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DVD Review: David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set from The Criterion Collection

Joshua Brunsting

by:
March 29th, 2012

Hitchcock and Herrmann.  Spielberg and John Williams. Scorsese and Schoonmaker. Kubrick and a novel.  Film history's brilliant pairs abound and now one of its unsung dynamic duos are finally getting their day in the sun, thanks to the geniuses over at The Criterion Collection.

On Tuesday the Collection released a new box set, David Lean Directs Noel Coward, a collection of four films that chronicle the iconic collaboration between director David Lean and playwright/actor Noel Coward.  This dense quartet (war drama IN WHICH WE SERVE, familial piece THIS HAPPY BREED, comedy BLITHE SPIRIT and the romantic masterpiece BRIEF ENCOUNTER) are four of the best films seen on DVD and Blu-ray in a while.

This new box set effectively highlights a few things that stick out about each respective work, all of which pertain to the great pairing of Lean and Coward.  In the 1940s the two were at the height of their craft; according to many scholars Coward was the greatest and most important playwright of his generation, while Lean was a sought after film editor. Both were influenced by the social climate of the era, their artistic commentary a blend of Coward's wit and the stunning visual eye of Lean.

First came IN WHICH WE SERVE, co-directed by Coward and Lean. This film is about a group of sailors (Coward, Bernard Miles and John Mills) who are caught in the middle of a fight with the Germans in the Mediterranean. At the time, Lean was better known as an editor, making this an especially intriguing picture; brilliantly written and performed yet assured in its stylish direction. Mills would later star in THIS HAPPY BREED, becoming (as discussed on the supplements) the face of the war in his native country.

Not one to be shy with his camera, the dialogue sequences are vibrant here, definitely giving off the aesthetic vibe that suggests Coward being responsible for these sequences.  Toss in gloriously shot set-pieces and stylized editing, and you see that the pairing of Lean and Coward was both fruitful, and an even-handed mixture of the two’s respective styles. Nominated for Best Picture, this is one of many nominees within the ranks of Criterion, but the blend of pure propaganda and devastating emotional depth makes this one stand out above a lot of its fellow 1942 releases.

Two years later, Lean would find himself at the helm alone for the pair’s next project, THIS HAPPY BREED. Starring a great cast including Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Amy Veness, John Mills, Stanley Holloway and Allison Leggatt, the film not only lowers the scale of its predecessor, but adds some Technicolor filmmaking.  The film follows a family in the London suburbs over the span of two decades, including the end of the First World War.  Now, while the film may in fact lower the scale, it does keep the pair’s blend of social commentary and intimacy right at its core, making this an emotionally resonant film that’s equal parts comedic as it is bombastically emotional.

Visually stunning, the Technicolor photography stands out here as the film’s biggest star, as it not only enhances the film’s color palette, but doesn’t distract in the way that many films of its ilk tend to falter from.  Featuring career best performances from everyone involved, THIS HAPPY BREED isn’t the best film Lean or Coward have ever been involved in, but very few of their works, collectively or alone, are as perfectly distilled, featuring all of their themes and stylistic points in such a pure fashion.  It’s a real wonder.

Then, just one year later, came two films from the dynamic duo shown here, the pairing of BLITHE SPIRIT and BRIEF ENCOUNTER.

First up, the new entry into the Criterion Collection, BLITHE SPIRIT.  Rumored for a few months prior to its release on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, the film stars Rex Harrison in a hilarious little turn as a writer looking to inspire his new book by hiring a medium to try and get in touch with spirits in a house. When his first wife appears as a ghost, things change entirely for all those involved, in what may very well be the funniest film that Lean has ever put to screen.

The film itself was inspired by Coward’s blockbusting theater piece, and is one of the most vivid uses of Technicolor that you’ll ever see.  The Oscar winning effects work here is beyond reproach, adding both a sense of ideal realism and also a palpable sense of humor to what is otherwise a very theater-esque piece of work.  One of the funniest deadpan style comedies ever made, the film is bluntly up front in its screenplay, and these performances truly bring that deadpan script to life, making this a must watch for fans of Coward, Lean, or just cinematic comedies in general.

Finally, and what can really be said that already hasn’t been, about BRIEF ENCOUNTER.  The greatest romantic drama of all time, the film follows the story of a doctor and housewife whose chance encounter becomes a short, but beautifully passionate, love affair doomed to end with broken hearts and crushed souls.  Told nearly entirely in flashback, the film stars Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, and has become the inspiration for a cavalcade of romantic features, none of which have been able to match the original in either its style (featuring gorgeous fog heavy, noir-esque cinematography) or pure emotional meaning. Encompassing the entirety of a romantic life within the span of a few choice meetings, BRIEF ENCOUNTER looks into the pure and visceral pleasure of meeting a person for the first time, all the way to the final blow, learning that you’ll never be able to spend time with this person you love so dearly ever again. Howard and Johnson are career-best here, in a film that may truly be the best film iconic director David Lean ever made.

Supplement wise, this thing is justifiably stacked. I can’t comment on the transfer of the Blu-ray for these films, but the DVDs all look and sound fantastic, so there shouldn’t be much worry there.  ENCOUNTER features a top notch commentary from historian Bruce Eder, and all films have interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day. There are interviews with Ronald Neame, and documentaries on the making of SERVE, ENCOUNTER and Lean himself, along with an audio recording with actor Richard Attenborough and Coward, and a British TV episode looking at the career of Coward. Finally, there is a gorgeous booklet, with essays on all the respective films.  Overall, this is a gorgeously put together box set, with four films proving that when one discusses great cinematic pairings, you better not forget Coward and Lean, or you will be doing that conversation no justice.

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