film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Image result for postman always rings twice

Well, I did say back in my review for Ossessione that I wanted to see more legalese and police procedural.

This is the first Hollywood adaptation of author James Cain’s 1943 book, and offered an interesting chance to compare Hollywood’s take to the Italian take on the same story.  Here, we have Lana Turner and John Garfield as the stars, Frank and Cora, who meet when Frank turns up at the diner and gas station Cora owns with her husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway).  The chemistry is nearly instantaneous, and Frank and Cora soon begin an affair.  However, unlike in Ossessione, Frank and Cora do some preliminary plotting and planning before they kill Nick – a plot point which also allows for the introduction of Hume Cronyn as Arthur Keats, a sly lawyer who plays some fourth-dimensional chess to both get Frank and Cora out of jail and simultaneously keep them under his thumb.

Image result for postman always rings twice

Cora and Frank are also a little more polished than Giovanna and Gino were; the first time we see Giovanna in Ossessione, she’s toiling in the kitchen, sweaty and covered in flour and grumpy.  Our first sight of Cora, meanwhile, is as a vision in a white who drops her lipstick as she’s in the midst of touching up her makeup.  She’s also instantly eager to build the “Twin Oaks” diner she runs with Nick into a high-class establishment, unlike how Giovanna is desperate to escape her life of kitchen drudgery.

As for Frank – he seems a lot less guilt-ridden than Gino did over his part in their shared crime. Not that this makes him any less eager to get away from Cora, mind you; but here, it seems more like a case of Frank just being a dude who doesn’t like being tied down.  “I got an itch on the bottom of my feet,” he keeps saying.  “I’ve never liked any job I’ve ever had. Maybe the next one is the one I’ve always been lookin’ for.”  It makes him all the more prone to Keats’ manipulation – the first chance that Frank sees to waive any responsibility for Nick’s death, he takes it, even if that chance comes at Cora’s expense.  Which makes their post-trial tension all the stronger, and Frank all the more eager to skip town – and makes them both all the more prey to manipulation at Keats’ hands.

Image result for postman always rings twice 1946

I’m going to be pondering the differences, and where they may come from, a lot. This film puts a lot more polish on our leads, but it also makes their motivations a little more clear. On the other hand, Ossessione is more honest about what Giovanna/Cora’s life looks like; there is no way the working wife of a dinette owner would be this pretty and this polished all the time.  Postman also gives Frank a last-minute moment of remorse that Ossessione omits, and I find myself chalking that up to “Hollywood” convention.  Then again, Ossessione’s realism got it into trouble with the Italian censors, and it was buried for years; Postman may simply have been pulling its punches in response.

Interestingly, the DVD copy I had also had the trailer for an even later remake that looked like it could be a sort of synthesis of both these films; a 1981 adaptation I’d never heard of, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.  That remake is not on the 1001 Movies list, and was largely panned by critics – at least at the time.  More contemporary critics seem to shrug and accept it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Spellbound (1945)

Image result for spellbound movie bergman

Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) is one of the psychiatrists at Green Manors, a sanitarium in Vermont. She’s one of the younger psychoanalysts and the only woman, but is intensely passionate about her work (even if some of her colleagues suggest she’s too stuck up).  She’s also loyal to the director of the hospital, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), and is disappointed to hear of his pending retirement at the top of the film. It’ll be okay, though, Murchison tells her – his replacement Dr. Anthony Edwardes is supposed to be very good. Peterson is dubious – until Dr. Edwardes shows up looking like Gregory Peck.  And then Peterson is intrigued.

But over the course of the next couple days, Edwardes starts seeming a little “off”. He seems unfamiliar with people he’s supposed to know. His handwriting in a note he’s left Peterson doesn’t match the autograph in one of his books.  And he’s also got a weird aversion to the sight of sets of parallel lines drawn on things.  And then Peterson is skeptical.

Image result for spellbound movie bergman

She confronts Edwardes – who confesses that she’s right, he’s not the real Edwardes.  Even worse – he believes that he’s killed the real Edwardes and taken his place.  But he’s not sure, because he’s suffering a severe case of amnesia, and the only clues to his own identity are a cigarette case with the initials “J.B.” on it and that phobia of parallel lines.  Shortly after his confession, “Edwardes” takes off, leaving Peterson a note of goodbye – and she follows, for Peterson is now in love, and determined to clear his name.

There are some ways in which this film is very much of its time.  Particularly in the bulk of the action – Freudian psychoanalysis was just getting popular, and the bulk of the film is tied up in Peterson’s analysis of “Edwardes” in an attempt to cure him – to uncover the trauma that triggered his amnesia, and the origin of his reaction to parallel lines.  The film also dabbles in dream analysis (more on that in a moment).  Simultaneously, this is also a bit of a film noir plot – while doing talk therapy and dream analysis, the couple are trying to stay one step ahead of the police, who understandably regard “Edwardes” as a suspect in the disappearance of the real Edwardes.  It’s stressful work, bringing “Edwardes” nearer and nearer a breaking point.  He very nearly turns dangerous when the couple are taking refuge in the home of Peterson’s old mentor, Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekov), and the sight of lines on the tile in the bathroom triggers a sort of fugue state in “Edwardes”, sending him down to confront Mr. Brulov with a straight razor.

Image result for spellbound movie bergman

Unfortunately, some of the other ways this film is of its time nagged at me a bit.  A very early scene sees one of the other psychiatrists in Peterson’s office, where he rails against her professionalism; she’s too devoted to work, he argues.  She should be more feminine; “You’re a sweet, pulsing, adorable woman,” he gushes.  “I sense it every time I come near you.”  It’s obvious he’s trying to flirt with her – especially when he flat-out kisses her.  But instead of decking him, Peterson treats this classic case of sexual harassment with an eyeroll and a laugh, sending him out with a quip that the only “pulsations” he feels are his own.  And of course, later on there’s also the little matter of Peterson getting romantically hung up on someone who might be a superior, then who might be a murderer – and then who does become her patient.  I do get that this is a drama and not a documentary, and so some procedures and protocols need to be fudged a bit for the sake of the story, but Peterson’s colleague hitting on her made me supremely uncomfortable.

Image result for spellbound movie bergman

On the other hand, there’s an interesting bit of gender-flipping going on.  Instead of Alfred Hitchcock’s usual pattern – having the man trying to clear his own name and dragging a pretty woman along to help him – Bergman, as Peterson, is taking the more active role, with Peck being the eye candy as “Edwardes.”  Not that this excuses Peterson’s several obvious ethics violations throughout, but this is Hollywood, not reality. It’s still nevertheless a subtle but refreshing change to have someone like Ingrid Bergman in a film and not have her face be the one the camera lingers on in soft focus all the time.

Hitchcock took another unusual step with this film – leading to the scene by which most know this film. One of the big keys to unlocking the mystery of “Edwardes” is a dream which he shares with Peterson and Brulov for their interpretation.  Hitchcock wasn’t all that impressed with the usual tropes for “dream sequences” at the time – soft-focus, with people and events that seemed just slightly different from real life.  Hitchcock wanted something that looked way more concretely grounded in its own symbolism, with imagery that seemed way more like the language of a troubled mind.  So he brought in a consultant for the dream sequence itself – Salvador Dali.  And Dali delivered.

Image result for spellbound movie dali

In fact, Dali over-delivered. The original treatment Dali proposed would have been about 20 minutes in length, and a special-effects nightmare to film – one original element involved a room full of dancers in a ballroom with 15 grand pianos dangling over their heads, and another bit lead to Hitchcock having to break it to Dali that no, they would not be able to bury Ingrid Bergman in live ants.   …The sequence that made it in feels a bit too conveniently helpful, but only because of the ease with which Peterson interprets it (“you dreamed a pair of wings were chasing you down a hill? That clearly means you went to Angel Valley!”). The sequence itself is so chock-full of odd imagery that it seems obvious it would mean something.

So this was alright.  This is far from the only psychiatrist-and-patient film to blur the rules of medical practice, but the sexual politics still have me a bit grumpy.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Image result for the best years of our lives

Midway through the 1940s, the world saw first the end of World War II in Europe, followed soon thereafter by the end of the war in Japan.  Thousands of United States servicemen were free to rejoin their families and lives.  And in each case, after they walked in the door and were tearfully embraced by kids or wives or girlfriends or mothers or whoever waited for them, and after a couple hours of excited storytelling and a good night’s sleep, no doubt everyone woke up asking themselves, “….okay, now what?”

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three of those “now whats”.  Three servicemen – Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Petty Naval Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – all meet on the plane bringing them home to “Boone City”, a fictional Everytown where they all hope to go back to their old lives; Parrish has a fiancée waiting for him, Derry hopes to rejoin his wife, and Stephenson has a family and his old job at the bank.  But as excited as they are, they’re all a little uneasy as well; Stephenson’s wartime experience is causing him to have a bit of a think about his priorities, and Derry is starting to think he may have married in haste.  And as for Parrish – he’s a double amputee, with two steel hooks replacing his lost hands, and is afraid his disability will be too much of a burden for fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnel).

Image result for the best years of our lives

All three men flee their respective welcome-home parties to meet up at a bar owned by Parrish’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) and do some veterans-club bonding.  Stephenson also brings his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), who hits it off with Derry over the course of the evening.  After this night of carousing, though, everyone tries to settle back down into a normal life.

That settling-back-down, and the bumps all three face on the way, make up the rest of the movie. Stephenson is appointed vice president in charge of distribution of loans offered to returning G.I.s. But Stephenson’s altered perspective leads to some unorthodox decisions about who is deserving of a loan, causing consternation in the board rooms.  Derry has less job success – he was a soda jerk at the local drug store before the war, a position that’s not quite lucrative enough for his fashionista wife Marie (Virginia Mayo). Marie chafes at having to cut back after living on Derry’s sizeable wartime payments, and the home strife – plus bumping into Peggy again once or twice – causes Derry to rethink his marriage.  Parrish has the bumpiest transition – a physical adjustment to his new prosthetics, and an emotional one as he wrestles with the reactions of friends and strangers to his prosthetic hooks.

Image result for the best years of our lives

The plot description sounds a little hokey and Capra-esque.  But there is some really sophisticated stuff in this film, particularly in Derry’s story.  His post-war struggles seem especially current, since he’s facing the same kind of pressures that veterans face today – joining the military to flee a dead-end job, performing exemplary work in service, but then returning home and finding that the skills they learned during wartime don’t always translate to the home front. There’s an uncomfortable scene where Derry is at his old job asking about coming back to something a bit better than his previous soda jerk position. But Derry’s military service was mostly as a bombardier. “Unfortunately, we’ve no opportunities for that with Midway Drugs,” sniffs the store manager, before offering Derry a low-level retail position.  And Derry’s co-workers gossip that the only reason he even got the job is because of his service; “nobody’s job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in,” another clerk grumbles.  I was surprised to see that; the narrative I’ve grown up with is one of a much smoother post-war transition, with all of the former GIs happily sliding right back into their old lives or trotting off to college with tuition paid by the G.I. Bills.  But it wasn’t that simple.

An even bigger shock was to see the dangers of the atom bomb acknowledged, if only for a moment. Stephenson’s son is a slightly nerdy high school student who grills his father at one point about one particular aspect of his service.

Say, you were at Hiroshima, weren’t you Dad?..did you happen to notice any of the effects of radioactivity on the people who survived the blast? […] We’ve been having lectures in atomic energy at school, and Mr. McLaughlin, he’s our physics teacher, he says that we’ve reached a point where the whole human race has either got to find a way to live together, or else […] Because when you combine atomic energy with jet propulsion and radar and guided missiles, just think…”

Growing up as I did in an era of ICBMs and Mutually Assured Destruction and the Cold War Arms race, hearing a warning against those very things from 1946 stunned me.

Image result for the best years of our lives

Parrish’s story is the most “pat” – the tale of a veteran learning to cope with a prosthetic is a sadly familiar one now. But it was new for 1946 – and is handled with tremendous sensitivity. A lesser movie would have shown Parrish clumsily struggling with things and having countless temper tantrums, raging against the unfairness of it all.  There are one or two instances of this – a fumble with a glass of lemonade his first day home and shouting at some peeping-tom kids trying to watch him perform some household chores. There are also a couple of moments that feel borderline “stunty”, with Parrish lighting a cigarette or playing “Chopsticks” on Uncle Butch’s piano. But Parrish’s story wisely downplays his physical condition, focusing more on his relationship with Wilma.  For most of the film Parrish is afraid his changed circumstances would be too much of a burden for Wilma, and he begins treating her coldly, hoping she breaks their engagement and moves on.

But a determined Wilma just doubles down on her devotion, leading to one of the film’s most poignant scenes; Wilma turns up at the house while Parrish is getting a midnight snack, begging him to open back up to her.  So Parrish decides to show Wilma what she’d be in for, and invites her to come watch him get ready for bed.  And in a surprisingly intimate sequence, Parrish matter-of-factly shrugs off first his robe, and then his prosthetic hands, which are fastened onto his body by a shoulder harness.  “I’ve learned how to wriggle into this,” he matter-of-factly tells Wilma, shrugging on his pajama top.  “It’s a good thing I still have elbows.  …I just can’t do up the buttons,” he concludes, turning to her.  After a beat, Wilma calmly reaches out and buttons his pajama top for him, then helps him into bed before kissing him a fond goodnight and slipping out, leaving Parrish lost in contemplation.

Image result for the best years of our lives

Harold Russell, who plays Parrish, gives an especially impressive performance when you learn that he wasn’t even a professional actor.  Russell had been a grocery clerk in Massachusetts before the war and lost his hands in a combat training incident. The prosthetic hooks were his own, and he became adept enough with them that he was featured in a military short-subject documentary about rehabilitating injured vets. The Best Years director William Wyler happened to see the documentary and offered Russell a role. At the 1947 Oscars, the Academy presented Russell with a special honorary Oscar statuette “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”, at the behest of the Academy Board of Governors who wanted to make sure Russell got something. But they needn’t have worried – Russell was also presented with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, the only time in which anyone has won two Oscars for the same performance.

The film wraps up all three stories with suitably happy endings, but the journeys each took to get there were sensitively handled and presented all the nuances honestly enough that the happy endings felt sincere instead of hokey.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Children of Paradise (1945)

Image result for children of paradise

Now that’s how you make a movie about a courtesan.

Like Camile, Children of Paradise deals with a courtesan in mid-1800’s Paris. But unlike Camile, it presents a much more realistic approach – acknowledging the economic realities that drove our heroine into that life and addressing the thorny emotional complications.  Although, in this case, the film deals more with the Parisian theater scene; our heroine Garance (who goes by a mononym, as does the actress Arietty playing her) is simply a little more open to favors from her admirers.

Image result for children of paradise

Garance is more of a sideshow performer; barkers lure rubes in by claiming they’ll see the naked Garance, only for the rubes to find that she’s sitting neck-deep in a tub of colored water.  Still, it’s a living, and Garance is pretty enough for the rubes to leave without feeling too disappointed.  She’s also pretty enough to catch the eye of Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), an aspiring actor who passes her on the street one day.  He immediately tries hitting on her, but she’s on her way to meet up with another admirer, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand).  Lacenaire is a scribe, but it’s a front for a small crime ring, with Lacenaire’s pickpockets mingling in the crowds outside and bringing Lacenaire the spoils.

One of Lacenaire’s men actually gets Garance into trouble one day – she’s watching a street show outside one of Paris’ theaters, and a bystander in the crowd gets his pocket picked and blames her. But luckily, one of the performers – a mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) – has seen the whole thing, and gives his wordless witness statement. Surprisingly, it works. It also turns out to be Baptiste’s big break; he’s a bit player at Paris’ “Funambles” Theater, but his unexpected mime convinces his manager that Baptiste may be an undiscovered talent.  Baptiste is of course pleased by the new attention – but is also haunted by the memory of Garance (a condition his existing girlfriend is none too happy with).

Image result for children of paradise

He finally bumps into her again at a local dive bar – she’s come with Lacenaire, but he’s acting like a jerk and Baptiste makes his move, the pair leaving for Baptiste’s boarding house. While they’re pitching woo, however, Baptiste realizes that she’s treating the whole thing like a hookup; he won’t settle for anything less than love, and he stalks out.  But – conveniently, Lemaître is in the room next door, and he’s a lot less fussy.

Image result for children of paradise

Lemaître is there, actually, thanks to Baptiste, who’s taken the aspiring actor under his wing a bit; getting Lemaître both a spot in the boarding house and a job at the Funambles, as a supporting player in Baptiste’s new mime sketches. Lemaître would actually rather be playing Othello, but work is work. Baptiste makes Garance the same offer, and she accepts, appearing with Lemaître alongside Baptiste and then fooling around with Lemaître off hours.  Baptiste knows everything, and is increasingly glum. Then the wealthy Count Édouard de Montray attends the show and stops backstage to ask Garance to be his mistress. She turns him down at first, but he says she can always come find him if she changes her mind. Soon after, Lacenaire tries to murder another man in the boarding house and Garance is brought in as a suspect; knowing it’s her only way out, a desperate Garance asks de Montray for help, agreeing to whatever he wants. Turns out that what he wants is to leave Paris, and he takes Garance with him.

Image result for children of paradise

Some several years later, Lemaître is a star member of the ensemble at Paris’ Grand Theater, and has managed to finally convince the producers to give him a shot at Othello. He and Lacenaire are chums, after an attempt Lacenaire makes to rob him takes an unexpected turn. And Baptiste is still at the Funambles, where he’s a top box-office draw with his original mime pieces.  Baptiste is also married and a father, but has never forgotten about Garance.  And then a mysterious and well-to-do woman starts coming to see Baptiste every night, reserving a box seat all to herself and wearing a veil. Lemaître hears about the woman and is determined to find out who she is…

Image result for children of paradise

In his own review, Roger Ebert said that “all discussions of Children of Paradise begin with the miracle of its making”; maybe I didn’t begin with it, but it certainly bears mentioning. The whole thing was shot while France was under Nazi occupation, and two members of the production staff – its art director and its composer – were Jewish, and had to work in hiding. Half the cast were covert French Resistance members, but the other half were Nazi sympathizers who the director had to hire to appease the Nazis (and amazingly never knew their colleagues were in the Resistance).  Other extras were so hungry that during a banquet scene, the extras made off with all the food the second filming wrapped for the scene. The film stock was under rationing and had to be parceled out. There wasn’t enough money or resources to build sets in both shooting locations, so they had to move the sets from Paris to Nice depending on where they were that week; even worse, a spate of bad weather in Nice damaged some of the sets.

None of that hardship is evident on screen.  Instead, we see a vibrant, rich world, full of lavish costumes and mansions and ornate theater boxes and shabby little dive bars, with crowds and crowds of people in the streets and in the theaters, and a leading ensemble of five vividly real characters. Perhaps the screenwriters were assisted by reality – all four of the men in love with Garance are based on actual people, and in the case of Baptiste and Lemaître they were even given their names.   Jean-Louis “Baptiste” Barrault actually pitched the director the idea for a film about Baptiste and Lemaître, but the director and screenwriter were reportedly not that into mimes and added to the story some.

Image result for children of paradise

It’s still a superb work. Even without the additional hurdles of “filming during war” it would be a superb work – a rich story, a stunning attention to detail, and some gorgeously composed shots (there’s a scene towards the end of Baptiste trying to chase someone through a crowd; but it’s a carnival scene of Baptiste fans, with all of them cosplaying as his Pierrot character, and he gradually gets drowned in the hundreds of doubles).

Image result for children of paradise

Incidentally, the “Paradise” of the title refers to the highest-up seats in French theaters of the time – the cheapest seats in the house, usually occupied by the poorer theatergoers, all of whom were less reserved in their reactions to a play. Baptiste mentions that he prefers playing for these “Children of paradise” and that the mimes he creates are for them. “They understand, though they are poor. I’m like them. […] Their lives are small, but their dreams are vast.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rome, Open City (1945)

Image result for rome open city

Well, I quite liked this one.

Made on the shoestringest of budgets and the slimmest of circumstances, Rome, Open City is a look at Italian life under Nazi control and the resistance within.  We jump right into things with Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a leader of the Italian resistance, scrambling out his window and fleeing across the rooftops as German soldiers search his apartment. Manfredi heads for the home of Francisco, another resistance member, where he’s met by Pina (Anna Magnani), Francisco’s pregnant fiancée.  Pina all but throws him out, suspecting he’s a cop – but when Manfredi explains his predicament, Pina changes her tune, chattily talking about her upcoming wedding. She is fortunately in touch with Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the local priest – he’s the one performing the service.  But Don Pietro also happens to be in the resistance, so when he stops by later that night, Manfredi urges him to meet a colleague and deliver some messages for him.

Image result for rome open city

The Gestapo aren’t the only ones looking for Manfredi, though. Marina (Maria Michi), a cabaret singer and occasional call girl, has been having a bit of a dalliance with Manfredi, and keeps calling around Rome looking for him.  Marina also occasionally sells the Gestapo some low-level secrets about the Resistance in exchange for extra cash or for opium. Pina’s sister Laura (Carla Rovere) is another call girl and is friendly with Marina, so when she lets slip that Manfredi is hiding at Pina’s place, Marina is jealous enough to tip off the Gestapo, prompting a raid on Pina and Francisco’s building the morning of the wedding.

Everyone in the building springs into action – Dom Pietro first smuggles the men out through the basement, then heads up to the roof to where the local kids have been making improvised explosives; all while the women drag their feet and harangue the Gestapo as their herded out, making as much fuss as possible as a distraction.  Dom Pietro is able to hide the bombs with the help of Pina’s boy Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), but tragically, some Gestapo catch some of the escaping men – including Francisco, whom they drag out past a screaming Pina and fling into a truck.  Pina makes a desperate chase after the departing truck and is shot while Francisco’s watches helplessly.

Image result for rome open city

The Resistance is fortunately able to spring Francisco, but soon suffers another blow as both Manfredi and Don Pietro are captured, thanks to another tipoff from Marina.  The guilty Marina begs them to go easy on Manfredi, but the Gestapo have quite another opinion on the matter, and spend a desperate night cruelly torturing Manfredi – and making Don Pietro watch – determined to make one or the other speak before daybreak, or die.

So it’s a bit of a melodrama, yeah.  But there’s a freshness and frankness to Rosselini’s style that made this fascinating instead of overwrought.  It may have been born of necessity; Rosselini was filming in the waning days of World War II, casting mostly amateur actors and using three completely different kinds of film stock scavenged from the black market and discards from the U. S. Army’s Signal Corps supply.  But sometimes having to scrounge and make do leads you to make especially creative choices, and sometimes taking away the extra trappings lets your actors shine.

And Anna Magnani especially shines here.  Her Pina is only in a handful of scenes, but I was drawn to her immediately; she’s a fierce mother-hen type, ready to fight Manfredi off when she first meets him but then insisting he have a cup of coffee when she learns he’s a friend.  But she also has her quiet moments, enjoying a heart-to-heart with Francisco on the eve of their wedding or unburdening herself to Dom Pietro.

Image result for rome open city

Rosselini also makes room for some little moments of humor as well – in a scene where Dom Pietro is fetching something from a sculptor’s, he’s momentarily left alone in a room with a small statue of Venus, and after uncomfortably eyeing it for a moment, he turns it to face away from him.  Another early scene sees the boy Marcello returning from a bit of anti-Nazi kid mischief with the other boys in his building – but they’re coming home after curfew, so as each boy is met by a set of incensed parents Marcello gets more and more worried until by the time he reaches his own door he’s drafted another boy to serve as escort to run interference.  Standing up to Nazis is one thing – but standing up to Mom Pina? Forget it.

The earlier Ossessione was probably the earliest example of the “Italian neorealist” style, but this film is what really put it on the map for viewers.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Brief Encounter (1945)

Image result for brief encounter

Brief Encounter is regarded as one of the world’s most poignant doomed-love-story films.  It’s the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife who has a weekly routine of a little day trip to London every Thursday, where she does a little shopping and treats herself to a movie before heading home to her comfortable little house, just in time to serve dinner to her husband and two kids. It’s a quiet little life, with the little hiccups being dispatched easily, like when some soot gets in her eye at the train station while she’s waiting to go home one week; almost immediately, a kind doctor passing by on his way to his own train helps her to get it out.  Coincidentally, she runs into him a week later at her lunch spot and invites him to join her, in thanks.

Image result for brief encounter

These very small moments are the beginnings of what becomes an emotional affair that shakes both Laura and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) to their foundations.  Harvey is married as well, and only works in London once a week – but conveniently is done with his rounds at about the same time Laura finishes her shopping, so they start hanging out in the afternoons – taking in a movie, strolling through the botanic garden, trying out a rowboat in the park.  Fun, simple, innocent stuff.  Perfectly respectable.  Until the day Harvey points out the obvious – their meetings have been dates, and he has fallen in love with Laura.  And, he is pretty sure she reciprocates.

Image result for brief encounter

She does. Which terrifies Laura. She tries to resist it at first, urging Harvey to keep things platonic, but as they keep on with their “meetings” Laura is soon overwhelmed by what she feels. She starts fibbing to her husband about the things she does in town, lying to friends she meets on the street with Harvey, and generally coming closer and closer to adultery than is entirely comfortable for her. But the more uneasy she is about her behavior….the more sure she is that she loves Harvey.  Ultimately, though, fate conspires against the pair on several occasions before they finally have to say their goodbyes.

So, on paper this movie is so my jam. This exact kind of brief-encounter love story has always been the kind that affects me most – short, more emotional than physical, but unquestionably significant for both parties.  But there is one technique this film uses that pulled me out – Laura’s narration throughout, as she tells the entire story to us in flashback while she considers how – and if – she should confess the whole thing to her husband.

Image result for brief encounter

It was a frustrating detail because the film did not need it – Johnson and Howard’s performances are stellar, and Johnson in particular can convey depths of emotion with a simple look.  Director David Lean also earning his cred with every shot.  I didn’t need to hear Johnson talking about what Laura was feeling because I already could tell.  Ultimately the narration was a distraction that kept me from getting swept up alongside Laura and Alec.

Alex and I each had our own guesses what it was doing there; Alex thought it was a bit of a convention Lean thought he had to adopt, since narration was a convention creeping into films at the time, particularly in film noir.  Meanwhile, I think it may have been a bit of an ego play for the screenwriter – none other than Noel Coward, who adapted the work from one of his short plays.  Perhaps Coward simply got a bit too much in love with his own words, and included a bit more of his own writing than was quite necessary.

Image result for brief encounter

wanted to like this film; in the few scenes where the narration is given a rest, I did like it.  But ultimately I was a little frustrated at not being able to dive all the way in.