David Lean Directs Noel Coward = In Which We Serve; This Happy Breed; Blithe Spirit; Brief Encounter, Blu-ray (1942-45/2012)
Casts: Noel Coward, Bernard Miles, Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, John Mills, Stanley Holloway
Directors: Noel Coward, David Lean
Studio: ITV Studios/BFI National Archive/The Criterion Collection 603 (4 Blu-ray discs) [3/27/12]
Video: 1.37:1 for 16:9 1080p HD, B&W & color
Audio: English PCM mono
Extras: Brief Encounter audio commentary by Bruce Eder, Barry Day interviews Noel Coward on all four films, Ronald Neame 2010 interview, Documentaries on In Which We Serve & Brief Encounter (2000), “David Lean: A Self Portrait” (1971), The Southbank Show TV excerpt on life of Coward, Audio conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward (1969), Theatrical trailers for all four films, Illustrated booklet with essays by five authors
In Which We Serve – 1942, B&W, 114 min.
This Happy Breed – 1944, color, 111 min.
Blithe Spirit – 1945, color, 96 min.
Brief Encounter – 1945, B&W, 86 min.
Total Length: 407 min.
One of the film world’s finest collaborations of writer and director began in the early 1940s with David Lean and Noel Coward working together on the acclaimed wartime Navy drama In Which We Serve. They went on to create three more entertaining films of great variety which are contained in this set, ornamented by the very complete bonus features always provided by The Criterion Collection, as well as perfect Blu-ray transfers of both the B&W and color films.
In Which We Serve was to be Coward’s only film-directing credit, but he shared the work with young film editor David Lean. It was an unusual wartime effort in that it concerned the crew of a British destroyer which early in the film is sunk by the Germans off Crete. Flashbacks concerning the survivors clinging to a life raft make up most of the rest of the film. The wiggly image trick (which some of us may wish movies still had today to denote flashbacks) is very prominent in the film; in fact it goes on much too long in my estimation. But it does fit well since it looks watery and the sailors are after all in the water. It is a sensitive piece of propaganda from the period which still stands up fairly well. And unlike American films of the period, it seems influenced by Coward’s song of the time, “Let’s Not Be Beastly to the Germans.”
This Happy Breed is a chronicle of a working-class family in London over the course of 20 years. The household is touched by both joy and tragedy, including the end of WWI and the beginnings of WWII. It’s a very British family melodrama, shot in lovely Technicolor.
The witty Coward comedy Blithe Spirit began as a very successful stage play with Coward in the role of the dapper upper-class novelist besieged by his two wives—living and dead. For the film a young Rex Harrison stepped into the role, but sometimes he is eclipsed when Margaret Rutherford does her wild medium, Madame Arcati. There are surprisingly few special effects; the “spirits” merely have greenish makeup all over. The film improved on the play in its ending: instead of having the man departing the country and leaving his two wives spirits to battle it out at his house (a typical Coward conclusion), it has him dying in his sabotaged car (off-screen) and then joining the two female spirits.
Brief Encounter has become probably Coward’s most famous film. With its soundtrack music of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto (insisted on by Coward), the story concerns a chance meeting on a train platform as a suburban housewife has a soot in her eye and is aided by a married doctor. They enter into a chaste but passionate and finally doomed love affair. Celia Johnson has been hailed ever since for her superb handling of the role of the housewife. The particular train station used was chosen because it was just outside of the area of London which was subject to blackouts during the war, and thus filming could go on normally. You probably can’t get as complete and thorough a sampling of the British film industry during the Second World Aar years as with this superb set.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.