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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Le Million (AKA: The Million) (1931)

Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931

Director – Rene Clair

Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre.  Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king.  Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again.  Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether.  But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.

The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors.  Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops.  From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.

The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers.  At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed.  Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!

Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props.  The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set.  The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed.   Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance.  Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.

Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today.  A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section.  Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.

The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book.  That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway.  Definitely worth my, and your, time!

The Long Goodbye (1973)

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The Long Goodbye – 1973

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, and Mark Rydell

So, I’m familiar with Philip Marlowe, or should I say Humphrey Bogart’s version of Philip Marlowe.  Needless to say, I thought he was great, a real tough guy without being over the top, or just angry.  He was smart, knew how to handle himself and new his way around the thug-ish underworld of double crosses and shady dealings.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Robert Altman realization starring Elliott Gould, and set in the early 1970s.

What I ended up getting was not what I went in hoping for, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Some things that Elliot Gould brought to the character were more natural and less stylistic.  For instance, Elliott as Marlowe found himself mad, but unlike Bogart, he lacked the skill to use it to his advantage.  There were no crooks he could slap around, or sharp dialogue he could hurl at his adversary, he was simply left to feel frustrated and angry.  Where Bogart was all about that steely calm that seemed to keep him in charge, there were numerous times that Gould seemed motivated by his frustration, rather than by what was the smartest course of action.  This, of course, isn’t meant to say that he didn’t fully understand his predicament, or deal with it with his own best interests in mind.  This lent to his credibility as a real, functioning, breathing personality.

This more believable behavior DID allow him to more comfortably slip into the “real world”.  Figures from classic Hollywood movies always seemed to be separate from this reality.  They exist in neat packaged little worlds that serve to house the film’s story and characters, and nothing else.  Four walls a roof and a floor, nothing else.  Nothing that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the plot.  Films from the seventies, however, seem to inhabit a much larger world.  A world that is populated by multitudes of people, all living out their own “real” lives even if our story doesn’t overlap them.  These films seem to be conscious of the world around them.  Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, exists in this world.

Aside from being in color, with set pieces that are less stagy, the main difference is that this Marlowe isn’t able to confidently predict or avoid danger.  He has to stumble through, be aggravated, and endangered by it just like any of us would.  He doesn’t have all the answers, and he doesn’t pretend to.  In fact, unless it was mentioned numerous times throughout the movie, there is no way you know know that he was a private eye.  This Marlowe seemed to have almost no intuition about the case from a detective’s point of view, he eventually stumbled onto the facts, but without the streetwise knowledge, it took him forever to put it all together.  The one and only shared element of both versions of this character, was the fact that he always knew when to speak and when to keep his mouth shut.  He’s as tight lipped and smart with the police as he is with the bloodthirsty gangster (played fantastically by Mark Rydell) who just wants his money.   The best moment of this movie came from Marlowe’s first encounter with Rydell’s gangster when, after calling his young lady-friend closer, he proceeds to show Marlowe what he’s capable of.  In terms of shock value and unexpectedness, this is worth the price of admission alone.

I’ve learned that I have a sort of growing fondness for Robert Altman movies (excluding his version of Popeye with Robin Williams and the role that Shelley Duvall was meant to play).  The Long Goodbye, like Short Cuts before it, and M*A*S*H before it (my viewings of, not their releases), didn’t attract me at first, but then grew on me as I thought about it afterwards.  There is something about his work, and I suspect the man as well, that has resonance.  It has more to say than just what is on it’s surface, and it is best enjoyed after the absorption of the material has taken place.  I’m lucky, in that I haven’t seen that much of his work, because now I can go back and check it out.  Unfortunately, along with everyone else, I am unlucky that he died and I won’t get to experience these same feelings of growth on something that someone else hasn’t already felt and talked about to no end.

“Worth It just to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in yellow boxer briefs.” – Ashley