Published July 9, 2008
This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The second film in the series was Brief Encounter (1945) by David Lean, shown on July 8th. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:
Once again, it may be helpful to begin focusing on this week’s movie by looking back for a moment to last week’s, which was The Philadelphia Story. Once again, too, my apologies to those who were not here then, but I want to focus on a couple of lines from that movie that are easily understood even apart from their context and that have a peculiar power to lodge in the memory. One of them is what Liz Imbrie, played by Ruth Hussey, says near the end when Katherine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord is apologizing to her for a late-night drunken dalliance with her, Liz’s, boyfriend. As always, Liz is remarkably tolerant and forbearing and has considerable regard for human frailty — which just happens to be the lesson Tracy herself has had painfully to learn. “That’s all right,” Liz tells her prettier, richer, more dazzling rival. “We all go haywire from time to time and, if we don’t, maybe we should.”
This comes particularly oddly from Liz as she’s the only character in the film who doesn’t go haywire — unless you count Joe Smith, the ex-husband whose generic name may make us wonder if he’s real or just a story she has made up to disguise her own perfection. Liz is in many ways the most admirable character of all in that movie, the model of womanhood that it sets up for us by telling the story of the education of Tracy Lord. She is what Tracy aspires to be, having the “understanding heart” that Tracy’s father tells her she, Tracy, lacks. “I can’t afford to hate anybody,” Liz says near the beginning in Sidney Kidd’s office. It’s a self-deprecating yet slightly acerbic remark, like much of what she says, but it’s also true. Her spirit of tolerance and her devotion to Jimmy Stewart’s rather muddled Mike, in spite of his poor treatment of her, must have been intended as a complement to the movie’s main theme./ To those who took a somewhat feminist view of the movie last week it may also be regarded as a confirmation of its misogyny.
Well, we’re all entitled to our own view of these virtues, feminine or masculine, but we should also approach the movie’s view of them with enough charity and humility to try to see what it was trying to accomplish. Liz is a cheerful sufferer, a stoic, someone who never doubts that she has to suck up the bad things that happen to her in this life in order to do what it demands of her, and this is also the virtue celebrated in tonight’s film, Brief Encounter, David Lean’s postwar paean to the legendary British “stiff upper lip.” Up until now, all our romances have been comedies. This adaptation of a one-act play, “Still Life,” by Noel Coward, is something different — not a soap opera but a melodrama, as the lush score of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in the background constantly reminds us. But its romance is cut short and unconsummated on account of the married lovers’ sense of duty to their respective spouses. If there is also a kind of romance of self-denial, which is just hinted at in The Philadelphia Story in the character of Liz, it comes out in full-blown form in Brief Encounter.
I can’t stress enough the place of this movie in the British imagination. I don’t think I ever met anyone in Britain of any age who hadn’t seen it and who didn’t have strong views about it, either pro or con. Mostly pro. Just this spring, it was turned back into a play — or part-play, part movie — by Emma Rice and mounted in the West End of London to mainly enthusiastic reviews. I didn’t see this version but, by all accounts, it attempted to make the story into something of a slapstick sex comedy, featuring the other characters in the railway station café where most of the events of the film and all of those in Coward’s play take place, and thus to send up in some ways the main characters while still remaining respectful to their act of self-denial. Ben Brantley, who just got around to reviewing it for The New York Times last week, wrote that
it all seems too precious at first. But with the excellent Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock playing it straight in the leading roles, the show acquires a haunted poignancy that can’t be laughed off. You realize that in exploring a genre of movie that caters to disappointed lives by mythologizing them as nobly self- sacrificing, Ms. Rice has pulled off the difficult trick of deconstructing something without destroying its heart.
Do you detect a note of condescension in that word “mythologizing”? I do. But I also think it captures well the ambivalence with which today’s audiences must see a movie like this. I would compare it to our feelings about war movies which deal with the noble self-sacrifices of soldiers in battle, particularly when the battles take place in wars, like World War I or Vietnam, that the popular consensus now regards as having been futile or mistaken. We admire these people at the same time that we think they’re at least a little bit crazy, a little bit deluded and out of touch with reality, so foreign to us is their iconic, even monumental sense of duty.
The imaginative power of Brief Encounter in its native country must have something to do with the date. Though “Still Life” was written before the war and the movie sets the action in 1938, it was released in 1945. Its sensibility is unmistakably that of the immediate postwar period with its grim austerity and rationing, which continued in Britain until the 1950s, and the fresh memories in everybody’s minds of the appalling sacrifices of the war years. Much of the country and its industry had been destroyed by German bombs, and the reminders of death and destruction were everywhere, even for those — not many — who had not lost loved ones in the war. Britons of the period knew a lot about self-sacrifice and self-denial in the real world, even if they were rather inclined to “mythologizing” it in movies like Brief Encounter.
The dark chiaroscuro that David Lean gives to the look of the film implies all this. It is also reminiscent of the contemporaneous American films noir, and it has a similar world view. To me the perfect film noir is one, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity or A Place in the Sun, which is about a little guy who dreams big, albeit criminally, who risks everything to claim his little piece of the good life — or what nowadays the media would call “the American Dream” — but who fails, stymied by fate in the form of some trivial oversight in what might otherwise have been the perfect crime. Love and money come together in these films, but they are always just out of reach for the poor saps who aspire to them. In keeping with the dictates of the Hays Code, the criminals don’t prosper, but audiences of the period were often induced to wish that they had, so closely did the generation that had been through economic depression and war identify themselves with these thwarted strivers.
In the noir films, this frustration could be given a political cast, and the fate which defeats their heroes could be seen as a Marxist-inspired left-wing fantasy of a tyrannical God or the oppressiveness of the law and, as a later generation was to call it, “the System.” The little guys that know their place
, and who also know that the cruel powers-that-be would never allow them to rise in the world, can nevertheless soar in imagination with those who defy those powers, even though they must pay a terrible price for their defiance. I think it is partly because of the imaginative impact of this moral model and this style of film-making — which is a distinctively American version of romanticism — that the movies and the movie industry in America have remained so determinedly left-wing to this day.
This was not the case in Britain at the time, but you do get a lot of the same sense of a malign and oppressive fate from Brief Encounter. There, however, what thwarts the lovers is not really a result of the cruelty of any power external to themselves but their own sense of duty to their own marriages and spouses and children and thus, perhaps, to the bourgeois institution of marriage itself. The fatality of it lies in their having fallen in love in the first place after a chance meeting in the café. Therefore, their attitude towards the powers that be, which have brought them together as well as torn them apart, can never be merely defiant, as in the noir films, but one of bittersweet acceptance. They can take consolation for their loss in the memory of being together:
This can”t last. This misery can”t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There”ll come a time in the future when I shan”t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don”t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.
That’s Celia Johnson’s Laura Jesson, trying to get her mind around the undeniability of a passion that she never for a moment doubts is wrong and impossible of fulfilment — maybe even “silly.” When Trevor Howard’s Alec says to her in what, even then, must have been a cliché of cheap fiction, “We love each other, and that’s all that matters,” she replies, quietly: “No, that’s not all that matters. Other things matter too.”
In a way, however, and in even more marked contrast with the noir pictures, they see the cruel trick that fate has played on them lies in having made them English and middle class and therefore incapable of the immoral or amoral will to power in the first place. Part of the purpose served by the parallel flirtation of Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey) in the station café and the smutty talk of the two soldiers, is to relegate the “sordidness” that they think characterizes their tryst at the flat of Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall) to the province of the working classes. Such low passions are excluded by the imprisoning fate of being middle class and therefore having good taste and good manners. Alec is said to behave “beautifully” and with “perfect politeness” when the awful Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg) interrupts their last moments together. What else would you expect?
For fate, by making them English and middle class, has decreed that they must live in this prison of good manners, just as they must live with the awful English weather that occupies so much of their conversation. “I think we should be so much different if we lived in a warm climate,” says Laura: “not so withdrawn and shy and difficult” In other words, things might be different if they could find a way to revert to the dancing naked savages in the joke movie preview they watch for Flames of Passion. That parody of British films of the period, in which the sensual restraint made visible in the clothes and the stiffness of bearing of the imperial representatives of European civilization is meant to proclaim their superiority to naked and therefore presumably licentious subject peoples, is a mockery of the very idea of passion. But it also reminds us of the dangers that passion represents to them, even though these are somewhat marginalized through caricature, and by being attributed to people far away in Africa.
That, by the way, is precisely where Alec is driven by his hopeless passion for Laura, though doubtless as a representative of that civilization which is the antidote to the jungle excesses of passion. For him and for Laura, perhaps, as for the self-appointed bringers of civilization to the Africans — as also, by the way, for the white settlers among the Comanches in Texas in The Searchers, which we showed last summer — sexual restraint and the institution of marriage which it sustains is a central symbol of the all-important difference between civilization and savagery.
I mentioned in the discussion of our first movie, It Happened One Night, what I called “the romance of restraint.” Well, here it is, and with a vengeance. In the earlier film, restraint was only temporary and a relatively small price to pay for ultimate fulfilment. The Walls of Jericho eventually come down, though the miraculousness of that event is also a part of the miraculousness of romance itself. Who’d ever have thought that such a thing was possible? In Brief Encounter, it’s not possible. We’re back in the real world where miracles don’t happen. Except that for Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson to refrain from consummating their passion for each other because of the obligation each owes to another and to — I think it not too much to say — the community founded on the institutions of marriage and family is itself a kind of miracle.
This is perhaps the last moment in our culture’s history when a situation like Alec’s and Laura’s could be presented without divorce’s even being mentioned as an option. And that brings up the other quotation from The Philadelphia Story that I wanted to call your attention to, which was Cary Grant’s other reproach to Tracy Lord at the swimming pool in response to her disgust at his drinking, which is apparently what caused the marriage to break up. “You took that on when you took me on,” he tells her. It’s come to something when married people have to be reminded what they have “taken on” by being married — that marriage comes with obligations, and sometimes onerous ones, as well as delights. Because that movie was a comedy, the onerousness is magically taken away. Dexter gives up his drinking and becomes a perfectly delightful companion for any girl. But it still suggests, as Brief Encounter does, that the trials and crosses that we endure in love are part of the romance of marriage, rather than what I call the soap opera of divorce.