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.

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Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) (1932)

Vampyr (AKA: The Vampire, AKA: Not Against the Flesh) – 1932

Director – Carl Theodor Dreyer

Starring – Julian West, Maurice Schutz, and Rena Mandel

When I think of a good vampire story, I think of the grotesque, deformed creature typified by Max Schreck in Nosferatu.  I think of Bela Lugosi’s suave and seductive Count Dracula from the aptly named Dracula.  Hell, I even think of Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Winter as the perpetual, rebellious, angst-ridden teenagers in Lost Boys.  One thing I do not think of, despite it’s clever title, is Vampyr the nearly silent horror story from cinema pioneer Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Firstly, Vampyr is a vampire story in the loosest of terms.  There is an evil, in the form of a person, or people, terrorizing a small, eastern european village.  About halfway through the movie, mention is made of a young woman with a wound on her neck who is acting as if possessed.  It is there that the similarities end.

Now despite it not really being true to the vampire angle, the film does have its moments of creepy, skin crawling ingenuity.  Dreyer’s use of subtle editing tricks to make the shadows come alive pack quite a punch both visually, and in the scare department.  Ghostly shadow figures go about their business against walls, reflected in water, and along the ground, while our main character stares in disbelief.  These effects are used so often in fact that it is more accurate to call the film Shadowpyr than Vampyr.  It is unfortunate for the film, however, that this aspect of the story wasn’t explored further than just as creepy visuals.

Earlier I mentioned that this film was nearly silent, this is because when the film was produced it was still the early days of sound and not much was done other than the occasional section of dialogue or stray sound effect.  In a way, this lack of sound really helps the sections of the film dealing with the shadows.  It seems strange and off somewhat that we are unable to hear the shadow with a peg leg ascend the ladder, or the shadowy gravedigger digging a grave.  All the sections not utilizing the lack of sound in this way are left wanting.  The dialogue is rather garbled and mumbly and doesn’t seem to match up with the actor who is supposedly speaking the line.  This is partially because it is in a language I don’t understand, but it also helped along by the fact that there are title cards with the dialogue even though the film has sound.

By and large this was an interesting film.  Some of the visuals were very disturbing and effective, but this seems more like a footnote in cinema history rather than a benchmark.  Good, but not nearly as good as the director’s earlier work, and if you’re interested in that, start with La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.  If you want a good movie about vampires, try Let The Right One In, or one of the films I mentioned earlier.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend – 1945

Director – Billy Wilder

Starring – Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, and Phillip Terry

With the The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder has successfully created and commit to celluloid, a fully realized nightmare.  In particular, we are watching a man’s life disintegrate right before our very eyes.  Where in other films, we would get only hints and suggestions of the depths of this nightmare, Billy Wilder shows it all with a tone that is so matter of fact it is lots of times awkward to watch.

For the uninitiated, Milland stars as Don Birnum, a writer who’s going through a bit of a rough patch.  Don is an alcoholic, a fact that he’s been unsuccessfully trying to hide from his girlfriend Helen (played by Wyman).  The story is fractured into three segments told out-of-order, the first is when he meets Helen at the opera.  Consumed by the thought of getting a drink, he runs to the coat check to get his flask only to find that he has the wrong claim ticket.  After waiting for the show to let out, he meets Helen, who unintentionally claimed his coat.  The second segment is slightly further down the line when their relationship is in full swing, Don is waiting to meet Helen’s parents and suddenly gets cold feet.  He retreats into drink, destroying the brief period of sobriety that he had enjoyed throughout his relationship thus far.  And finally, the third section deals with his alcoholism while it’s in full swing.  Delusions, hallucinations, incarceration, and a cold hard look at what his life has become, provided me with some of the most squirm worthy moments in the movie.

Visually, The Lost Weekend starts off just like a typical movie from this era, straight forward camera positioning, a standard assortment of cuts and fades to get from scene to scene, but it slowly morphs into a much more fluid surreal monster.  The camera follows Don on his decline, giving us shots from a worms eye view, harsh shadows, tricks of light, and unnerving close-ups or our main character sweating and suffering.  The change is subtle, but effective, and the difference between these scenes and when the couple first meets is like night and day.  Wilder is never afraid to show the flaws of his characters actions, but in the Lost Weekend, we see it represented visually in how Don is constantly sweating, the dark circles under his eyes, and the stumble in his step.

In terms of acting, the real standout of the performances is delivered (no surprise) by Ray Milland.  And while the supporting performances are decent enough, they never amount to the impact of the Millands.  To be fair though, they were never written or intended to be center stage like the character of Don Birnum was.  The depths that Birnum visits make the possibility that he may never get better, and be continually relapsing a very real possibility, and causes us to doubt any sort of outcome that the film presents for us.  The acting and subject matter was so effective that both sides of the liquor industry (those in the industry afraid it would hurt sales as well as numerous temperance groups afraid it would glamorize drinking) attacked the movie, in an attempt to prevent it’s release.  Reluctantly the studio gave the film a limited release at Wilder’s insistence and immediately had critics falling all over themselves in praise of the film, Wilder and their lead actor Milland.  Ultimately, this movie that was to be the “career killer” for Ray Milland, turned out to bring him an Oscar win.

Billy Wilder’s unique vision paints America in both a loving, and disgusted light.  He sees this place, bourne of freedoms and rights, as a prison, purgatory, shelter,  and safe house.  It is both safe and dangerous, cancer and cure.  In many ways Wilder’s film is the same, it is both frightening and captivating, great and awful, and regardless of which side you come down on, it is completely worth seeing.