Friday, January 14, 2011

Great Expectations (1946) -- David Lean

Young Pip (Tony Wager) is an orphan living with his cantankerous sister and kind uncle, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles). Pip has no aspirations beyond hoping to one day become a blacksmith like Joe, for whom he serves as apprentice. One night Pip encounters a menacing escaped convict on the marsh, Magwitch (Finlay Currie). Scared out of his wits, Pip steals some food for the man, who shortly is recaptured and taken away. About the same time, Pip makes the acquaintance of a strange old woman, Miss Havisham (Marita Hunt). She is wealthy and arrogant and introduces the boy to her beautiful niece, Estella (Jean Simmons). Pip is infatuated, but rebuked. She tells him he is course and common. He soon comes into some money, thanks to a mysterious benefactor, and Pip (now, John Mills) goes off to London and high society with great expectations to make a name for himself as a gentleman.  
Pip visits his parents' grave.
This is arguably the best adaption of any Charles Dickens' novel to screen, Dickens' most accessible work. The only other film of similar stature is Director Lean's own Oliver Twist, filmed two years later, with some of the same cast and crew. Here, Lean faithfully captures the mood of the novel's time and place, especially Havisham's ivy-covered and cobwebbed-ridden mansion, the murky marshland, and the teeming streets of London. Filmed in black and white, it is stunningly beautiful. And populated by some of Dickens' most fascinating and colorful characters, it is a delight. Currie as Magwitch, and Francis Sullivan as the irrepressible lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, are impressive and memorable. 

The film starts with a dramatic scene, its best. Pip comes to a churchyard to lay flowers at his parents' grave. The wind howls eerily and the trees creak ominously. Pip first meets the desperate convict here. It is a masterful achievement by Lean and art director Wilfred Shingleton; who together create the perfect atmosphere. Magwitch, starving, filthy, and bound by leg irons, looks exactly as a young boy's imagination would picture such a monster. He suddenly looms up and threatens the terrified boy: "Keep still, you young devil, or I'll slit your throat!" He tells Pip to bring him some food and tools. If he doesn't, he'll "have his liver and heart out!" Currie is wonderful. The set decoration includes tilted headstones, a period church in the background, and naked tree branches that remind one of skeleton arms.   

A horrible encounter with Magwitch.
There are moments of fine humor in the film. Mr. Jaggers, who serves as the intermediary between Pip and his secret benefactor, is bound to silence. Jaggers has his own language, deliberate and formal. He cannot tell Pip who saved him from a working life of poverty, and without being too direct, he cleverly advises the young man, scolds him when necessary, and generally makes sure he is taken care of. There is a peripheral character named the "Aged P." No longer able to hear, his son communicates with his father by nodding. It is silly, but funny.

Miss Havisham is one of film's most macabre characters. Certainly mad, she is a dowager in a rotting wedding dress. Jilted at the alter years earlier, she hasn't let the sunlight enter her mansion since. The table is still set for the wedding feast with a moldy cake as centerpiece. Even the mice won't touch it. 
Inside the Havisham Mansion.

What Makes Great Expectations Special:

This is simply one of the most visually rich films ever made. No scene is neglected. Of course, Lean had the wonderful source novel as grist for the mill. For example, Mr. Jaggers keeps death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows on his office walls.

Like all Dickens novels, the story is dense and complicated. Characters in the first act reappear later. Magwitch is one, and his second coming is dramatic and changes the course of the film. Lean, an accomplished editor before he turned to directing, knew how to trim it down without losing any of Dickens' unique flavor and atmosphere, or his biting social commentary. Everything is resolved in the end, of course.   

Lean's mastery of direction shows up in little scenes, like the one where Jaggers asks Pip to look out his office window. The Point of View is Pip's--he sees a plaza below packed with rowdies come to watch a multiple hanging. The POV shifts to Pip's face for his reaction. We hear the crowd quiet as the camera moves in for a close-up. Suddenly there is a rousing cheer and Pip cringes. The execution appears off screen, but we know exactly what happened. 

Inside Story:

Alex Guinness made his speaking film debut as Pip's friend and roommate, Herbert Pocket. He would go on to work with Director Lean five more times, most notably as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948) and winning the Oscar for his role as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Lean would go on to international fame as a director of grand epics, like the aforementioned Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and Passage to India. But it is his early work, including the two Dickens' classics, that may be his greatest achievements. 

John Mills, who plays the older Pip was 38 when the film was produced. He does a fine job, but he is too old for the role, which requires someone a good ten years younger. It is the only significant distracting aspect of the film.

Jean Simmons at 17 is quite beautiful. It is too bad her role is such a short one.

Major Awards:
  • Won Oscars for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Black & White Cinematography.
  • Nominated for Oscars for Director, Picture, and Writing.
  • In a 1999 poll it was named the 5th best British film by the British Film Institute.
Other Early Films by Lean:
  • Brief Encounter 1945
  • Blithe Spirit 1945
  • Oliver Twist 1948
  • Summertime 1955    

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