Before David Lean became a director, he was an editor, and it’s fair to say that the man behind The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia owes his most memorable images in part to his sense of rhythm. Lean knew how long to hold a shot, and what to cut to for maximum impact. That knack for parceling out information came in handy when Lean was assigned to help renowned playwright and musician Noël Coward direct his first (and only) theatrical feature film, 1942’s In Which We Serve. Based loosely on the sinking of the HMS Kelly, In Which We Serve is an ambitious piece, meant to rouse patriotic sentiment during World War II by reflecting on the lives and sacrifice of a handful of British seamen in the years leading up to the loss of their ship. Coward’s original script ran so long that it would’ve taken a TV miniseries to cover it all, so Lean suggested that Coward watch Citizen Kane, to see how to make the story more cinematic via flashbacks and montage. Then Lean helped Coward realize that vision, earning a “co-director” credit for a film that combines Coward’s pitch-perfect, class-spanning dialogue with compositions that place such formidable actors as John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Coward himself in the middle of home-front melodrama and high-seas thrills. In Which We Serve is still a little too scattered—and programmatic, given its intent—but it’s well-acted and always lively, as Lean keeps jumping back and forth between upstanding pre-war families and grubby sailors bobbing in an ink-black ocean.
Coward and Lean continued their collaboration for three more films over the next three years, though after the international success of In Which We Serve, Coward wisely ceded more creative control to Lean. For 1944’s This Happy Breed, Lean and his Cineguild collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan adapted a Coward stage play that had been written before the war. Like Coward’s earlier hit Cavalcade, This Happy Breed spans decades in the lives of one British family. Unlike Cavalcade, This Happy Breed deals with the working class, whom Coward depicts as salty but reliable—willing to talk openly about “wind” and “spots,” but also possessed of the understanding that “there are worse things than being ordinary and respectable.” Though nearly all of This Happy Breed takes place in one house, Lean and company keep the film from feeling too stagey by zipping from event to event, and moving the camera around Robert Newton and Celia Johnson as they grow older, and as their kids peel off to start their own families. The couple celebrates the little joys and mourns the big losses with the same resolve, while Lean and his cast tap the well of emotion behind the characters’ steeliness.
This Happy Breed was shot in Technicolor, though Lean fought to desaturate the process’ usual bright hues. He embraced the technology more fully on Cineguild’s 1945 adaptation of Coward’s smash West End and Broadway hit Blithe Spirit, which stars an impossibly slender Rex Harrison as a wealthy novelist whose late first wife Kay Hammond returns as a ghost, complicating his life with second wife Constance Cummings. Between the rich colors of Harrison’s country estate and the pale green of Hammond’s skin, Blithe Spirit is practically a demo reel for Technicolor’s hyper-reality. It’s less of a demo for Lean. Coward himself often claimed not to understand why this trifling supernatural comedy was so popular, but he knew well enough not to mess too much with success, and so he urged Lean to keep the movie version fairly faithful. Blithe Spirit is even more constrained than This Happy Breed, and because so much of its appeal is in Coward’s fast-paced, witty repartee, Lean mostly stays out of the actors’ way. The result is a movie that’s fitfully funny, but also dry and static.
Lean and his Cineguild crew did much better later that same year with Brief Encounter, an expanded version of Coward’s 1936 one-act play Still Life. Made while World War II was winding down, Brief Encounter leaves aside the “hooray for us” cheerleading of Coward and Lean’s first two collaborations, along with the frivolous escapism of Blithe Spirit. Instead, Lean and company take what amounts to a case of mild domestic dissatisfaction—conveyed via a story about housewife Celia Johnson contemplating an affair with handsome doctor Trevor Howard—and elevates it to high romantic tragedy, complete with shamelessly sentimental music and deep, noir-ish shadow. Brief Encounter employs a flashback structure, adding a voiceover from Johnson, who explains in her head why Howard captured her heart and made her suburban life seem so suddenly unfulfilling; and Lean matches the narration with a more open and expressive visual style than he’d used on any of his first three films. The movie has a cruel sense of time (and possibilities) slipping away, as the clockwork precision of the British railway system brings these would-be lovers together and then pulls them apart. And throughout, Lean gets across the heroine’s mix of giddy joy and crippling guilt, juxtaposing one against the other, as any good editor would.
Key features: Criterion’s David Lean Directs Noël Coward box set adds a half-hour retrospective featurette and an hourlong audio interview on In Which We Serve; a Coward-focused episode of The Southbank Show on Blithe Spirit; a scholar commentary track, a 20-minute featurette, and an hourlong documentary about Lean on Brief Encounter; and bonus interviews with Coward experts and Lean collaborators on each disc.
In Which We Serve: B+; This Happy Breed: A-; Blithe Spirit: B-; Brief Encounter: A