The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents May 2012 Return to Table of Contents
Game of Thrones
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
9 Weeks
David Lean Directs
ASC Close-Up
David Lean Directs Noel Coward: In Which We Serve; This Happy Breed; Blithe Spirit; Brief Encounter (1942, 1944, 1945)
Blu-ray Edition
1.37:1 (1080p High Definition)
LPCM 1.0 Monaural
The Criterion Collection $99.95

In 1940, celebrated British playwright, actor and singer/songwriter Noel Coward, who had charmed Western culture with his sophisticated takes on the British class system, wanted to do something in support of the war effort. Coward wrote a screenplay with hopes of directing the film. While visiting a film studio, he met one of the best film editors in England, one miraculously able to transform badly shot newsreels or poorly directed “programmers.” This editor, David Lean, who would become one of England's most distinguished directors, was looking to direct his first film. Lean and his creative partners, Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame, who, with him, had started the production company Cineguild, read Coward's script and decided he was the perfect writer for their partnership.  Havelock-Allan would serve as producer and casting agent; Neame, as associate producer and cinematographer, and directing chores would be shared — Coward with the actors and Lean with technical, screen direction.

Criterion has released a box set of the four unique films of the Cineguild partnership on Blu-ray as David Lean Directs Noel Coward. It contains the war drama In Which We Serve (1942), the family portrait This Happy Breed (1944), the mystic hokum of Blithe Spirit (1945) and the classic, doomed romance of Brief Encounter (1945). This four-platter set features an upgrade of one of Criterion's earlier releases, Encounter, and the domestic, Blu-ray debuts of the three remaining titles.

The first disc features the filmed version of Coward's original screenplay, In Which We Serve, written as “the story of a ship.” Captain Kinross (Coward acting in the lead role) stoically guides his faithful sailors into combat, and their ship is destroyed, leaving many to perish in the sea. A group of survivors (including actors Coward, John Mills, Michael Wilding and Richard Attenborough) cling to a battered lifeboat as they flashback longingly on the lives they have left behind in England. Shot primarily in an uncomfortable water tank, the actors spent days floating in soggy costumes amid prop debris.  On one side of the supplements, Cinematographer Neame comments that his primary job on the film was to beware of the angry actors who enjoyed pulling crew members into the filthy water. He also recalls discussing some of the “flashback” camera strategies used in Citizen Kane with Lean and developing similar low-angle settings when photographing actors in flashback interiors.  

The image transfer of Serve comes directly from a recent restoration of the nitrate source-print materials performed by the BFI National Film Archive. The 4k-image transfer presents an excellent monochrome tonality with pristine sharpness, wide ranging grey scale, pleasing contrasts and solid black levels. The monaural soundtrack has a full-bodied, clean presentation. The supplements include an essay by Terrence Rafferty, a short documentary from 2000 featuring cast and crewmembers, a brief interview from 2011 with Coward scholar Barry Day, an audio interview with Coward and Attenborough from 1969 and the theatrical trailer.

The second disc offers This Happy Breed, a glimpse into the lives of the extended family and friends of working class Frank and Ethel Gibbons (Robert Newton and Celia Johnson). Over a 20-year period, the Gibbons' move in and out of a row house between the World Wars. From Coward's stage play, life for the Gibbonses takes unusual turns. Photographed in Technicolor by Neame, the cinematographer speaks to Lean's insistence on the house as a character, working hard to illuminate the set's many corners. Breed offers a high-definition image transfer of newly restored Technicolor source elements and displays a vivid palette. Flesh tones always seem accurate, and primaries are rich and defined. The image has excellent contrast and black levels with a surprising crispness. The monaural audio is generally clear. New interviews with Day and Neame, as well as an essay by Farran Smith Nehme and two theatrical trailers, are the  supplements.

Mystery writer Charles (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) host a dinner party at their sleepy country cottage. The guest of honor is an eccentric clairvoyant, Madame Arcati (delightful Margaret Rutherford), who breathlessly leads a séance that wakes the dead, bringing forth the ghost of Charles' former wife, Elivra (Kay Hammond), who is not fond of his current wife. No one is more horrified than Charles, who invited Arcati merely to expose her as a fake. This comic froth is the film version of Coward's hit play Blithe Spirit, and it is presented on the third disc of the set.

Again, using the Technicolor process, Neame acted as cinematographer on Spirit and says he focused primarily on keeping actress Hammond looking other-worldly by aiming green lights at her in each shot. This high-definition transfer, again taken from restored Technicolor source elements, has an engaging, film-like quality, with excellent, sharp color reproduction and deep, solid blacks. It is a lush, luminous transfer, with incandescent light, particularly when invoking the plot's supernatural elements. The monaural audio is solid and clean. Rounding out the disc as supplements are a television profile of Coward from 1992, the theatrical trailer, an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and more discussion from Day.

The fourth disc presents Cineguild's most significant achievement with Coward. Based on his one-act play Still Life and adapted for the screen with Lean, Havelock-Allen and Neame, Brief Encounter (1945) recounts the bittersweet tale of two middle-class people, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), each married, who meet by chance at a train station. The two share a gentle but meaningful and ultimately tragic love affair over several weeks in the winter of 1939. Director of photography Robert Krasker (The Third Man) expertly captures the pre-war, steam-train platforms upon which much of the story unfolds, his work sometimes evoking the sharp contrasts and occasional angles of some of the German Expressionists as pointed out in an included essay by Kevin Brownlow.

The recently restored, original, nitrate-film source elements of Encounter have been used to create this new 4k, high-definition transfer that is simply remarkable. Although Criterion's standard-def DVD from 2005 was a very strong effort, this version has a depth and clarity never before visible on home-screen versions. There is crisp, luminous contrast, with never a hint of obvious DNR. The images, many slickly black nighttime exteriors, beautifully shimmer with detail and shadows. The re-mastered monaural audio is clean and nicely reproduces the memorable Rachmaninoff score. The supplements include a 2005 DVD audio commentary by Bruce Eder, a 1971 TV biography of Lean, a “making of” documentary from 2000, the original theatrical trailer and final-interview footage with Day.  

The legendary Cineguild partnership from 1942 to 1945 produced a quartet of unique films, starting with a much lauded propaganda piece, moving to a “kitchen-sink” melodrama, running through a whimsical brush with the supernatural and ending in a tragic, romantic masterpiece. This new set examines an amazing crossroads between a director beginning an esteemed career and an established writer and raconteur who had little to do with filmmaking after this period. With these beautiful image transfers, an essential part of both British National and cinematic histories has been preserved with wit, grace and memorable sentiment.  

<< previous || next >>