Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

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Criterion Sunday 64: The Third Man (1949)

There’s a certain kind of ‘cinema of quality’ prestige big budget production, especially from the UK, that I am somewhat allergic towards, and for many years I’d lumped The Third Man in with that. However, rewatching it again recently I realise the problem is with me when it comes to this film, because it’s not only glorious — and it truly is spectacular, even if just for the depth of its shadows and the luminosity of the light in those sewer sequences, though it’s sustained throughout by canted framings and canny compositions — but it’s also rather less triumphalist and morally clear-cut than you might expect from its American-in-Europe plotline. The film’s world is one of moral grey areas, a position staked out by the Harry Lime character (Orson Welles, in what amounts to a brief but memorable cameo), and constantly questioned by its pulp novelist protagonist Holly (Joseph Cotten). He has come from the US to Vienna just after the end of World War II looking for a job with his friend Harry, only to find himself at Harry’s funeral wondering what happened. No one has a clear story, and the details seem to be being hidden by the various forces — the city is split between four occupying armies, with their own respective languages — as well as various shadowy characters who interact with them at an official or semi-official level. It’s a film about profiteering, which makes clear the moral equivalency between wartime acts and those same acts outside wartime. It also features some excellent performances by Cotten as well as Alida Valli as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, but primarily it’s a triumph of writing and direction, whatever snobby canards towards Carol Reed’s “non-auteur” status the critics might throw.

Criterion Extras: A packed reissue includes an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, retailing the Reed-as-non-auteur line pretty hard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed | Writer Graham Greene | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli [as “Valli”], Trevor Howard, Orson Welles | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Saturday 2 May 1998 (and most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 29 November 2015)