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David Lean Directs Noel Coward (1942-1945) (Blu-ray Review)

All the great directors have to start somewhere, right? Well, David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) and famous English playwright Noel Coward would team up for four films in three years. How’s that for plowing through? David Lean was an editor and he and Coward teamed up to create some film magic so to speak. The Criterion Collection has brought us a beautiful boxed set of these early Lean/Coward films for our enjoyment. They come fully restored and fully loaded in terms of extras. How will they stack up to scrutiny? This review will be a doosy, and for all intents and purposes, the overall grading system will be for the films themselves as whole as opposed to rating each individual film separately. The same for the technical specifications. It’s easier that way since I’m reviewing a complete set and not just one film. I hope this makes sense. Let’s get to it!  

Films 

In Which We Serve:

The first film in the David Lean Directs Noel Coward set is In Which We Serve, a film about a couple of Royal Navy chaps who stay tough through thick and thin in the midst of WWII in full blast. The boys are stuck in the Mediterranean Sea fending off German forces while taking casualties of their own. Captain E.V. Kinross (Noel Coward) is the proud Captain of the Naval destroyer Torrin,which is currently in battle against enemy forces. The Captain is cool, eloquent, and treats his staff with upmost respect and lets them all do their job to his great satisfaction. Considering they’re getting shot at from every possible angle, The Captain and his men stay cool throughout.

During a more intense attack on them and their vessel, the men are launched overboard and they stay afloat on what’s left of a Carley raft. While each man holds on for dear life we get a flashback for each of them on what life was like leading up to WWII and what they had to do to prepare for the incoming madness.

I’m not a big fan of films that wear their pride on their sleeve like In Which We Serve does. The only difference with this film and any other film with a similar theme is that In Which We Serve focuses on the England side of things. We get to see how the posh and not-so-posh live and go about their everyday life. We see that they’re the good guys and that no one else is, or that no other viewpoint, but the ever patriotic English forces is valid. This would be a big problem for me, because I don’t just take propaganda films at face value. Your viewpoint IS NOT the only viewpoint that is valid, I don’t care who you are.

What separates In Which We Serve from the standard propaganda fare is that it’s written and co-directed by Coward and Lean, who are masters of their craft. The archive war footage is stellar and the sets are huge along with the lush locations used for filming. It’s also good that the film is bookended the way it is. You get brief war scenes in the beginning, long exposition in the middle, and an amazing conclusion that’s pretty much a cluster fuck for all those involved.  The ending redeemed what came before it due to it not taking any prisoners. Up until the end it was all “Go England,” but that changed real quick once we got to the end.

If this is what I was in store for when I took the assignment of reviewing this set then by all means it was worth it! We’re just getting started.

This Happy Breed:

I love the title of Lean’s second film and collaboration with Noel Coward. Howard would not star in the film, but did contribute to the script based off his play. This Happy Breed chronicles the life of a working class British family for twenty years, from the end of the first World War to the beginning of the second one. Frank (Robert Newton) and Ethel Gibbons (Celia Johnson) are a couple with three children and Ethel’s mother in tow. Yes, it’s one big happy family, as the title implies. Or is it?

I love the peculiar title, which is kind of ironic in that there will be twenty years of trials and tribulations for the Gibbon’s family. There will be illness, death, and inner conflict that will try to rip the family apart all the while moving along through the course of British history. The political climate of the times is masterfully woven throughout the film, which gives that sense of scope in addition to adding all of the details of what went on during those times. The film takes place from 1919-1939. Socialism, Fascism, anti-Semitism, war, and spiritualism all play their parts in the film.

Originally Noel Coward wanted to play the lead role of Frank Gibbons, having played him in the stage production, but Lean said no due to Coward’s non-working class aura. Lean believed that there was no way Coward could convey that trait due to Coward not being from the working class. Coward was anything but a grunt and Lean felt that the part had to be recast and filled in by someone that came from all that.

Performance wise everyone nails their parts and in one instance, one of the Gibbon’s daughter’s characterizations reminded me of the bratty girl from Mildred Pierce in that she was born of a working class family, but thought she should have it all and blamed her family for her not having it. This particular story-arc brings everything back around full circle, but she is very unlikable when she gets started with her quips.

Shot in gorgeous Technicolor, the film looks like a living, breathing thing. It’s a moving canvas, if you will. It’s quite startling considering Lean’s previous film was black and white. There’s an obvious charm to it and if I hadn’t liked the film like I did, I would have said that I enjoyed it based on cinematography and aesthetics alone.

David Lean and Noel Coward are on a roll and continue the journey in our next film….

Blithe Spirit:

David Lean and Noel Coward continue onward in their second to last collaboration, which is entitled Blithe Spirit. The story centers around Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) who is a successful novelist, but is knee-deep in research for his latest work. He and his wife Ruth Condomine (Constance Cummings) invite a medium, Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) over to their posh estate, so that she may summon forces from the other side. Charles and Ruth invite a couple of other guests, as well,  so that they too can participate in the ceremony.

They begin a seance and unwittingly bring back the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). The kicker here is that Charles is the only one that can see her. This complicates things, because Ruth thinks he’s going insane. Actually, everyone begins suspecting that he is insane. Elvira is a saucy old bird who will not rest in peace quietly.

Wow, so three pictures in and David Lean hits us with some paranormal activity, indeed! I really enjoyed the chemistry by all of those involved especially Kay Hammond who played Elvira. She plays the role of the dead first wife with such delicious splendor that she electrifies ever scene she’s in. Charles and Ruth run around trying to figure out what to do, but Elvira remains quite the trickster.

Lean has teamed up once again with his cinematographer Ronald Neame to bring Blithe Spirit to life (no pun intended) in glorious Technicolor. The aesthetics really shine in this film and shooting it in Technicolor really enhance the overall mood. I should point out that the film doesn’t play as a straight horror film. There’s plenty of British humor to go around, so don’t get the wrong idea. The dialogue is very snippy and certain situations are intense.

Blithe Spirit won an Oscar for Special Effects and I’ll agree with that choice. The film was made in 1945 and there are plenty of cool opticals to go around. Some are seamless and others not quite, but the film is almost 70 years old, so we’ll let that pass.

I’ll go on record and say that Blithe Spirit is currently my favorite film of the Coward/Lean era. Then again, we’ve got ONE more film left to go, which brings us to…

Brief Encounter:

We arrive at our final destination in the David Lean Directs Noel Coward set, with Brief Encounter. It’s the story of a man and a married woman who fancy each other and meet up at a train station coffee shop to talk about what they will do with their lives together should they ever decide to leave with one another. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is a married woman who is smitten by the dashing and sophisticated Dr. Alec  Harvey (Trevor Howard), and he by she.

They meet up weekly at the shop to talk about things as if they were courting each other without consequences. This doesn’t play well with Laura, because she has to go back home and see her husband everyday. Dr. Alec Harvey is a practicing doctor who also has to keep his activities on the down low. The train station and coffee shop are our escape into their world. It’s also filled with interesting characters of their own, as well.

Brief Encounter would be the last film that David Lean and Noel Coward would work on together and it goes off without a bang, of sorts. It is a love story, but not of the typical kind. It’s very grounded and not as wide in scope as some of his previous productions, and it’s also a return to black and white film.

Brief Encounter is also the shortest film of the set – it only runs 85-minutes long. I enjoyed the film enough to give it a recommendation, but always chuckle at the British sensibility of the time in terms of illicit love affair subject matter. Laura and Alec are clearly having an affair, but we never get to see more than an occasional peck or what have you. I’m also not just talking about sex; there’s one scene where they’re at his friend’s place and are interrupted by his Alec’s fellow doctor friend and scaring Laura off.

Brief Encounter hints that these two people don’t have a future together, because they can’t be together without being constantly hounded or pestered by the people in their lives. It’s almost as if everyone else that interferes in there lives when they are together are set up to be their conscious. Yeah, that’s a big leap, but that’s how I see it.

The final collaboration between Coward and Lean ends on a more modest note.

Video 

In Which We Serve:

In Which We Serve is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. For the Blu-ray edition, the picture has been slightly windowboxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors. The new restoration was created in 4K resolution on an Oxberry 6400 liquid-gate scanner at Cineric, New York, from the original nitrate negative and sections of the nitrate-fine grain master.

In Which We Serve is presented in black and white, but the restoration results are just short of spectacular. The film mixes in stock footage of actual battles at sea, which are the only scenes in the entire film actually have some flaws to them. Hairs, scratches, etc., show themselves in these scenes, but when it comes to the rest of the film, it’s nothing short of amazing. Grain levels are phenomenal, contrast never appears boosted or artificial, and sharpness levels are terrific. Black levels are deep and never crush. you can see even the most minute detail in peoples faces during close-ups. In Which We Serve looks great on Blu-ray!

This Happy Breed:

This Happy Breed is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. For the Blu-ray edition, the picture has been slightly window boxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors. This new high-definition digital transfer was created at Technicolor Creative Services, London, on a Spirit Datacine from the restoration internegative, which was produced from the original YCM negatives.

This Happy Breed was shot in Technicolor, so the first thing you will notice are the colors. Boy, what a color palette! The film is literally a moving painting. Colors are rich, bold, and vibrant. Edge enhancement does creep in here and there, but it’s all inherent to the source. Flesh tones do look slightly exaggerated, but that’s due to the film process giving it a “pastel” quality to the images. I did detect some very minimal strobing, but that’s to be expected on a film this old and having gone through various restoration houses. This Happy Breed looks grand!

Blithe Spirit:

Blithe Spirit is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. For the Blu-ray edition, the picture has been slightly window boxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors. This new high-definition digital transfer was created at Technicolor Creative Services, London, on a Spirit Datacine from the restoration internegative, which was produced from the original YCM negatives.

Blithe Spirit was also shot in Technicolor and also looks fantastic. The visual aesthetic gives it a very haunting look even though the film can be classified as a comedy. Green is queen, if you get my meaning. Colors remain lush, the low-lit interiors give it a very warm glow during interior scenes, and contrast levels remain steady during the various instances of outside photography and rear-projection. Even the optical effects look great. I’d say that Blithe Spirit’s visuals are my favorite of the bunch.

Brief Encounter:

Brief Encounter is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. On widescreen televisions, black bars will appear on the left and right of the image to maintain the proper screen format. For the Blu-ray edition, the picture has been slightly window boxed to ensure that the maximum image is visible on all monitors. This new high-definition digital transfer was created at Technicolor Creative Services, London, on a Spirit Datacine from the restoration internegative, which was produced from the original YCM negatives.

Brief Encounter bookends what was already started with In Which We Serve. Shot in glorious black and white, the film looks pristine. Set mostly at night, black levels are outstanding, as are contrast and sharpness levels. Film grain is consistent throughout the running picture. There are no signs of intrusive DNR smearing anywhere, which is great. I like that the set gives us two films in rich black and white and two films in rich Technicolor. We’re the winners.

Audio  

In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter:

The monaural soundtrack was restored from a sound print made from the original nitrate track negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro ToolsHD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

All four films were given identical sound restorations, so it wasn’t necessary to review each individual film separately due to them having gone through the same process. Also, they were all shot and recorded close together that the leaps made in sound technology for the time was negligible; the films are all presented in monaural sound that maxes out at 2.3 mbps – that’s very impressive, but for some reason I found myself turning up the volume a bit on all of the films. All sounds come through the center channel, this being a 1 channel mix, but I would say that the dialogue could have been tweaked just a bit. Tweaked as in raised up a little in terms of pitch. At least it remained consistent throughout all four films. Depth is there, but it’s never quite as enveloping as newer tracks and that’s to be expected. The four films in this set are nearly 70 years old, and I doubt a full blown remastering in 5.1 could have made them any better. Still, the sound work is above average, but not reference.

Extras  

As is customary, and especially with boxed sets, Criterion has obliterated this set with tons of extras that feature interviews from the past and present, audio commentaries, featurettes, retrospectives, radio interviews, promotional materials, trailers, and so much more. I’ll list all of the extras that are contained within their respective films.

In Which We Serve:

  • New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • A Profile of “In Which We Serve,” a short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between actor Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre
  • Trailer

This Happy Breed:

  • New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
  • Trailers

Blithe Spirit:

  • New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
  • Trailer

Brief Encounter:

  • New interview about the film with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Audio commentary by the film historian Bruce Eder
  • A Profile of “Brief Encounter,” a short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary on Lean’s career
  • Trailer

Summary 

We all have to start somewhere, right? Well, David Lean started out directing films based on plays by Noel Coward, which sent Lean’s career into the stratosphere. The hits kept coming steadily through the 1950’s and his masterpieces bore fruit in the 1960’s – Lawrence of Arabia and a couple of years later, Doctor Zhivago. Lean really cut his teeth on these first four pictures; making one a year for about 4-5 years in a row. He was primed and ready to advance forward. David Lean Directs Noel Coward is required viewing for all David Lean fans, scholars, and film students alike. You’ll have insight as to how Lean went from being an editor and segued into screenwriting, producing, and directing in such a short time. Here’s hoping that Criterion comes through with more David Lean films on Blu-ray.

Order David Lean Directs Noel Coward on Blu-ray!

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Gerard Iribe is a writer/reviewer for Why So Blu?. He has also reviewed for other sites like DVD Talk, Project-Blu, and CHUD, but Why So Blu? is where the heart is. You can follow his incoherency on Twitter: @giribe

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