Above: from Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952).
Later this week, New York’s Film Forum, in association with the BFI, launches a comprehensive retrospective on the work of David Lean. I’ve been out of town for a few weeks and haven’t been able to check out any of the press screenings, but I’m particularly keen to see at least a couple of the newly-BFI-restored British films from the first portion of Lean’s career, well before the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia tagged the director as a maestro of the mega-production.
The latter are only two films, and the three that followed those two—Dr. Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India—were in various respects far less sure-footed than Kwai and Lawrence. Which is not to say that Zhivago and Daughter are entirely lacking in moments both beautiful and true. Nor is it to say that in many ways India is a larger-scale and mostly gratifyingly solid return to a type of film that was one of his various breads and butters during the period between 1942 and 1954.
Which period we’re going to stick to for the nonce. These are the films that prove what should be an axiom, which is that if you don’t like David Lean you don’t like cinema. Lean cut his teeth working as an editor for both the once-exemplary classicist Anthony Asquith and the more formally rambunctious Michael Powell; in the best films of his first period he does a deft tightrope walk between hewing to solid storytelling verities and unloading from a formidable technical arsenal the better to deliver audacious emotional highs.
In anticipation of the Film Forum retro, I dipped back into a splendid Region 2 box set from British outfit itv, the 9-disc "The David Lean Collection." It was released back in 2006, so it doesn’t consist of the BFI restorations; itv has recently upgraded the box to included the previously missing In Which We Serve (Lean’s first directorial credit, which he shared with writer/star Noel Coward), and its cover says “Digitally Restored,” but I can’t yet determine whether the retorations in the itv box are the same as the BFI’s. I can say that itv’s recent Blu-ray of Lean’s Great Expectations looks staggeringly good.
In any case, for NOT being new restorations, the movies in the 2006 box look pretty fine; the supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit’s aquatic Technicolor ghosts are quite pleasing:
In a fervent defense of Lean that’s spoiled by (among other things) a typically perverse insistence that in embracing Lean one must also reject another filmmaker (Powell, in case you couldn’t guess) the New York Press’ Armond White calls 1949’s The Passionate Friends the retrospective’s “perhaps…greatest rediscovery.” As much as it pains me to concur with White on anything (just kidding…sort of), he’s certainly on to something. In a spare 85 minutes the film compresses years of longings, doubts, ecstasies and hatreds. In so doing, Friends (an adaptation of an H.G. Wells love triangle) builds to a climax of emotional devastation and nerve wracking tension, as unfaithful wife Ann Todd confronts married-for-money husband Claude Rains, is violently rebuffed by him, and then desperately seeks a…”way out” via the underground.
One doesn’t want to give anything away but one fascinating feature of the montage near the end is Lean’s rhythmic cutting away to inanimate objects, creating a hypnotic visual music (the scene has no musical accompaniment in fact). It’s cinematically classical but it’s also bracingly modern, anticipating Antonioni’s climax of L’Eclisse. Combinations like that make for timeless film.