but is topped by the astounding concluding act with Ian Bannen (who was also brilliant alongside Connery in The Hill). Bannen and Connery play off each other magnificently in a cat-and-mouse game during which each experiences fear of, hatred for and yet also some identification with the other.

Categories
British Mystery/Noir

Green for Danger

If Lt. Columbo had been Scottish, he would have born a strong resemblance to Inspector Cockrill, as wonderfully played by Alastair Sim in 1946’s Green for Danger. In the film role that helped make him a huge star, Sim perfectly essays the role of the dowdy looking, socially clumsy police detective who has a razor sharp mind and a relentless desire to snag his prey.

The setting is a wartime British hospital, where doctors and nurses treat the victims of the German doodlebugs that are wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. When an injured local postman mysteriously dies on the operating table, everyone looks like a plausible suspect. Which member of the surgical team did it? Is the killer Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the lothario head surgeon? Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), the woman he most recently discarded? Or perhaps it’s Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), the doctor with a stain on his medical record?

Particularly if you have the Criterion Collection version, this film is not just entertaining but very easy on the eyes. Much of it was shot indoors, but Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper makes the most of the exterior scenes to give us eye-catching and haunted-looking backdrops that maximize the tension of the story (He had Oswald Morris and Thelma Connell on the team, whose also collaborated on another of my recommendations). With all the wind, trees and shadows, the mood created is reminiscent of horror films in which a small group of desperate people are locked inside a remote and spooky mansion where violent events unfold.

Despite being a murder mystery, the film has many funny moments (especially Sim’s wry dialogue and voiceovers). Sidney Gilliat had already shown his gift for comic thrillers by co-scripting Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here he also takes the director’s chair, from which he skillfully keeps the tone right as the story moves from hospital soap opera to murder investigation to amusingly Columbo-esque moments between Cockrill and the suspects. Gilliat gets solid performances from every member of his cast, who do a nice job humanizing characters that might otherwise lapse into stereotype. Gilliat’s script (co-written by Claude Guerney based on Christianna Brand’s novel) invokes a number of coincidences to make everyone look like a suspect and offers a somewhat rococo ultimate explanation for the crimes. But these are time-honored and enjoyable elements of the locked room mystery genre, right down to the climactic re-staging of the crime by Inspector Cockrill.