The Passionate Friends

In the career of David Lean, it is usual for admirers to make a mental leap from the post-war success of Brief Encounter (1945) and the Charles Dickens’ films, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), to the big-budget location epics produced by Sam Spiegel, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), both of which set up Lean as a global figure in the film industry. Within that period, bridging the gap, are three forgotten films in which the English stage and film actress Ann Todd, who became Lean’s third wife, is the central female protagonist, if not the focal point of each narrative. The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950) were box-office flops, The Sound Barrier (1952) successful in the main as a novel action picture about the jet technologies of post-war aviation. Yet Todd’s films with Lean, in which her thin lips, fair hair, pinched cheeks and cool demeanour had earned her the unlikely tag of the “English Garbo”, have an unsettling aura in those brief five years before she dropped out of sight after her marriage to the director folded. The Todd trilogy is an intriguing one, unjustly forgotten, not just for her acting but for her role as muse, as inspiration in Lean’s pushing of classical film form, and the stylised oscillation of romance and restraint that shapes so much of his work. The partnership predates other pairings that spring to mind: Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Ingmar Bergman and Harriet Andersson, and, significantly, Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren. These were all seminal, if not sensational, in the careers of both actor and director, and helped forge new exciting forms of 1960s modernism. But Lean’s trilogy, which is a lost preface, has really gone nowhere. What it does suggest when we look at an Englishman who admired the classical poise of Hollywood directors like William Wyler is the paradox that lay within Lean himself: an auteur who was always old-fashioned yet very often before his time, a conservative revolutionary in British cinema.

Theme-wise, the trilogy is a continuation of Lean’s earlier concerns. The Passionate Friends and The Sound Barrier gloss the relationship of romance and restraint in post-war Britain, echoing Brief Encounter, while Madeleine is a further examination, after Dickens, of the 19th century heritage, this time in bourgeois Victorian Glasgow, to offset perhaps the novelist’s teeming, proletarian London. All three films are complex studies of the relationship between dependence and autonomy (female) under the watchful eye of the patriarch (husband or father, or both). All three have very different outcomes, and all three have Ann Todd in different guises. In The Passionate Friends, she is a prosperous unfaithful wife taking up once more with a previous lover and, unlike Laura Jessop (Celia Johnson) in Brief Encounter, carnally so. In Madeleine, she is the transgressing daughter of a respectable Glaswegian lawyer and, in The Sound Barrier, the demobbed wife/daughter back to things domestic after the war, yet locked into aeronautic obsession through her pilot-husband and ruthless magnate of a father. The image of the cool English rose is often undermined by the lingering severity of Todd’s gaze, by a facility for changing look and expression from one shot to the next. The cliché is further undermined by the Scottish Madeleine, modelled on the true story of Glaswegian Madeleine Smith, tried for murder in Edinburgh as an arsenic poisoner, a role that Todd had previously played onstage in 1944. (The play was Harold Purcell’s The Rest is Silence.) But, then, the ‘rose’ cliché does not fit any one of the trilogy, for something far more unsettling is in place.

What exactly is it? It is a triad of enigma variations in which Todd is neither defiant victim in the style of Hitchcock’s 1940s heroines or dark femme fatale in the style of American film noir. Unlike Celia Johnson’s rendering of the near-faithless Laura in Brief Encounter, which delivers a febrile guilt-transparency where what you see is what you get, with Todd something more subtle and complex takes place. The gaze, the voice, the gesture are all shrouded in tight ambiguity. The poise and politeness of her middle-class pedigree enable her to go through the line or undercut the action with sustained double meaning. She is articulate, confident, confessional: yet often we don’t quite know how to read her.

The Passionate Friends: The Germ of the Perverse

In The Passionate Friends, Lean’s stylistics add to the iconic appeal. At times, he photographs Todd as Mary Justin in the style that Lee Garmes adopted for the Marlene Dietrich of Von Sternberg’s 1930s melodramas, soft and lustrous, with the shimmer of backlighting. Yet there is no shallowness in the staging. Lean expertly blends soft-focus with deep-focus photography – as Orson Welles later did with Dietrich in Touch of Evil (1958) – so that his long-shots still retain the consistent detail of high contrast and the grain of the object. Moreover, his travelling shots, though sparse, have an elegant fluency that reminds us of the film that Lee Garmes shot for Hitchcock two years earlier, The Paradine Case (1947), where he introduced the crab dolly to inject fluid circling movement into Hitch’s long takes, which Selznick then butchered in editing. Featuring in that film as defence lawyer Gregory Peck’s jealous wife was, of course, Ann Todd.

The Passionate Friends

The look of Lean’s picture also shows the versatility of cinematographer Guy Green, who was able to shift effectively from the high-contrast look of the Dickens epics to the mellower rendering of contemporary English life. Robert Krasker is well remembered and revered for his work on Brief Encounter and The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1948). Green should equally be revered not only for the Dickens’ diptych but for the luminous subtlety of the first two films in the Todd trilogy. This blends well with Lean’s own subtlety in the first of the films – a contemporary setting that is also a meditation on time. Crucial to Lean’s narration in The Passionate Friends is the complex flashback in which Mary’s voice unfolds her past attachment to Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard) through a multi-layered time frame. The film starts in the present (1948) with Mary’s first trip abroad to Chamonix in the French Alps for a holiday with her rich banker-husband Howard Justin (Claude Rains), where she finds herself in a room adjoining, by chance, her former lover. She then thinks back, not to her first meeting with Stratton, but to her first re-union with him nine years previously, at a New Year’s Eve Ball to bring in 1939. She re-encounters Stratton after her previous mid-thirties romance with him but before the marriage. Not only is this a before-and-after film in which the war itself is an absent presence, the flashback template sets the lyrical tone or the structure of feeling for the film: Mary remembers in sheets of time unfurling backward. One memory leads to another, one flashback leads to another, and the world of desire is trapped in perpetual fantasies and actualities of re-union. If this isn’t a version of Gilles Deleuze’s time-image avant la lettre, I don’t know what is. And, even within the structure of the present, Mary daydreams of her love for the ex-lover who is beside her. So, even though the narration is predicated on flashback – the remembrance of a love past – the accidental encounter in Chamonix that starts the picture suggests something else: Chamonix could almost be structured as a flash-forward, a wish-dream of love’s reunion in a future time with a departed lover who will happen ‘by chance’ to be booked (by fate?) into an adjacent hotel room, when her husband is still away on business and yet to join her.

No wonder critics and audiences were baffled in 1949. While Lean clearly borrows from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) – deep focus and multiple flashback – that earlier confused audiences, his own double usage is much more. It becomes a technical foundation for romantic delirium. Although we are flashing back and forth through layers of time, from 1948 to New Year 1939, then to the mid-1930s, then forward to the year of 1939 that prefaced the Coming Storm, and then finally back – or forward – to 1948, we feel somehow the remembrance of love past is so vivid that every sequence is in a perpetual present in which time itself is a labyrinth. Thus, the scene after the New Year’s Ball, where Mary and Stratton take up their old (or young) intimacy again, feels and looks like a post-war sequence where Lean makes no obvious concessions to the previous decade in terms of fashion or production design. Where he does differentiate the look is in the first romance flashback of the young lovers, shot in soft focus with shallow backgrounds and pastoral settings signifying the look of innocent passion. Yet, even here, the pattern is set: Mary will reject Stratton’s passion as too imprisoning and desire to escape. Lean ends the flashback with a beautiful low-angle shot of Mary all in white, her dress fluttering as she descends the steps outside the house in parting, effectively in flight. Here, Lean slows down the image gracefully as she moves closer to the camera with the descent, almost to freeze-frame before the point of cutting. As mise en scène, it is a truly stunning farewell that predicates, of course, a future return of the same.

The reversion to 1939 in the months after the ball is shot in deep-focus high-contrast, especially in the Justins’ large empty London townhouse that has the monumental look of a Selznick studio set, with its vast circular staircase a true signifier of full-on melodrama. At the same time, Lean also continues the softness of the earlier look through the overhead lighting on Todd, the sheen creating highlights on her fair hair as a recurrent visual trope that endures until the last frame. Yet, this is a triangular picture and the other two figures in the triangle have a filmic pre-history that Lean subtly teases out. Trevor Howard continues the role of the handsome lover (this time for real) he began for Lean as Alec Harvey in Brief Encounter, while Claude Rains as Howard continues the role of suspicious cuckold that Hitchcock gave him in Notorious (1946). Acting-wise, Trevor Howard at times seems shell-shocked by repetition – yet more brief encounters, lots of them, and staggers into trysts renewed like a punch-drunk boxer – as if he had seen it all before. Rains, however, grasps the chance to become a truly wounded human being and not just the expatriate Nazi he was in Notorious (the film has a pre-war scene where he decries the fascist hysteria of the mob). Here, he is a jealous man in a pragmatic marriage who will finally fall in love with Mary as a result of her infidelity, and still knowing full well that she will never reciprocate. Rains hones to perfection the poetics of suspicion that started with Hitchcock, becoming its maestro and, taking a leaf out of Cary Grant’s book, by conveying through the slightest flicker of the eyes the alert gaze that renders the full impact of suppressed emotion, in this case the marital jealousy that kindles unlikely desire.

We can see this early at the New Year’s Eve sequence, Howard watching Mary in their reserved box on the balcony, looking down at Stratton dancing in celebration with his new girlfriend, Pat (Isobel Dean), who later becomes his wife. Lean cross-cuts sequences to inject tension, as Stratton mentions to Pat his chance meeting with Mary and her nervous gaze mirrors the suspicious eyes of Justin up in the box as he watches Mary watching the distant figure he recognises as his rival from the past. And Mary, too, is looking down at Stratton and his partner with a slight hint of desperation, a mix of regret, jealousy and desire. Thus, visually, Lean captures with a few succinct camera movements the intertexuality of jealous lovers and spouses, a perfect four-way split. In doing so, he simultaneously doubles the gaze of desire and the gaze of suspicion, the loving gaze and the jealous gaze. All are inseparable, interpenetrating. And, later, he repeats other Hitchcock motifs, too. The binoculars by which Alexander Sebastian (Rains) had spied on T. R. Devlin (Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) at the Rio racecourse in Notorious are used here by Howard to spy on Mary and Stratton in the speedboat on the lake by the hotel. Suspicion sustained through a lens darkly. His brief glimpse of their distant parting kiss echoes the famous (notorious?) wine-cellar embrace of Devlin and Alicia in Hitchcock’s spy thriller. But here there is no espionage, no political aftermath of war to give passion its political edge. Lean must mould tension out of peacetime banality, and does so.

The Passionate Friends

As in Notorious, love is predicated on mimetic rivalry. For Howard to see his beloved with his rival is often to incite passion and hatred in equal measure, to which Stratton duly reciprocates. Yet, Mary’s passion is predicted on difference. The handsome science professor/lover is so unlike the diminutive banker/husband that Mary forges a rapture of oscillation – moving between polar opposites, unable to choose or reject one in favour of the other. In one instant, her instinct is to throw herself back into the arms of her resurrected lover; in another, it is to nestle in the bosom of her reassuring patriarch. The faithlessness with its in-built love of love is a form of Madame Bovaryism without doubt, and when Lean later became self-conscious about the literary model, as in his moulding with Robert Bolt of the storyline for Ryan’s Daughter (1970), the results are disastrous. But here, earlier, he is offering something much sharper, something more visceral. Instead of Gustave Flaubert’s unsurpassable parody of provincial life, he has upped the romantic stakes by going cosmopolitan: his cuckold-banker is no fool but sharp, measured and ruthless, a winner in a harsh, material world. And the faithless wife is not pursuing like Emma Bovary the amorphous love of love, but constantly resurrecting her passion for the single lover she has left in the past, and will leave again in the future. Todd acts out with great conviction the role of an awkward romantic who is also a strategist playing a dangerous game. The turn-on is not difference and exploration – playing the field – but repetition and reincarnation – the return of the same. The ‘passionate friends’ are protagonists in the passionate revolution of the same and yet each return is also entropic. In the hotel scenes, Trevor Howard is no longer shot in soft focus. His face is lined and pitted and Mary tells Stratton he looks like a ‘ghost’. The fixation on the return of the same can only come, in this instance, from the fixity of marriage as level continuum. Passion is predicated not on freedom and autonomy but on the structure of faithlessness.

Lean’s other great visual concern in cinema is the intersection of culture and nature, where a story’s momentous events are not only framed against landscape settings shot on location but also integrated into the very texture of the image that his camera produces. Hence, the celebrated meeting of Pip (Tony Wager) and Magwitch (Finlay Currie) in Great Expectations, where the atmospheric skyline of the Medway estuary standing in for the Romney Marches, one Kent location for another, seems to enfold the characters in three-dimensional space. Lean’s pantheistic tendency (1) finds its outlet here in the French Alpine setting of Chamonix, a welcome journey for Mary out of post-war austerity where she marvels during the plane journey at white bread, butter, copious fruit and real cream. After seeing Stratton by chance on the hotel terrace the next morning, they plan a day out before he must leave and before Howard arrives: it is their speedboat journey across the lake, followed by the cable-car ascent to the peaks through the clouds, that gives the fleeting renewal of the intimacy its genuine enchantment. Lean could easily have given us kitsch, syrupy imitations of landscape photography, but his staging and his cutting blend so fluently that his evocation of the romantic sublime is linked, inextricably, to his découpage and his sense of place. The image has its own power of conviction. This, of course, is merely a foretaste for more extensive visions: the jungle in River Kwai and the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. The romantic sublime here is an obvious move in an obvious melodrama, but it translates later into something less obvious and more disturbing: the fanatical sublime of his great epics where the cruel grandeur of landscape matches the perverse fanaticism of his English protagonists.

The film also points forward to the modernist deconstruction of romance in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1957) and L’Année à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961), the former with its disturbing undercurrent of the compulsion to repeat and its fixation on a second chance, the latter with its formalisation of time as a perpetual present in which the cut is always a play on sameness and difference. Different palaces, hotels, corridors, gardens, statues and costumes but also for Resnais the same three players: jealous husband, torn-and-divided heroine and seductive lover, who always uses mention of past encounters as the first move in his erotic game. Lean, of course, never approaches the darkness at the centre of either film. In Hitchcock, there is a formalisation of the compulsion to repeat as male neurotic obsession, whereas Lean’s film would have been consciously made as ‘a woman’s picture’. While Lean makes it clear that Mary always makes the first move in the consummation of reunion and brings Stratton with her, for Hitchcock it is the obsessed Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who calls the shots and lures Judy Barton (Kim Novak) into repeating her impersonation as Madeleine. As cinema moves on, Resnais’ abstract meditation on memory and Hitchcock’s carnal metaphysics of renewal thus shift the Lean template, which is at heart naturalistic, into new time-space continua. Yet Lean’s film feeds obviously into both of them. It has made love enigmatic and time problematic. Forced to choose between husband and lover, Mary chooses the triangle in which love is more past and future than present, a pure re-incarnation of that which is already memory. In her end is her beginning. She chooses death in order to await rebirth.

Of course, this is upper-middle-class England, an ordered world, and Mary Justin is neither Emma Bovary nor Anna Karenin. As if to make the point, Howard rescues Mary in the last sequence from the intended leap onto the rails in the London underground, her false solution to love’s impasse, where for the first time re-incarnation seems no longer possible. But the rescue is also another kind of triumph, internal to the film itself. The rescue is justified dramatically by the sense that Howard had acted out his part more convincingly than Stratton, a dramaturgic victory for the husband over the lover that makes for perverse, if not subversive, melodrama. The triumph is reflexive. In terms of sheer presence, Rains moves winningly forward from Notorious; Trevor Howard goes mechanically backwards from Brief Encounter. The subtle powers of surveillance that Rains incorporates into every gesture, glance and movement, show Lean at his most conservative and, it has to be said, most effortless. The tone of authorial condescension that had lingered over the skittish suburban Laura in Brief Encounter – an inheritance from Noël Coward – is conspicuously absent here. Lean has escaped Coward’s clutches by going upmarket for wealth, glitter and power, his conservative instincts exonerated in one sense, but laid bare and indefensible in another. The triumph of the patriarch here is as bold as it is reactionary.

Madeleine: The perverse unveiled


The germ of the perverse that incubates in The Passionate Friends spreads rapidly to Madeleine, where Todd’s persona is recast in a more explosive role, and Lean swaps the surety of a literary source (a 1923 novel by H. G. Wells) for an original screenplay from Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps, based on a 19th century cause célèbre, the 1857 murder trial of Madeleine Hamilton Smith. It is in effect an attempt at provocative biopic that anticipates Lawrence and sketches out the fanatical resolve that will later mark his charismatic antihero of the Arabian Desert. There is, of course, another Hitch reference to dispatch first. We noted that Todd appeared in The Paradine Case as the jealous, curious spouse (of Gregory Peck’s lawyer, Anthony Keane), watching from the balcony in the Old Bailey as Maddalena Paradine is tried for the murder of her blind husband by poisoning. The Neapolitan Mrs Paradine obsessing a smitten Keane is, of course, the ravishing, raven-haired Alida Valli (later of The Third Man). Well, three years later, Todd gets her chance centre-stage. Now, she in the dock also charged with poisoning. Instead of Hitchcock’s fluid crab-dolly sequence-shots and a high open Old Bailey, Lean’s Edinburgh High Court has an enclosed horizontal look that he films largely in static shot/reverse-shot sequences. It is a method and style closer to the gangster court sequence that ends Fritz Lang’s M (1931) than to Hitchcock’s meticulous Old Bailey reconstruction. And here the flattened horizontal is spatio-visual continuation of the crime scene itself, which doubles as the scene of passion – that is, the basement of the family home where Madeleine secretly meets her French lover, Emile L’Angelier (Ivan Desny), and is alleged to have served cups of cocoa that poison him. And let’s just end with the forking of the plotlines: Hitch’s Maddalena pleads not guilty, then confesses everything: Lean’s Madeleine pleads not guilty and confesses nothing.

At the start, Lean takes the bold step of a sweeping pan across the rooftops of contemporary Glasgow, followed by an impersonal voice-over, also set in the present, finally alighting on Blythswood Square as it is in 1949, with modern pedestrians and cars, the shot coming to rest outside the basement railings of the large Georgian house at number 7, before flashing back nearly one hundred years to 1857. A studio set replicates exactly the basement yard at the bottom of the steps and the pavement above. Lean then shows us the inside of the property as Madeleine and her family visit with a view to purchase. Interior shots of the empty space of the rooms are unsettling and the primal emptiness is uncanny, as if the house has an identity of its own as a place of fate that precedes the family’s entry into it. Madeleine is attracted to the empty basement whose barred windows look out onto the street at shoe level. In this empty room, Lean both tracks and dissolves to future time as we see passing feet through the barred window at night. A letter is dropped down through an opening in the window. “What was that?”, Madeleine younger sister demands as she is listening to a bedtime story. Lean has cut to the room’s bedroom’s full interior, now furnished, ornate and cluttered in true Victorian style, and framed the sisters in long-shot on the bed they share. Todd had visited the actual house before the shooting began to get a flavour of her part. “I attract spirits”, she said, “and in that house Madeleine Smith came and visited me […] I felt most of the time we were making it she was there.” (2)


There are good filmic precedents for the uncanny abode of the previous century, classic instances of Victorian Gothic. One is by Lean himself, his richly textured version of Satis House, the cobwebbed mansion of Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) in Great Expectations, and prior to that we can think especially of the forbidding aunt’s house in Thorold Dickinson’s mystery thriller, Gaslight (1940). The Gothic convention usually stresses the deep recess, the attic, the secret room. But here it is the opening onto the street and the basement that are vital to Madeleine’s strategy of arranging secret assignations with her French lover. He drops letters into her bedroom. He has a key to the basement door. She arranges to meet him in the maid’s room across the corridor when her family is in bed upstairs and the maid discreetly relocated to the kitchen. At one level, this is the upstairs/downstairs divide of the respectable Victorian abode. Yet, the troubled Madeleine adds something else to the equation. Hers is the transgression of the free spirit, the prodigal daughter who refuses to play along with the conventions of the virgin bride and the arranged marriage. Her attraction to the dandyish Emile also reminds us of the paradoxical romantic strain in Lean himself, as Madeleine tries to struggle free herself through passion, and Emile veers in the opposite direction, towards bourgeois convention through the prospect of a prosperous match. Madeleine wants Emile to spirit her away from her family; Frenchman Emile wants Madeleine to introduce him to her family. Both figures are constrained: Madeleine by her class and sex, Emile by his nationality and meagre income. Their paths cross, as it were, because they are heading in opposite directions.

Thus, both figures reflexively gloss aspects of Lean’s biography. The narcissistic Emile has the deceptive look and bearing of the bohemian romantic, while the plain-looking Madeleine embodies the spirit and energy of a bridled romanticism. We should also remember that Lean reacted against his strict religious upbringing in a very special way: he choose to make a career in that very medium denied him as a young boy because it was considered unworthy and unchristian – the cinema. The patriarchal structure of the Smith family, with Leslie Banks as the severe, domineering James Smith, surely possesses an echo of the tight constraints of Lean’s inter-war upbringing. In fact, we might want to see in Lean’s attraction to his subject matter a deep homology between the English Quakerism of his childhood and the Scottish Presbyterianism of the previous century, an ambivalent attraction that lured Lean north of the border for the first and only time. Of course, it is not the Christian faith per se but its cultural impact that concerns him. For the most part, Madeleine plays out the role of a good daughter in her daily life, but when the cards are down she defies the rules of the game. She draws her father’s ire by refusing suitable suitors in preference to her secret lover, who in turn is found wanting. Likewise, Lean breaks the rules of romantic melodrama, for in the end there is no thwarted passion that provides the key to Madeleine’s happiness, once its barriers are broken down. Everything stays problematic, devoid of solution. It is Madeleine’s divided soul that creates the divisions in her attraction to men, and these endure.

The model of intimacy thus alters from Lean’s previous picture. The eternal triangle of The Passionate Friends is replaced by the formula of the doomed quartet: heroine, father, suitor, lover. The formulation in the subtext is extreme. Only the radical solution of unbridled romance can break the Œdipal tie to the Victorian patriarch, a fateful either/or as William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), the worthy but ineffectual suitor, caring, kindly and a model of respectability, is largely ignored. Minnoch is courteous and handsome with no clear defect that would provide the get-out clause of most melodrama. In fact, he is the only model of virtue in the doomed quartet, a fact that gets him nowhere, or rather stranded in no-man’s land between the polar opposites that entice Madeleine, the extremes of transgressing romance and unreasoning patriarchy.

In Madeleine’s infatuation for Emile, there is an echo of the measured attraction that dour, canny Lowlander David Balfour feels for the cavalier Highlander Alan Breck in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. But Emile L’Angelier is no flamboyant adventurer, just a would-be man-about-town with a great line in cravats. Emile fails abjectly to live up to the romantic archetype Madeleine has carved out of her fervent imagination: he is certainly no Edmond Dantès and not a patch on Julien Sorel. The clandestine meeting they have near the family summer house in Rowaleyn proves the point, and it becomes the point of no return. In a clearing in the woods away from the house, they hear the sounds of a ceilidh coming from the village below. Leans cuts to the villagers in full flow, dancing a highland reel then back to the nocturnal couple, where Madeleine too starts to dance and solicits Emile to follow her. The parallel cutting here between the uncertain couple and the raucous dance hall not only stresses class difference but also the limits of Emile’s romantic progeny. He tries to dance while, dandyish to the last, still holding his cane; when he drops it, the attempt at an improvised reel ends in farce. Madeline runs away and falls on a grassy knoll, an act of exasperation and despair. Below, Lean’s Highland reel in the packed hall is by contrast in full swing, the most full-blooded and sensuous couple in the foreground of his shot. As the dance reaches its climax, accelerating all the time, so does their sensual attraction and, as the music ends, they rush off to continue their intimacy at closer quarters. The contrast here is of the many doubling motifs of the film: the raw, desiring village couple in perfect harmony set against the isolated, awkward couple on the hillside above. Class difference is a difference in sensibility, the self-consciousness of the bourgeois romantic model that Emile betrays, with the unselfconscious energy of villagers and crofters who do not use words to convey the attraction of the dance.

The doubling of the dance itself follows on from the doubling of the couple. We later see the decorous version of the Caledonian reel during a ball in Glasgow, during which Minnoch proposes to Madeleine and Emile, a cloaked and jealous outsider watches on furtively from the balcony, a great high-angle long-shot by Lean. Minnoch’s awkward proposal is drowned out by the music, but he is the one that dances with Madeleine, decorously, properly, as befits a Scottish gentleman of his time. Madeleine, however, has earlier danced the waltz with her father and this is the dance in which she is most elegant, most fluent and self-assured. The ritual ‘passing over’ of the daughter from father to suitor follows the time-honoured convention of family approval, but you feel that disenchanted with Emile; Madeleine changes tack to please her father more than to accept her suitor. Later, when the angry Emile threatens to blackmail her by exposing her letters to him, it is more the fear of what ‘Papa’ will think that what her future husband will. Her solution is re-accept Emile as her basement lover and thus re-inaugurate the cycle all over again. Or is it? Is the buying of arsenic, ostensibly to wash and tend her skin, simply a pretext for the meditated act of poisoning?


The whole point of the film, and one that Lean’s audience would have found exasperating at the time, was that we shall never know in cinema anymore than in history. The prolonged sequence of the trial fills us in with the circumstantial detail but brings us no closer to the truth, just as it brought the jury of the time no closer to the truth. L’Angelier, addicted to laudanum at the time, could even have died of a combination of the drug that he sporadically took, with the poison that Madeleine administered, if at all, in a cup of cocoa. Lean certainly doubles the visual motif of powder placed in liquid. Maid Christina (Elizabeth Sellars) stirs the cocoa into a saucepan of milk in the kitchen before Madeleine serves it to herself and Emile. Earlier in his lodgings, Emile openly stirs laudanum into a glass of water in front of his landlady, who suggests a drop of whisky would be better for him. The doubling motif of the film, by implication, runs to the very end: class duality, love duality, romance and restraint, powder and liquid, suicide and murder, overdose and poisoning. Emile could have killed himself by intent or by recklessness. Madeleine could have killed him solely by arsenic poisoning. They could both have killed him in a composite cocktail in which neither knew the ingredients of the other. Such ambiguity in a veiled, implicit and open ending goes way beyond the classical code of melodrama (or even its contemporary hyper-classical version), where a murder trial is supposed to establish guilt or innocence one way or the other of somebody. In that sense, Lean’s trial is the serious version of melodrama rule-violation that Welles did comically with the trial scene two years earlier in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). The intermediary status of not-knowing – or, of not proving beyond a reasonable doubt – is the unique Scottish verdict of “not proven”, a juristic agnosticism where the defendant lingers in limbo between guilt and innocence.

In the literature of mimetic rivalry, the rejected lover is usually jealous of the successful suitor. But the jilted Emile does not try to compete with the courteous and caring Minnoch; rather, he tries to usurp the power of the father. In the first instance of usurpation, he appears uninvited at the front door of the house when the rest of the family are away, treats the maid with contempt and demands to be shown to the drawing room. It is symbolic appropriation of territory, of the drawing room as the father’s abode to which all other family members and guests are called. He is served cocoa and demands that Madeleine play to him on the pianoforte, thus replicating an earlier scene where she has played likewise for her family, accompanying the French love songs she sings out of tune. This time, Emile is sitting in her father’s chair. In further pursuit of visual doubling, Lean doubles the abject posture of female submission – the kneeling that is humiliation – as Madeleine genuflects to influence events that have spiralled out of control. First, she appears to seek mercy when Emile threatens to blackmail her over her love letters. As Emile throws her to the floor, her body face down in the same prone posture as her fall after the dance on the hillside, her sustained crying is that mixture of intention and emotion that defines her elusiveness – a combination of despair and tactical tears. The posture of submission turns quickly to seduction as Emile’s body bends over her and his cane crashes on the hard, glittering surface of the kitchen floor.

Later on during the visit of Thuau (Eugène Deckers) – fellow Frenchman and friend of Emile who reports his death to James Smith, as well as the existence of Madeleine’s letters – the visual gesture is repeated before her unforgiving father. Since this is melodrama, Lean ups the romantic irony with Madeleine, unaware in the bedroom, trying on her bridal gown before being summoned to the drawing-room, dressed all in white, where she denies knowledge of L’Angelier without realising what Thuau already knows. As her mendacity is exposed, the damage done and Thuau departs, Lean assembles a remarkable double shot, two deep-focus set-ups to create a visual symmetry of reversed protagonists, an original variation on the staging dynamics that so enthused André Bazin about Welles and Wyler. As Madeleine stands at the door through which Thuau has departed, Lean shoots on the acute angle slightly above Smith’s inflated profile in left foreground toward Madeleine’s figure in long-shot by the door. The axis is one of descent, a perspectival illusion that deep focus can happily produce and Bazin conveniently ignore. Madeleine returns pleading in vain for her father’s forgiveness, still denying what was lefty to deny. Lean’s camera then cuts to a low-angle from the same position, a floor shot as Madeleine goes down on her knees before her father. “We are naked”, James Smith declares, meaning of course the family is exposed to a sexual scandal that it cannot reverse and which now makes Madeleine unmarriageable. Yet the Œdipal subtext lingers. Madeleine wears the bridal gown that is meant not to please the suitor, who is now the betrothed, but the father who shall deliver her to her future life. As she beseeches him, he casts her aside and walks to the door in a couple of steps. As he leaves it open, the railing on the hall stair can be seen in clear detail behind him. It is a perfect depth-of-field moment that again combines the close-up with the long-shot. The angle of descent from the father’s profile in left foreground to the daughter at the door has been transformed and inverted like a mirror image. It is matched by the angle of ascent from the prone daughter’s profile in right foreground to the receding figure of the father as he walks out. The patriarch is rigid and upright, the daughters’ bending and abject, the dress signifying the patriarch’s symbolic rejection of the bride. The orchestral strings on the soundtrack strike a sudden crescendo, for this shot is the defining emotional moment of the film.

After her arrest for murder, the religiosity of the film erupts suddenly in Leans’ perverse inversion of the Passion in the Gospels. Madeleine’s abject entry into Edinburgh to stand trial is prefaced by the Calvinist haranguing the mob orator (John Laurie), denouncing her as a “murderess” and a “daughter of Satan”, as the mob howl for a hanging and angrily rock her prison coach as it makes its way along Princes Street. This plays out like an inversion of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he is showered with palms by adoring crowds. Deep under the High Court itself, another deep-focus shot from Madeleine’s POV shows the sharp ascent up the stone steps into the courtroom with the crowd peering over the balcony above: the camera dollies after her, signifying perhaps her uphill road to Cavalry. Yet, after her release, the story of the Gospels goes into reverse. On her exit from the High Court, she is greeted by the cheering crowd as a heroine; her triumphal exit is her resurrection. But it is a dubious resurrection based on the verdict of “not proven”. At the end, Lean breaks with the classical frame of invisible narration that has sustained his melodrama. The impersonal voice-over that began the film now returns to ask her in its local accent: “Well Madeleine Smith, are ye guilty or not guilty?” Madeleine looks long and pointedly at the camera, but does not reply. Her face remains a pure enigma, betraying no trace of guilt or innocence. The voice-over address and the look to the camera come three years before the famous turning of the head by Monika (Harriet Andersson) halfway through Bergman’s Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953) towards her audience and fixing it with her alluring stare. Monika is playing with us in open flirtation. Madeleine is drawing a veil over the high-octane performance we have witnessed for the previous hundred minutes, freezing her face into the enigmatic stare of a Mona Lisa and just, but only just, playing with a smile.

The Sound Barrier: the faltering sublime and the end of empire.

In the third of the trilogy, there is, looking back, a sense of anti-climax. Todd’s role is much reduced, the emotional tenor of the film is low-key, the male acting so-so and the action one in which machines dominate the mortals who try to control them. Lean’s fascination with jet planes was part of his fascination of nature and the human conquest of it. In a way, the film, with an original screenplay by Terence Rattigan, takes up where the cable-car journey through the clouds in The Passionate Friends had left off: this time, the ascent is wire-less, the new jet-fighter prototype of the post-war era zooming up to 40,000 feet to launch its attack on the speed of sound. Lean, to his credit, creates a visual balance between man and machine, and dramatises the human struggle that surrounds the speed of sound. But Todd, as the wife/daughter of the jet fanatics who dominate her life, plays second fiddle for the most part to the arena of the action, mediating our own anxieties by voicing her criticisms and concerns about a dangerous obsession. Meanwhile, the Promethean symbolism of Lean’s film is a little laboured and in places more than a bit functional. Yet, while many British films of the 1950s, like The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson, 1955) and Reach for the Sky (Lewis Gilbert, 1956), would feed their audiences stirring wartime sagas of winner’s history, Lean was fascinated by the new technology of the sky that would come to define the rest of the century. There is continuity, too, with Madeleine. Lean likewise invokes as a central axis for his docudrama the vexed relationship of defiant daughter and ruthless patriarch, the plane manufacturer John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) and partly based on the de Havilland dynasty that dominated the air industry in post-war Britain.

The Sound Barrier

The film starts off near the end of the war and shows us a culture in which ordinary people have acclimatised themselves to the daily loss of human life. This, after all, has been the short sharp era of war widows and men on combat missions who never come back. People are inured to loss, so the non-reaction of Ridgefield, the aerospace patriarch to the wartime death of his son, Chris (Denholm Elliot), as a trainee pilot in a Tiger Moth, and the post-war death of son-in-law Tony (Nigel Patrick), as chief test pilot in his prototype jet, seem identically callous, but have their roots in the stoicism of a life surrounded by danger. But in peacetime, Lean asks through the figure of Todd as Susan Ridgefield, is such sacrifice really necessary? Unfortunately, the father-daughter conflict does not assume the central dramatic thrust it needs, either through Rattigan’s script or Lean’s direction. There is perhaps a holding back because the film is bifurcated between the figure of Susan as a defiant heroine and the figure of Ridgefield as a ruthless patriarch. The joys of the new technology falls somewhere in between. Both central characters, though well played by Todd and Richardson, are too one-dimensional, their dialogue arch and unbending, while the hapless pilots of the piece, Chris, Tony and Tony’s friend, Philip (John Justin), who finally breaks the speed of sound, are all jolly good chaps in that idiom of the British war film of the time.

Though Lean uses state-of-the art prototypes from Vickers and De Havilland in the making of the film, and bold second-unit filming for impressive aerial photography, he is also myth-making for post-war Britain. Tony and Susan take a jet day trip to Cairo, looking down at Paris, the Alps and the Parthenon on the way, in an aerial Cook’s tour of Europe for British audiences still stuck their side of the channel. At Cairo airport, they stroll out onto the tarmac as if it were a simple extension of British airspace and British territory, a unique pre-Suez moment. Back at base, Ridgefield claims the UK aerospace industry is two years ahead of the Americans, a claim seen as documentary truth by gullible audiences who were not to know that the Americans had gone beyond Mach 1 several years earlier, but at the start of the new Cold War were keeping the information classified. Still an Empire, still ahead of the global field – the twin illusions the nuclear arms race and the debacle of the aborted Suez invasion of 1956 were about to shatter. And it shows in Lean’s further meditations on Englishness that soon followed, the two post-Suez epics that made his name in the new age of CinemaScope and Panavision. Here, he forges a new strain of fanaticism in his English protagonists and places them on overseas terrain: Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) operating on Arabian territory just beyond Suez with a tribal guerrilla army, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in River Kwai defying and then capitulating to the Japanese occupiers of colonial territory (Burma), which at the time of filming was no longer a colony at all.

The Sound Barrier

The fanatical sublime generated by these two pictures comes from two things: first, Lean’s boldness in leaving a hothouse, enclosed Britain that now constrained him for foreign locations which inspired him – he was never, location-wise, to come back – and, second, the revival of a strain of religiosity that gravitated to the sublime landscape – the jungle or the desert. Metaphorically, cinematic colonisation replaces political colonisation, but only through an oblique register of the latter’s nemesis. The two films are corrosive on the limits of Empire, but also bittersweet laments for end of it. In this, there is little room for Ann Todd or anyone like her that Lean might look to. Yet, Todd it was whose bold performance of the perverse in Madeleine leads to the fanatical strain that Lean takes further in Nicholson and in his myth-making reinvention of Lawrence. Lean also built on the previous performances of Todd in which she had displayed her talent – not only The Paradine Case, but the box-office melodrama with a sadistic James Mason, The Seventh Veil (Compton Bennett, 1945) and the underrated noir thriller from Lewis Allen, So Evil My Love (1948), in which she sparks a remarkable onscreen chemistry with Ray Milland.

Both films exhibit the a power in their heightened melodrama, but Lean’s films with Todd refine this power and he delivers a disturbing sophistication in his play on genre that only Hitchcock matches in the Hollywood of the time. Even The Sound Barrier, whose ending comes close to Œdipal kitsch, shows Lean able to circumvent obvious cliché. Now widowed, bereft of husband and brother, Susan returns to the family mansion with her young son, John, who is named after his grandfather, and through whom the dynasty can now continue. There is forgiveness and calm reconciliation as all three – Ridgefield, daughter and grandson – walk away together from the camera in rousing unison. It is part sentimental image but it is also uncanny. It exhibits on the surface the cosiness of the nuclear family unit, but instead it is a residual unit of survivors – those in the family who are still alive. It is almost as if the patriarch had wished it so, for, in a film that is completely asexual, he has symbolically displaced his two rivals who die in flight. It is not only Richardson who conveys his hidden powers of longevity, but also Todd at one stage removed where she is tellingly re-active. Yet, it also a film in which action and feeling hive apart – as will happen again in Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter. Prior to that, the smaller, intimate scale of British melodrama with the added bonus of Todd’s performance had served Lean well. In constructing later Bovaryist epics in a modernist era and outside the British domain, Lean seemed stranded. He could not extract from Julie Christie or Sarah Miles (from the 1960s generation of English actresses) the fluent, enigmatic performances that Todd had earlier given him. But, then, he was no longer working on that intimate scale that had allowed her to do so. A price was paid for the triumph of the sublime, and it proved irreversible.

Select Bibliography

Roy Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema (London: Secker and Warburg, 1978)

Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (London: Faber & Faber, 1970)

Kevin Jackson, Lawrence of Arabia (London: British Film Institute, 2007)

Geoff Mayer, Guide to British Cinema (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003)

Alain Silver, “David Lean”, Senses of Cinema (2004). Accessed 15 February 2008

Adrian Turner, The Making of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (London: Dragon’s World, 1994)


  1. Alain Silver and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1992), pp. 45-7.
  2. Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), p. 269.

About The Author

John Orr is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, the author of Contemporary Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) and Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2005), and co-editor with Elzbieta Ostrowska of The Cinema of Roman Polanski (Wallflower Press, 2006).

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