Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter – 1945

Director – David Lean

Starring – Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, and Cyril Raymond

***Disclaimer***

So, I initially saw this film about two years ago.  Why did I wait so long to review it, you might ask? I had just ended a bad relationship and while I was trying to throw myself into something creative (ie: this) I ran across this movie dealing with some relationship issues that I didn’t really feel like dealing with.  So, I took a break.  A rather long break, as it turns out, nearly two years.

In that two years, I have not been sitting idle.  I jumped into other pursuits.  Photography, drawing, and being a good father to my little guinea pig Oliver.  On top of all that, I connected with my best friend.  I must confess, not only is she my best friend, but she has been the girl of my dreams for years now, although she apparently had no idea of that little detail.  We started hanging out and fell madly in love with one another.  Low and behold, the stars aligned, I managed to trick her something fierce, and this Saturday we are going to get married.

Looking back on it in the light of day, Brief Encounter isn’t a very good film, certainly not one worthy of taking a break from writing for.  So it is time to clear the past efforts out to make way for the future.  Now since I didn’t feel like re-watching this film to get back up to speed on the details, you’ll get a brief synopsis of the plot, and a lot of my opinion of the story, with maybe only a little bit about the cinematography, or acting.

You have been warned!

***End Disclaimer***

Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey are in love.  Or rather they are in love with each other.  After meeting in a train station while waiting for their respective trains going in opposite directions, (keep in mind this is the mid 40’s people were less likely to ignore each other while on, or waiting for, public transportation.) they strike up a conversation, a friendship, and fairly quickly a love for one another after Alec helps Laura remove an errant piece of coal dust from her eye (again, it’s the 40’s, coal dust is a problem).

Sounds pretty straight forward right?  Well here comes the complication…each of them is already married to another person.  The two manage to bump into each other accidentally at first, then as time passes it becomes a regular, expected occurrence, all under the radar of their unsuspecting spouses. Alec is a doctor who works at a hospital in the same town that Laura comes to do her weekly errands, so after a while lunching together turns into, movies together.  Movies turn into dinner, and dinner turn into the possibility of…well, this is England during the 40’s, so presumably it turns into a long-lasting mutual respect for one another without the need for physical contact (Okay probably not.  Probably it will lead to sex).

Since their illicit meetings always end up at the train station,  where each waits to head home to their spouses, the danger of running into people from their ordinary lives is quite high, and requires some misdirection in order to keep their romance a secret.  To this end Alec and Laura go to great lengths.  White lies, and fabrication to keep the suspicion low, and to keep the story from reaching home.  At some point it becomes clear that they are going to have to make a decision, stop seeing each other and go about their lives, or continue seeing one another and damn the consequences.

The part that is so infuriating about each of the characters is that each is content to blunder merrily along in this rather doomed fling rather than being straightforward and honest with the people they are supposed to be closest to in their lives.  While I understand the need for conflict in any story, much less a love story, I have to say that I find it hard to care too much about two such unrealistic, unsympathetic people.

And that’s it.  You now have the whole plot.  This rather small-scale story centers solely on this doomed relationship.  It isn’t set against the back drop of some greater conflict, like a war, or an alien invasion.  No other stories are interwoven in with this one, all we have are two characters playing out the last notes of a doomed relationship.  Even on paper this story seems a little thin.

Celia Johnson plays Laura, this rather wish-washy, oaf of a woman, content to simply spend her day wandering the little town of Milford, shopping and going to the Matinee.  Is there no re-building to be done in England in the mid 40’s?  Nothing more constructive to be spending her time on?  If i’m not mistaken her home country was just ravaged by the blitz,  at least Alec is a doctor doing doctor things.  Her method of floating through life flies in the face of the reputation of dedication and bravery that was typical of the British during the oppressive times of World War 2, and is, frankly, just frustrating.

Ultimately, they agree to break off seeing each other.  They part ways, and immediately, Laura, runs home and tells her husband all about the affair she’s had…for some reason.  Even more hard to decipher, he gives her a hug and tells her everything will be alright, rather than putting all of her stuff out on the lawn.

So you might be asking yourself, “Well, didn’t you like Lost in Translation, which was essentially the same story told in an updated and foreign setting?”, to which I would reply, “Yes!”.  “That doesn’t make any sense,” you say, “what’s the difference?”, to which I reply “What are you? My mom?  Get off my back.”  When analyzing them both side by side, there doesn’t seem to be all that much different plot wise, but something about the isolation and wonder of being trapped in Tokyo made it seem…I don’t know, right.  It’s been a few years since I saw Lost in Translation for the first time, and while it doesn’t have the lustre of when I first saw it, it manages to do something that Brief Encounter couldn’t.  It manages to be better than the sum of it’s parts, and make you care for the people involved.  Just as my initial impression of Lost In Translation has faded, so too will my negative one of Brief Encounter.  That doesn’t mean it will get better, it just means I will have moved on and changed.

The Haunting (1963)

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The Haunting – 1963

Director – Robert Wise

Starring – Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn

The Robert Wise production of The Haunting suffers slightly from the fact that I saw the shitty 1999 remake first, and unfortunately it never really recovers.

Based on the short story by Shirley Jackson, the Haunting is a good example of the 1960’s horror film.  It is far enough away from the 50’s to avoid giant monsters, and a cliched premise, but it is still too far from the late 70’s and early 80’s when gore was in vogue.  By comparison, it manages a certain legitimacy that movies in either of the other two camps aren’t afforded.  The scares are based around tension rather than gross-outs or horrible creatures, which makes the film seem all that much more grown up. 

Julie Harris, stars as Eleanor, the troubled, put-upon woman who is perhaps a little sensitive to the paranormal.  She, and a few others, are the guest of Dr. Markway, a scientist interested in the spiritial disturbances that have taken place for decades at Hill House, a mess of corridors and rooms with a lonely and bitter past.  The presence of these newcomers (two of whom are sensitive to the otherworldly happenings), awakens the angry spirits in the house and causes them to run amok.

While the set up of each version of the film (the original and the remake) are the same up to this point, the remake diverges at this point and as the characters start dying.  So, having seen the latter version, I was waiting for the original version to start killing off our main characters.  I was waiting for the caretaker and his wife to turn up dead (like in The Others, another movie with a similar plot), once Markway’s wife showed up, I was waiting for her to die.  The point was, I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Despite the fact that I thought the newer version was dumber, with inferior acting, and pacing, I was a little let down by the lack of death, or at least the lack of percieved danger.  This version seemed tame.  Not that tame is bad, but this seemed like it was missing a scene or two, or maybe even a whole act.  The conflict of our main character (her guilt about how her own mother died) is never fully realized, and ultimately doesn’t seem a good enough reason for her to be so introspective, and awkward.  Without the realization of threat of the spirits manipulation of Eleanor’s neediness, and fear, the motivation for what happens is not fully believable, and ultimately rings false.

Despite my disappointment, The Haunting has a number of very effective scenes, the most notable of which is the scene in which Eleanor wakes up to the sound of the ghost stomping around outside her room.  She grabs hold of the hand of who she believes is her roommate (the at times aggrivating, at times compassionate Theo played by Claire Bloom), only to find out after the moment has passed that she was much to far away for it to have been her.  Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks) has a few funny lines and is generally the best character whenever he’s on screen.

One other thing that was a bit of a disappointment to me, was the inside of the house.  It is supposed to be this awesome, fearful place, that is completely it’s own character.  It wasn’t that so much.  All I saw of it was a jumbled grouping of dark walls that didn’t convey a mood or tone.  Also I didn’t really have a sense of where in the house the characters were.  There seemed to be no main room, no kitchen, no logical layout, it was all bedrooms, and stairs.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

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Angels With Dirty Faces – 1938

Director – Michael Curtiz

Starring – James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan

You can officially mark this down as the definitive moment where I witnessed my first James Cagney movie.  Unfortunately you can also mark this down as the start of my apathy towards the much lauded actor.  His performance as a tough as nails, streetwise hoodlum, with a soft spot for anyone willing to lavish him with attention didn’t do much to impress me.  His, and Pat O’Brien’s performances as the old friends who went down very different paths, were nothing more than caricatures of cartoon renditions of the saintly priest and the hair-triggered gangster.

This movie’s patchwork of stereotypes and cliches stretches the  audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point.  We are to believe that the cause for their very different outcomes is because, as kids one of them (Cagney) was too slow running from the cops, got caught, and was sent to juvenile hall.  This started him on the road to a life of crime, debauchery, and inevitable inprisonment.  O’Brien, on the other hand, feels guilty for his friend getting caught and apparently turns into a one note, billboard for piety.  He and Cagney meet again, years down the line and resume their unquestioned friendship where it left off, cracking jokes and talking about old times.

The obvious moral tone of the film is, at times, too much to take seriously.  Ham-fisted attempts at showing the folly of the youth that admires the gangster, and the weakness of the girl who falls in love with him, is never dealt with in a realistic way.  The stakes are always set in stone for Cagney’s character,  he is either going to prison, or to the grave, maybe both.  In terms of the stakes of the dramatic action, there is no question that this will happen, there is no other outcome.  His gangster character, and also for that matter the priest character, aren’t even written as people who make conscious choices, both are just a facts of life,  forces of nature.  There is no decision making done by either of these two.  The director, Curtiz, seems to be simply setting us up.  The movie is billed as a rolicking action movie, with gangsters and guns on the poster, but ends up being an overly preachy tale of the ills of gangsters, women and crime.  It almost chastises you for wanting to see Rocky (Cagney) win, through it’s heavy handed message.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable, and even enjoyable, but only if you manage to dis-regard the flagrant moral-ism on display.  On the plus side, the ever-watchable Humphrey Bogart plays Cagney’s shady, double-crossing, lawyer accomplice.  His nervous mannerisms, and general dislike for Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, seem to be the most enjoyable, but also the most authentic part of the whole film.

Check it out if you like early gangster flicks, but don’t bank on it being the best one you’ll ever see.  Movies that do it better… Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, The Big Sleep, the original Kiss of Death featuring the creepy Richard Widmark, and the recent Brick.  I recommend checking those out, if not instead, at least along side.