The Passionate Friends + Brief Encounter


The David Lean retrospective is upon us. Tonight I caught a double-bill of The Passionate Friends (1949) and Brief Encounter (1945), and was struck by the differences and similarities between those two films.

The similarities, however significant or superficial, include: they both concern adulterous affairs, whether consummated or not; they both star Trevor Howard as one of the two lovers (he’s a doctor in one film and a biologist in the other, two professions that sort of overlap); they both feature voice-overs and brief sequences that articulate and visualize the female lover’s fantasies; they both feature scenes in which someone remarks that it’s socially unacceptable for a woman to smoke on the street; and they both include scenes where a heartbroken woman considers throwing herself in front of a train.

The differences are more interesting, I think. The female protagonist in Brief Encounter is married with children and comes from a small-town middle-class background, while the female protagonist in The Passionate Friends is married to a banker and lives in a rather large house, with no children whatsoever. The husband in Brief Encounter is kept in the dark about his wife’s affair, while the husband in The Passionate Friends — played expertly by Claude Rains, who would reunite with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — not only figures things out, but ultimately lets his suspicions get the better of him. And — most significantly, I think — the affair in Brief Encounter happens quite surprisingly and spontaneously, whereas the affair in The Passionate Friends, while aided by chance encounters, ultimately grows out of an old, old relationship.

It is this last detail that gives me pause, more than any other, when I say that Brief Encounter is probably the better, more “entertaining” film of the two, yet I find myself thinking that The Passionate Friends is more plausible and in some ways more interesting.

I suppose it is possible — just possible — that a reasonably happily married mother of two could meet a total stranger once every week and fall so madly in love with him after just three weeks that she would almost commit suicide when their meetings come to an end, as happens in Brief Encounter. But I find it hard to identify with such a person. The early moments between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are funny and enticing, and they set up, quite convincingly, a situation in which a series of “innocent” encounters could grow into something far more serious. And the final moments between them, when a chatty neighbour intrudes on their farewell, are also quite devastating, in their own sublimated way. But the story requires this love affair to begin, peak, and end in less than a month, and so, when Johnson says their situation is foolish and absurd, I am inclined not only to agree, but to think that maybe she and Howard ought to get their heads examined.

The Passionate Friends, on the other hand, stars Ann Todd (who became Lean’s third wife shortly after this movie came out) as a woman who was once deeply in love with Howard, but married Rains instead; and then, a few years later, she bumps into Howard again, and they see a bit of each other while Rains is out of town; and then, nine years after that, they happen to check in to neighbouring rooms in a hotel in Switzerland, only a day or two before Rains is due to leave his work and join Todd at the hotel. It spoils nothing to say all this because the film begins with the coincidental booking of rooms in Switzerland, then flashes back nine years, and then flashes back even further — so you know roughly how each phase in the relationship is going to end before you even see it begin. And while it makes for a somewhat complicated narrative structure, the relationship between Todd and Howard is actually more believable — and easier to identify with — because they have known each other for so long, but also because there is the sense, however justified it may or may not be, that Todd made a mistake when she married Rains instead of Howard.

And why did she choose Rains over Howard? Ah, that is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. It is suggested, twice and maybe even thrice, that she married Rains as a way of keeping her freedom — as a way of “belonging to herself” and not to Howard. Rains is wealthy too, of course, but he does not expect stormy passions, just loyalty and a certain amount of affection, and Todd is certainly capable of that. But one of the interesting things about their arrangement is that Rains, upon learning that Todd may be cheating on him, begins to feel and act possessive — which is another way of saying that he begins to feel and act possessed. Maybe Todd and Rains really do “belong to” each other after all. And while Todd may be allowed to steer the viewer’s sympathies with her voice-overs, it is Rains who gets our attention through the sheer persistence of his gaze, and the many times we see things from his point of view: the way he stares at the tickets on the desk, the way he peers through binoculars, the way he glares through the drapes.

If I had to watch one of these films again with a friend, right now, I would probably pick Brief Encounter, just because it is such a splendidly made bit of entertainment; the supporting characters provide some marvelous comic relief, and the film makes delightful use of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, among other things. But I wouldn’t mind watching The Passionate Friends again some day, so I can only hope it will come out on DVD here soon.

One last note on The Passionate Friends: There are some nice, atmospheric touches here which hark back to some of Lean’s earlier films and point ahead to his later, better-known epics. I think of the scene where Howard stands alone in an office, and a gust of wind comes in through the window and scatters some papers on a desk, which calls to mind the howling, or gentle, but always portentous winds of Oliver Twist (1948) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970); I think also of the magnificent mountaintops that we see when Todd and Howard go for a hike in Switzerland, which recall the epic scenery of Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India (1984). And there are some fascinating moments where Lean obscures his subjects behind fog or curtains — much as he would do with Peter O’Toole in, yes, Lawrence of Arabia.

One last bit of trivia: The Passionate Friends is based on a book by H.G. Wells. And there is not a shred of science fiction in it. I hadn’t realized he wrote any fiction outside that genre.

And one final, personal note: My best laugh of the evening came during Brief Encounter, when Johnson and her husband are discussing what to do the next day with their squabbling children, who have already gone to bed, and the husband casually says, “We’ll thrash them both soundly, lock them up in the attic, and go to the pictures by ourselves.” I think lines like that sound rather different to me now than they would have done when I first saw this film seven years ago — before I had a wife and children of my own. The line was always funny in concept, but now, as my friend Gavin would put it, I have a common frame of reference, which makes it even funnier. I can relate to it now.

Newsbites: The random-stuff-I-read-today edition!

Definitely no theme to this day’s collection of stories.

1. Paul Gross’s World War I epic Passchendaele is a fairly big hit in English Canada, as these things go, but a flop in Quebec, where audiences have preferred Le Déserteur, a movie about a Quebecois soldier who deserted the Canadian Army during World War II and was shot in the back by the RCMP. — Variety

2. Brett Ratner will direct the Conan the Barbarian reboot before he gets around to Beverly Hills Cop IV. — Hollywood Reporter

3. Chris Rock is developing a remake of Death at a Funeral (2007). Has a movie ever been remade in its own language so quickly before? Even the Hulk reboot took a few years to get off the ground. — Variety, Hollywood Reporter

4. Dygra Films recently held a sneak preview in Madrid of a teaser for the 3-D cartoon Holy Night!, described by Variety reporter John Hopewell as a “Christmas farce, set in a fantasy world, [that] features a sporty-looking Santa Claus, his reindeer, the three wise men, Herod, a swaddling-clothed Baby Jesus, blacksmiths, shepherdesses and Santa Claus security guards.” — Variety

5. Rumours are spreading that the French Noah’s Ark cartoon Rock the Boat may be delayed because of financial problems. This is seen as but one of several signs that the computer-animation industry has hit a “rough patch” in France. — Variety

6. Philip Glass was going to write an opera about the life of Walt Disney, but that project is on hold now, following the departure of Gerard Mortier from his post as general manager of the City Opera. Mortier says he will try to get this show, as well as a musical version of Brokeback Mountain, produced through other venues. — Variety

7. Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster will play astronauts adrift in space in a movie called Pandorum. Sounds good, until you realize the film is being co-produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, of Resident Evil (2002-2007) fame. — Hollywood Reporter

8. Nicole Kidman will produce and star in The Danish Girl as Einar Wegener, a man who went on to become the first publicly-known recipient of a sex-change operation in 1930. Charlize Theron will play his/her wife, Gerda Gottlieb. — Hollywood Reporter

9. Thousands of props and costumes from Battlestar Galactica will be auctioned off in January, including, among other things, a full-scale Colonial Viper. Yowzah. — Wired

From Billy Graham movies to nudie flicks.


Three years ago, I wrote an article on the history of World Wide Pictures, the movie studio founded by Billy Graham. In the course of researching that article, I watched a couple dozen Billy Graham movies — and I quickly grew tired of the overly mannered acting done by a woman named Georgia Lee, who starred in at least six of those films, from Oiltown, U.S.A. (1953) to The Restless Ones (1965).

All of those films were directed by someone named Dick Ross. And after The Restless Ones, Ross, Graham and Lee all apparently went their separate ways: the Billy Graham organization continued to produce movies, most of which were now directed by James F. Collier (the writer on The Restless Ones); Ross went on to produce or direct a handful of films without Graham’s backing, most notably The Cross and the Switchblade (1970); and Lee pretty much stopped acting in movies altogether, at least if the IMDb is to be believed.

She did, however, have bit parts in three movies that came out in the mid-1970s. And all of those movies featured her daughter Robbie Lee in a, shall we say, morally compromised role. Different websites disagree on the precise order in which these films were made, but here they are in the order that the IMDb says they were released:

Big Bad Mama (1974) is a Roger Corman film that stars Angie Dickinson as a woman who robs banks with her two daughters (one of whom is played by Robbie Lee) and her two lovers (played by Tom Skerritt and William Shatner). Nude scenes abound, as does some typical-for-the-era mocking of religion, and Robbie Lee gets pregnant by Skerritt, who sleeps with both of Dickinson’s daughters while Dickinson is distracted by Shatner. Georgia Lee, for her part, appears briefly as a high-society woman whose daughter is abducted by Dickinson’s gang; Georgia herself never does anything that would have seemed untoward in a Billy Graham film, but it is still kind of curious to see her chaperoning her daughter, as it were, by agreeing to appear with her in a film of this sort.

Then there is Linda Lovelace for President (1975), in which the star of the porn film Deep Throat (1972) runs for office. The film itself is not what I would call hardcore, as such, but it’s still pretty skanky, and I’d advise everyone to avoid it if they can. This time around, Georgia Lee has a bit part as a woman in an elevator who rattles off a bunch of numbers — flight numbers, departure times, and so forth — that distract the assassin standing behind her, who cannot remember which hotel room he is going to. (The photo above comes from this scene.) Again, Georgia doesn’t do anything that compromises herself in any way — except for the fact that she actually deigned to appear in this movie. Robbie Lee, meanwhile, appears briefly in an entirely different scene, as an incestuous hillbilly. (The photo below comes from this scene.)

Finally, the real-life mother and daughter appeared on-screen as a fictitious mother and daughter in Switchblade Sisters (1975), which happens to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films; he sponsored a theatrical re-release in 1996 and discusses the movie on its DVD. This time, Robbie Lee is basically the main character, the leader of a female gang whose position within the group — and whose relationship with the leader of the local male gang — are threatened by the arrival of a new girl in town. Once again, Robbie Lee’s character gets pregnant. And this time, Georgia Lee’s one scene — performed with all the patently fake, manipulative earnestness of her Billy Graham roles — consists of telling the landlord that she hopes he’ll “roast in hell.”

Compared to the first two films, Switchblade Sisters is pretty tame. And according to the IMDb, Robbie Lee went on to do some TV work before specializing in children’s cartoons, where she contributed her voice to shows like Rainbow Brite and The Get-Along Gang before apparently calling it quits in the late ’80s. So she may have left her exploitation-movie days behind her fairly quickly.

But still, it’s weird to see that an actress who specialized in evangelistic films for so long — I’m referring to Georgia now, not Robbie — would come out of retirement to appear in movies like these. If Georgia were simply another actress who, for whatever reason, happened to get a lot of gigs working for the Grahams, that would be one thing. But this website says her husband, Ralph Hoopes — he’s the one she’s talking to in the shot from Linda Lovelace at the top of this post — was “a noted preacher” and founder of a congregation called Valley Presbyterian Church, and that their daughter Robbie went to Los Angeles Baptist High School. This other website, by an Australian who apparently spoke to Georgia by phone for ten minutes, also testifies to her “Christian beliefs”, though it gets some of its information wrong by claiming that Robbie was her “son” rather than her daughter.

At any rate, it would appear that Georgia Lee stayed “on message” with the Grahams off-screen as well as on-screen, at least for a while. It’s kind of weird, then, to see her — and her preacher husband! — appearing with their daughter in films of this sort. Maybe it was a form of outreach to their daughter’s friends. Who knows. But I assume there is some sort of story behind all this, and I am curious to know more about it.

Madagascar Pyjamas — the reviews are up!

My review of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (or Pajamas, as it is called in North America) is now up at CT Movies, as is my review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Click here for my comments on the original Madagascar (2005).

Newsbites: Ben-Hur! Obama! Dollhouse! Graysons! Wanted! Santa!

Just some random bits and bites, this time.

1. Long before it became three precedent-setting movies — released in 1907, 1925 and 1959 — not to mention an upcoming three-hour mini-series, General Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur was dramatized for the stage. It premiered on Broadway in 1899 — with live horses for the chariot race, among other spectacular sights — and it toured the world before closing in 1921. Now the story is being adapted for the stage again, in a production that will feature “a cast of more than 400 people and 100 animals” — as well as “considerable nudity” during an orgy sequence. The show will premiere at The O2, the venue formerly known as the Millennium Dome, in London next September. — London Times, BBC, WENN

2. President-elect Barack Obama may be a Trekkie. He is certainly the first president young enough to have grown up watching re-runs of the original series on TV. — TrekMovie.com

3. Fox, having left one Joss Whedon series to die on Friday nights, i.e. Firefly, is now poised to do the same to another Joss Whedon series, i.e. Dollhouse. Fox is also moving Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — which features Firefly alumnus Summer Glau as a butt-kicking she-robot — to Friday nights as a lead-in to Dollhouse. — Hollywood Reporter

4. Remember The Graysons, that TV series about the young Dick Grayson and the life that he led before his parents were killed and he became Batman‘s sidekick as Robin the Boy Wonder? Ain’t gonna happen, now that Warner has pulled the plug. — Variety

5. Angelina Jolie has revealed that one of the more interesting plot twists in the film version of Wanted was her idea. — MTV Splash Page

6. One day after it was revealed that John Boorman would direct a computer-animated adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it was announced that a few other studios will produce a computer-animated adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which was also written by Baum. The story “follows Santa’s formative years, including a battle against the heart of evil that establishes the Santa mythology.” — Variety

Newsbites: The myth and fantasy edition!

A fair bit of news today, on these fronts.

1. Clash of the Greek-mythology movies! Henry Cavill, who plays Charles Brandon on The Tudors, is in talks to play Theseus in War of the Gods, while Sam Worthington, who co-stars in Terminator Salvation, is in talks to play Perseus in the remake of Clash of the Titans. — Variety, Hollywood Reporter

2. Jack Black will star in a “contemporary reimagining” of Gulliver’s Travels, in which the title character becomes a travel writer who is sent on assignment to the Bermuda Triangle. — Variety, Hollywood Reporter

3. Russell Brand — a British comedian who made a splash Stateside as a scene-stealing rock musician in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and who has since been plagued by a controversy or two — is reportedly in talks to play Johnny Depp’s brother in Pirates of the Caribbean 4. That’s inspired casting, if true. — Daily Mail

4. John Boorman will direct a computer-animated adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. — Variety

5. Producer Gale Ann Hurd comments on the rumour that her adaptation of Magdalena will water down the source material’s potentially offensive religious elements: “I don’t think you can separate ‘Magdalena’ completely from the legacy of her descent or the fear of destiny or many things that are connected with her as part of the comic book franchise. But at the same time, it’s not a religious movie in that respect.” She says the film will be like The Da Vinci Code (2006) and The Omen (1976-2006), where religion was mainly relegated to the background. (It was?) — MTV Splash Page

6. Screenwriter Chris Morgan says the sequel to Wanted will probably take the story in a “more global” direction. — MTV Splash Page