Blithe Spirit (1945)

Blithe Spirit (1945) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/22/2017


I love falling into a world of “blushing Technicolor,” and David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is just the ticket. It’s a very British form of Screwball comedy, with wry and suggestive witticisms for which Coward was so well-known.

Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are a happily married pair, both on their second marriages via widowhood. Happy, that is, until they toy with the supernatural through the help of Madame Arcati (the sublimely scene-stealing Margaret Rutherford). This brings back Harrison’s first wife, in blushing Technicolor green, the playful Kay Hammond, whose haunting at first only Harrison can see.

Maybe it’s not as perfect as Coward’s original theatrical version, in which both Hammond and Rutherford both appeared as here. But for my money, it’s a dark and coy frolic. Lustrous in color, charming all around.

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 01/21/2017

Among other things in my life, I read a lot. And in recent years, I’ve been reading Charles Dickens and liking him a lot.

Great Expectations is Dickens via David Lean with a great cast including Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt, Francis L. Sullivan, Bernard Miles, Jean Simmons, and more. As with any major literary figure, there are a lot of versions of a lot of his works, and so a lot of versions probably have their assets and weaknesses, some may vie for “best”.

For my money, this Great Expectations is excellent, containing the over 500 page novel into a 2 hour movie (there is often a lot of sprawl in Dickens), capturing the classic characters like Pip, Estella, Mrs. Havisham, and Mr. Jaggers vividly, and even succinctly and deftly creating the scenery: the marshes, London, Satis House, visions imagined made “real”.

More than anything though, Mrs. Havisham’s house and her dedicated decay are very effective when made visual. There is a hauntedness like a ghost story.

All that said, Pip (John Mills) falls for the cruel Estella, groomed for evil of heartbreaking, heartlessness, as he does in the book. I watched this with my daughter who is going on 13, and she had a hard time understanding why he would like someone who was so outwardly cruel and mean. Well, if it was Jean Simmons, I think I could make an argument, but that is one aspect of truncating a story that can’t always translate.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/30/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

One of the most beloved films of all times, I was keen to take the kids to see Lawrence of Arabia at the Castro Theatre, showing from a new digital restoration, that some have called “a revelation”.  It’s got to be said, the infinitesimal details that are made visible in this restoration are amazing.  Cinematographer Freddie Young’s epic vistas of the desert are doubtlessly more stunning than they have ever been, exemplified perhaps, in the scene in which Omar Sharif first appears, a hazy dot in a swimmingly illusory haze of heat, riding into visibility.  The scale of these scenes is profound.

This experience led me to reflect on the first time that I saw Lawrence of Arabia in its entirety.  It was in a film class in college, one of the first films I ever saw on VHS in letterbox format.  On a relatively small television screen.  Like many new to letterboxing, I was slightly appalled at how tiny everything was, but as the film went on, I could see that the breadth of the image was important to keep intact.  Even as a semi-microscopic thing, the film communicated its vastness and epic qualities.  I certainly had never seen it on the big screen, in now way in the detail of the new format.  It’s a tremendous way to enjoy the film.

Of course, it’s also nearly four hours long.  By far the longest film I’ve ever watched with the kids.  I think that part of it was an endurance run for them.

This is, in my opinion, a pinnacle of period, style, and genre.  David Lean accomplished here what filmmakers for decades since have been trying to recapture, those that dare into the realm of the epic.  And it’s all iconic stuff.  From Peter O’Toole’s performance, Young’s cinematography, Maurice Jarre’s musical score, this is classic cinema of the 20th century achieving something tremendous and amazing.

Certainly, anyone can disagree.  But it’s one of those films that most film lovers love.  I guess I’ll have to list myself among them.

The kids were indeed daunted by the length, but it was telling how intently focused they remained throughout the film, even in the parts that are probably a bit more complicated to follow.  How they’ll rank it for their favorites will be for them to decide.  To me, it’s just great cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed:  04/07/2012

Felix picked this one for movie night.  His grandfather had told him about it, saying that it was one of his favorite films.  But perhaps more than any other aspect of his grandfather’s thoughts on David Lean’s 1957 WWII prison camp epic The Bridge on the River Kwai was that his granddad and his friends, inspired by the film as kids, went into the woods and built bridges and blew them up afterwards.  I should note that Felix’s grandfather eventually went on to be an engineer for British Rail, actually working on building bridges.  Not a saboteur.

It was fine with me.  I’d thought of taking the kids to see it at the Castro some months ago.  I prefer to not be the only person suggesting films for the kids.

This is one of those films that seemed to be on so regularly when I was a kid that I don’t know how many times I’d seen it, or if I’d watched it all the way through in any one sitting, or what, but I’d probably seen the final scene, the blowing up of the bridge often enough to feel as familiar as almost any cinema that I can think of.

The story of English, American, Australian, Burmese, Thai, all sorts of soldiers (though mostly British), stuck in a Japanese prison camp in 1943 somewhere in Thailand or Burma, forced to work on a railroad bridge across a river.  When a new group of prisoners comes in, led by Alec Guinness in one of his most signature roles, almost everyone in the camp senses the meeting of an irresistible force against an unmovable object in the battle of wills between Guinness’s Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s brutal Colonel Saito.  Clara very quickly came to hate Saito, his cruelty and severity so starkly on display from the get-go.  But it’s not just the Japanese whose rigor and pride wind up destroying themselves.  When Nicholson wins the first battle of the wills, showing the integrity of the British (perhaps against better judgment or not), he then wants to show further the ability of the British to build a bridge, a one-upsmanship that leads to even greater hubris.

The always great William Holden plays the more callow but still sensible and ultimately noble American, the one man who gets to call a spade a spade as far as self-importance, stiff-upper-lippedness (phew! just typing that was tough), and general blindness to common sense.

The location settings are tremendous, the beauty and wild drama of the landscapes, the exotic flora and fauna that surround all these men, that they hardly take one brief glimpse of.    The cinematography won an Oscar for Jack Hildyard.  This is one of the films that immediately comes to mind in thinking of Lean’s work in epic cinema, the epic breadth not just of story, but of image and setting.  The thing won a bunch of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Guinness.  This is one of those films that is pretty well just plain great.  One of the films whose greatness is pretty readily obvious to most.  Probably one which you’d find the majority of people would generally agree upon.

The kids liked it, too.  Though perhaps Felix thought that more than one dramatic bridge explosion would happen.  However, that finale is pretty damn awesome in and of itself, a familiar, but brilliant piece of cinema.

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. David Lean
viewed: 08/07/09

There are many Oliver Twists out there.  Most notable of which no doubt should be the originary text by Charles Dickens.  But this version is a fairly significant if not definitive filmic version, directed by one of the greatest British filmmakers, David Lean.

My familiarity with both Dickens and this text is only moderate.  I’ve only read two Dickens novels, Our Mutual Friend and more recently Bleak House.  So, I’m no expert, but I’ve studied a bit and am not utterly ignorant regarding Dickens.  But I’d never seen this film version, wasn’t even familiar enough with the text to know the exact story, but thought it might be an interesting one to watch with the kids, since I’ve been reading children’s classics to them with varying success.  I’d perused Oliver Twist in this regard, but deemed the language too hard for them, so I thought, the film version…that might work!  My kids are fairly schooled in cinema, watching silent films as well as modern films, are used to “black and white” in ways that most modern generations are not, but this was still quite an experiment.  It went pretty well.

The film starts with a striking sequence, with the heavily pregnant mother of Oliver crossing the countryside and ending up in a workhouse.  Dramatic rainstorms, thorns, and creeping branches put it right into gothic horror territory.  I’ve read that the art design is considered noirish and it’s stark and dramatic.  The cinematography is terrific.  I mean, we are talking David Lean here (Brief Encounter (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and his wonderful Lawrence of Arabia (1962)).  The man was no cinematic hack.

And the cast is terrific, John Howard Davies is iconic as the orphan Oliver Twist, and the troupe of actors are from a totally different generation, one in which you see them entirely as their characters, embedded in the story.  That is, save Alec Guiness, who can be so great.  His role as Fagin is quite horrific in its way, though trying to be true to early illustrations of the character, in tune with the way Dickens had described him.  His look is more extreme than many a cartoon, a dated “Jew” look, with a hooked nose, scraggly beard, and an evil nature.

To approach it now, it’s a reeking stereotype.  And it’s not as easy to laugh it off for being “of it’s time”.  It was 1948, post-WWII, post-Holocaust.  And though its as somewhat “classic” character from a popular writer of the prior century, you just can’t make yourself entirely comfortable with it, though I am not sure that he’s actually referred to in the film as being Jewish, and apparently is to a great extent in the original text.

It’s not to say this off-putting aspect ruins the film, it just adds a distasteful wrinkle in what is otherwise a wonderful elaboration on the story with great adventure, danger, and mystery.  Dickens was indeed a wonderful creator of story and Lean was a wonderful creator of films.  It’s overall a terrifically good film.

Felix was really rapt by the story and got more interested as it moved on.  Clara started involved, drifted away and then came back at the end.  It’s probably an age thing, but perhaps a taste thing too.  Next time, something a little easier for everyone.