Dr. Alec Harvey : “I do love you, so very much. I love you with all my heart and soul.”
Laura Jesson : “I want to die. If only I could die…”
Dr. Alec Harvey : “If you’d die, you’d forget me. I want to be remembered.”
“Brief Encounter”(1945) is one of the most romantic movies ever. I cannot ever get tired of watching this classic by David Lean with a screenplay written by the famous Noël Coward. It was based on his 1936 one-act play “Still Life,” about two middle-class Brits who are caught off guard by their passion for one another for they’re both married.
Any true cinephile needs to see this at least once. The opening scene manages to always get my breathing to accelerate. We’re at a train station refreshment room and the ticket inspector comes in to interact with the establishment owner. Their bickering and flirtation feels like a daily happening. “You’re a bit unfriendly all of a sudden,” Mr. Godby chides Myrtle. They’re boisterous. To the left side of the frame there’s an unassuming couple seated at a table. They look like they’re extras in the movie. Godby and Myrtle’s argument remains the focus. The couple – who we will eventually get to know as Laura and Alec – are seated in silence. Unbeknown to us this is their last time together. Their story will play as a flashback, and we will return to this scene and see that something that seemed so almost inconspicuous can be so grand and operatic. A woman – and acquaintance of Myrtle – will break up their silence – and Alec will get up and squeeze Laura’s shoulder. It is emotionally overwhelming.
She is Laura (Celia Johnson, who is not your typical beautiful leading lady – but by the time the movie ends she will put a spell on you), a housewife with children and a loving husband living in suburbia. She goes into the city every week for some shopping or to take in a movie and find some distraction by herself away from her boring existence. She takes the commuting train back and forth. He is Alec (Trevor Howard) – a doctor whose loveless marriage to Madeleine has him dedicating himself to longer hours at work. The express train goes by and causes a piece of dirt to get inside Laura’s eye – and, taking refuge in the refreshment room, she runs into Alec who is able to come to her aid. “That’s how it all began – getting a bit of grit in my eye,” she says on voice over. This chance encounter develops into an innocent friendship at first. They agree to meet every Thursday. “Shall I see you again?” he asks. “Please please – next Thursday, same time. I ask you most humbly.” Every rendezvous deepens their bond – until it turns into something stronger and uncontrollable. Most of the action takes place at the train station. Tragically, like trains going in opposite directions, they cannot be together. The movie is about decency and doing the right thing. Laura tells herself as she sees her husband, “You see, we’re a happily married couple and let’s never forget that. This is my home. You’re my husband. And my children are upstairs in bed. I’m a happily married woman – or I was, rather, until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world, and it’s enough.” The repression of Laura and Alec’s true feelings for one another make it quite a pressure cooker – scored by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2.
In one gorgeous passage, Laura sits in a train car, staring out the window, dreaming of her love. Lean uses pictorialism to illustrate her fantasy world – editing her longings as reflections on the window. “Alec and me, perhaps a little younger than we are now, but just as much in love and we have nothing in the way,” she imagines. “I saw us in Paris, in a box at the opera. The orchestra was tuning up. Then we were in Venice, drifting along the Grand Canal in a gondola with the sound of mandolins coming to us over the water. I saw us traveling far away together.”
Through rich black and white compositions – steam white and dark shadows, Lean creates a world in which the toil between propriety and suppression are manifested. The underground passageway between the two train directions becomes symbolic too – where the two lovers exchange a furtive kiss, afraid of being seen. A white piece of paper blows in the wind. Towards the end of the film Lean will tilt the camera obliquely as Laura’s world feels that it is collapsing – and my stomach never fails to turn. And the last scene will make you weep – unless your heart is made of stone.
Lean of course will go on to do other classics like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and “A Passage to India” but this intimate love story of epic proportions has a special place in my collection of cinema favorites.
Alec: “Forgive me?”
Laura: “Forgive you for what?”
Alec: “For everything. For meeting you, in the first place. For taking the piece of grit out of your eye. For loving you. For bringing you so much misery.”
Laura: “I’ll forgive you if you’ll forgive me.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, FlixFling, The Criterion Channel, ShoutFactoryTV, and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, FlixFling and iTunes.
Based on the play by Noël Coward
Directed by David Lean
Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg and Marjorie Mars
Bringing “Brief Encounter” to the Screen
After the success of “In Which We Serve” (1942) — written by Noel Coward, who co-directed with David Lean and co-produced with Anthony Havelock-Allan — Lean and Havelock-Allan had broken off from producer Filippo Del Giudice’s “Two Cities” films to create Cineguild in order to keep a larger share of the profits from subsequent films. Their first production reunited them with Coward for the hit adaptation of his play “Blithe Spirit” (1945). As a follow-up, Lean wanted to direct a film about Mary, Queen of Scots, but Coward convinced him that he wasn’t ready for a costume picture. Instead, he suggested a contemporary story adapted from his own one-act play “Still Life.” Coward had written “Still Life” for himself and Gertrude Lawrence as part of Tonight at 8:30, three rotating bills of one-act plays with which they dazzled London and New York audiences in the ’30s. “Still Life” was a rarity for the comic playwright in that it was a serious drama. MGM had originally picked up the rights to Tonight at 8:30, but had only filmed one of the plays, “We Were Dancing.” British producer Sydney Box then bought the rights from them and sold each play separately to The Rank Organization. Cineguild had to pay 60,000 pounds for the screen rights. When Lean read Coward’s first draft of what would become “Brief Encounter,” he hated it, and told Coward there was nothing to hold an audience. When Coward asked him how he could do that, Lean came up with the idea of telling the story in flashback. They opened with a seemingly innocuous scene in which a talkative woman interrupts two friends sitting in a railway café. Only as the story unfolded in flashback would the audience realize that the scene was really about a final farewell between two lovers. According to Lean, Coward took his suggestions and re-wrote the screenplay in four days. Havelock-Allan, however, claimed that Coward never worked on the screenplay. Rather, he, Lean and co-producer Ronald Neame did all the work, inventing additional scenes to flesh out Coward’s 30-minute play. They received the only screenplay credit. Neame missed much of the writing process, as he was in the U.S. researching American filmmaking techniques. On his return, he says the three credited writers met with Coward frequently to create dialogue. In coming up with a new title, Coward suggested they emphasize the smallness of the picture. When the word “brief” came up in brainstorming sessions, Coward’s personal artistic supervisor, Gladys Calthrop, suggested “Brief Encounter.” (tcm.com)
The Making of “Brief Encounter”
“Brief Encounter” was shot during the final days of World War II, going into production in January 1945. Filming was completed in May, with an interruption on May 4 to celebrate Germany’s surrender. Originally the train station scenes were set for London, but with the threat of German rocket attacks during the last days of the war, the company was evacuated outside the city. The producers chose Carnforth Station in Southeast England because it was one of the largest provincial stations and was far enough from the coast that they would have time to turn off the lights in the event of an air raid and blackout warning. Shooting at Carnforth station usually started at 10:30 p.m. and continued until 6 a.m., before the morning commute started. Another advantage offered by Carnforth Station was the fact that it had a ramp leading up to the train platform. Lean thought it would be more effective for the actors to be running up the ramp to catch their trains and that running up steps might have made them look ridiculous. Unhappy with the location of the station’s refreshment room, Lean had a different one built in another part of the station for exterior shots. For interiors, he shot in a film studio in Denham, although the set was closely modeled on the real room. Although there was no mention of it in the script, Lean was so intrigued with the station’s clock that he made frequent use of it in the film. This actually required making a dummy face for it so that the times would be appropriate and could be read more easily in long shots.
Leading lady Celia Johnson was not looking forward to the four week location shoot at the railway station, but her opinion changed when they got there and the cast and crew developed a spirit of camaraderie. Between scenes she usually played poker with the crew or worked a crossword puzzle. She also was impressed with the hospitality shown by the station master, who let them warm up in his office during the cold winter nights. The production drew extras from the area around Carnforth. Those involved were particularly pleased to enjoy the dinner provided each night, which included sweets and other items restricted by wartime rationing. When Lean tried to get shots of express trains speeding through the station, he ran into a problem. The engineers, not used to the camera lights being used during the location shoot, had slowed down to a crawl as they approached, fearing there was some problem. He had to get a railway traffic officer to send word to other stations assuring the drivers there was nothing wrong, and they could maintain speed. Other location shooting took place in Beaconsfield, a small town near Denham. The boat ride sequence was shot in Regent’s Park in London. (tcm.com)
About Director of Photography Robert Krasker
Krasker was born at Alexandria, Egypt, youngest of five children of Leon Krasker, a merchant from Romania, and his Austrian-born wife Matilde, née Rubel. Robert arrived in Perth with his family on 15 November and his birth was registered in Western Australia. In 1930 he sailed for Europe to study art in Paris and optics and photography at Dresden, Germany. He worked with the cinematographer Philip Tannura at Paramount’s Joinville studios in France before moving permanently to London in 1932. Joining (Sir) Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions as a camera operator, he assisted the studio’s chief cameraman Georges Périnal, whose influence on Krasker’s subsequent development was crucial. He absorbed lessons in lighting, composition and camera placement, putting them to use in his best work in the 1940s and beyond. Sometimes credited as Bob Krasker, he worked on such major productions as “Rembrandt” (1936) directed by Alexander Korda, “Things to Come” (1936) directed by William Cameron Menzies and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan all photographed by Georges Périnal BSC the last of which won Périnal an Oscar. Krasker contracted malaria in the Sudan while a camera operator on “The Four Feathers” (1939) directed by Zoltan Korda and again photographed by Georges Périnal BSC and subsequently became diabetic. Promoted to associate-photographer, he worked on “One of Our Aircraft is Missing” (1942) directed by Powell and Pressburger and photographed with Ronald Neame BSC. His first solo credit was for the wartime propaganda piece “The Gentle Sex” (1943), co-directed by Leslie Howard and Maurice Elvey. That work prompted Laurence Olivier to hire him to film, in Technicolor, “Henry V” (1944). By this time considered to be among the front rank of cinematographers, he shot the iconic and celebrated “Brief Encounter” (1945) based on a stage sketch and scripted by Noël Coward and directed by David Lean. This film was as sensitive and small scale in black-and-white as “Henry V” had been epic and celebratory in colour: Krasker was equally accomplished in both genres. The association with Lean ended mortifyingly when the director fired him from “Great Expectations” (1946), claiming that his work was `too polite’ and that he wanted something `harder’.
With “Odd Man Out” (1947), the first of four films made with Carol Reed, Krasker began probably the most artistically rewarding partnership of his career. It reached its apogee with “The Third Man” (1949), scripted by Graham Greene, in which Krasker’s atmospheric use of unusual perspectives, wide-angle lenses and a tilted camera helped to win him in 1950 the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ award for black-andwhite cinematography. His style, eschewing glamour in favour of realism and employing high-contrast images and unconventional compositions, remains undated. It is particularly evident in the series of epic spectacle-films with which the final phase of his career is mostly identified. Robert Rossen’s magisterial “Alexander the Great” (1956), and a succession of large-scale films for the director Anthony Mann such as “El Cid” (1961) and “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), demonstrated Krasker’s art at its most confident and mature. He also photographed “Senso” (1954) for director Luchino Visconti. Unhappy with cinematic trends of the late 1960s and struggling with health problems, Krasker virtually retired after shooting “The Trap” (1966) directed by Sidney Hayers. He had worked with some of the great directors of his time, including John Ford, Joseph Losey, William Wyler, Anthony Asquith, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Luchino Visconti and (Sir) Peter Ustinov. His career was briefly resurrected in the late 1970’s when commercials director, Hugh Hudson, was looking for an experienced black and white cameraman to shoot a beer commercial to look like photographs from Picture Post a wartime magazine. Colleagues remember an unassuming, modest man, gregarious despite superficial shyness, and easy to work with. If unsure of a technicality, he was never too proud to consult his junior assistants. He attached so little importance to worldly fame that his Oscar statuette served as a doorstop in his Ealing house. A gifted linguist, he was fluent in French and had a good working knowledge of Spanish and Italian. He died of complications of diabetes on 16 August 1981 in London. (bscine.com)
About Playwright Noël Coward
Noël Peirce Coward was born in 1899 and made his professional stage debut as Prince Mussel in The Goldfish at the age of 12, leading to many child actor appearances over the next few years. His breakthrough in playwriting was the controversial The Vortex (1924) which featured themes of drugs and adultery and made his name as both actor and playwright in the West End and on Broadway. During the frenzied 1920s and the more sedate 1930s, Coward wrote a string of successful plays, musicals and intimate revues including Fallen Angels (1925), Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1926), This Year of Grace (1928), and Bitter Sweet (1929). His professional partnership with childhood friend Gertrude Lawrence, started with Private Lives (1931), and continued with Tonight at 8.30 (1936). During World War II, he remained a successful playwright, screenwriter and director, as well as entertaining the troops and even acting as an unofficial spy for the Foreign Office. His plays during these years included Blithe Spirit which ran for 1997 performances, outlasting the War (a West End record until The Mousetrap overtook it), This Happy Breed and Present Laughter (both 1943). His two wartime screenplays, In Which We Serve, which he co-directed with the young David Lean, and Brief Encounter quickly became classics of British cinema.
However, the post-war years were more difficult. Austerity Britain – the London critics determined – was out of tune with the brittle Coward wit. In response, Coward re-invented himself as a cabaret and TV star, particularly in America, and in 1955 he played a sell-out season in Las Vegas featuring many of his most famous songs, including Mad About the Boy, I’ll See You Again and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. In the mid-1950s he settled in Jamaica and Switzerland, and enjoyed a renaissance in the early 1960s becoming the first living playwright to be performed by the National Theatre, when he directed Hay Fever there. Late in his career he was lauded for his roles in a number of films including Our Man In Havana (1959) and his role as the iconic Mr. Bridger alongside Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1968). Writer, actor, director, film producer, painter, songwriter, cabaret artist as well as an author of a novel, verse, essays and autobiographies, he was called by close friends ‘The Master’. His final West End appearance was Song at Twilight in 1966, which he wrote and starred in. He was knighted in 1970 and died peacefully in 1973 in his beloved Jamaica. (noelcoward.com)
About Director David Lean
David Lean was born on March 25, 1908 in Croydon, Surrey, England. Lean was the son of strict Quaker parents and did not see his first film until age 17. He began his film career in 1928 as a teaboy for Gaumont-British studios, where he soon was promoted to clapboard boy, and finally to editor, a position at which he excelled. By the end of the 1930s Lean was the most highly-paid film editor working in British cinema and widely regarded as the best. Until the end of his career, Lean considered editing the most interesting step in the filmmaking process and always contracted with studios to cut his own films. Lean’s collaboration with playwright Noël Coward began in 1942 when they codirected the drama “In Which We Serve.” The success of this film allowed for the funding and formation of Cineguild, a production company helmed by Lean and co-founded by Coward, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, and director-cinematographer Ronald Neame. The company’s initial productions—three adaptations of Coward’s stage plays—were Lean’s first solo efforts as a director. The first of these, the domestic drama “This Happy Breed” (1944), is today seen as hopelessly dated because of Coward’s patronizing treatment of the lower middle-class. The second was Coward’s classic supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit” (1945), regarded as a good effort but little more than a stage play on celluloid. The last of the Coward vehicles, the romantic melodrama “Brief Encounter” (1945; based on Coward’s play “Still Life”), was a masterpiece and the first of many Lean films to employ the theme of private obsessions versus outward appearances. Two Charles Dickens classics served as source material for Lean’s next efforts. “Great Expectations” (1946), which garnered Academy Award nominations for best director, picture, and screenplay, is still considered by many to be the finest screen adaptation of a Dickens novel. “Oliver Twist” (1948) is also highly regarded and features a memorable performance by Alec Guinness as Fagin. In 1950 Cineguild disbanded, and Lean began working for British producer Alexander Korda at Shepperton Studios.
Lean’s films of the late 1940s and early ’50s are regarded as good but unremarkable, highlighted by the standout performances of Charles Laughton in “Hobson’s Choice” (1954) and Katharine Hepburn in “Summertime” (1955). He returned to prominence with the prisoner-of-war drama “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), a film noted for its psychological battles of will and taut action sequences. It won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and Lean’s first as best director, and has been named to the Library of Congress National Film Registry, a national honour given to films deemed culturally, historically, and artistically significant. Because the movie was funded by a major American studio (Columbia), Lean for the first time in his career had the luxury of an extended shooting schedule, a large crew, technical amenities, and a prestigious cast. Its success insured that, for the remainder of his career, Lean would devote himself exclusively to big-budget epics. The story of T.E. Lawrence, a controversial British officer who led an Arab revolt against the German invasion during World War I, became the basis for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), often considered Lean’s finest film. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and made international stars of actors Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Filming was arduous, conditions were hot and time-consuming, and production took 20 months to complete. The film is visually spectacular with grand expanses of textured, windblown sand, hundreds of charging camels shot by traveling dolly, and extreme close-ups of O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes. “Lawrence of Arabia” has been rereleased theatrically three times and was elected to the National Film Registry in 1991. “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), a love story set against a backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and the romantic “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970) followed, both exhibiting the grand scale, lush cinematography, and breathtaking landscapes that had become the hallmark of Lean’s work…Ryan’s Daughter was financially successful, but critics panned it…Lean was humiliated by the negative press and did not direct another film for 14 years. His last film, “A Passage to India” (1984), based on the E.M. Forster novel, was regarded as his best work since “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lean was knighted by Queen Elizabeth that year, and in 1990 he was awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time of his death, he was preparing a screen version of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Nostromo.” (britannica.com)