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Author: Brian McFarlane

Brian McFarlane’s The never-ending Brief Encounter is above all a book intended for those who have seen and never forgotten the famous 1945 film in which two decent, middle-class people meet by chance, unexpectedly fall in love, but in the end acknowledge the claims of others. The book grew out of an article, the writing of which revealed that there was so much more to the after-life of the film than the author had realised. This book examines David Lean’s film in sufficient detail to bring its key situations vividly to life, and to give an understanding of how it reworks Nöel Coward’s somewhat static one-act play to profound effect. It also examines the ways in which the ‘comic relief’ is made to work towards the poignant ending. However, the main purpose of the book is to consider the remarkable after-life the film has given rise to. The most specific examples of this phenomenon are, of course, the appalling film remake with its miscast stars, and the later stage versions – both bearing the original title and attracting well-known players and positive audience and critical response – and an opera! As well, there are films and TV series which have ‘quoted’ the film (usually via black-and-white inserts) as commentary on the action of the film or series. There are many other films that, without direct quotation, seem clearly to be echoing their famous predecessor; for example, in the haunting visual quality of a deserted railway platform.

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Author: Brian Mcfarlane

Lance Comfort began to work in films between the age of 17 and 19, more or less growing up with the cinema. When he came to make 'B' films in the 1950s and 1960s, his wide-ranging expertise enabled him to deal efficiently with the constraints of tight budgets and schedules. He was astute at juggling several concurrent plot strands, his prescient anticipation of postwar disaffection, the invoking of film noir techniques to articulate the dilemma of the tormented protagonist. Comfort's reputation as a features director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries such as Noel Coward. He had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. Comfort is not the only director who enjoyed his greatest prestige in the 1940s and drifted into providing fodder for the bottom half of the double-bill in the ensuing decades. There were six intervening films, justifying the journalist who described him in early 1943 as the Busiest British film director. Great Day, Portrait of Clare, Temptation Harbour, Bedelia, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust were his six melodramas. He was an unpretentious craftsman who was also at best an artist, and in exploring his career trajectory, the viewer is rewarded by the spectacle of one who responded resiliently to the challenges of a volatile industry.

Author: Brian McFarlane

The 1940s represent a high point in the history of British film, characterised by the works of such recognised greats as David Lean and Michael Powell. But alongside this ‘quality cinema’ there exists a body of popular productions by film-makers who have not yet been the objects of detailed scholarly attention. Four from the forties addresses this oversight, drawing attention to four directors whose career trajectories had a good deal in common and can tell us much about what British film-goers expected from the cinema in this crucial decade. Leslie Arliss, Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles and Lawrence Huntington were all born at the turn of the century. All had been active in a range of film-making functions in the 1930s, and all would do their most proficient and popular work in the 1940s, thereafter prolonging their careers into the 1960s through ‘B’ movies, co-features and television. Taken together, they offer a commentary on the changing fortunes of mid-century British cinema.

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Brian McFarlane

In the disastrous 1974 remake of Brief Encounter, almost every aspect goes wrong. The casting of glamorous international stars reduces the sense of ordinary people facing emotional conflict, and the structural change also undermines this. The short gay take on the original, Flames of Passion, offered a wordless version, which found some festival favour but not general release.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
Brian McFarlane

Chapter 2 offers a necessary account of the film’s narrative content and how this is structured. It also deals with Coward’s uncredited contribution to the screenplay. Though the war is not mentioned, and the period of the film is unspecified, its resonance in relation to the months near the end of the war is considered here in a general atmosphere of emotions being submitted to more than usual strain. Matters of class, the casting of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard and the critical reception are also raised here against the 1945 background. When it was first released, the film did not attract universal plaudits, but it did find some national and international critical favour.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
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Brian McFarlane

Several earlier novels as well as some other earlier films had adumbrated the central conflict of Brief Encounter. Perhaps it was the sheer ordinariness of the protagonists and how they are performed by less well-known actors that made such a strong appeal. By comparison with the film, the Coward play from which it is adapted appears limited and somewhat stiff.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
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Brian McFarlane

This chapter introduces the idea of Brief Encounter’s remarkable after-life. It outstrips other notable films in the varied ways in which it has persisted in the collective memory. Some of these ways will prove more trivial than others but all will contribute the book’s central contention.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
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Brian McFarlane

As distinct from those films that directly ‘quote’ from Brief Encounter, there are many more that seem in various ways to echo it. We can’t know to what extent the filmmakers involved had Brief Encounter in mind, but the fact is that its essential scenario and moral core still retain their emotional power, despite the shifts in cultural mores, irresistibly suggesting the long shadow it casts. Those titles considered here involve, to varying degrees, a relationship whose outcome foregrounds the conflict of desire and – what? – convention, other obligations, decency and other circumstantial and/or moral pressures that one or both protagonists take into consideration. It is not simply a matter of ‘duty’ but, as well, a real concern for the well-being of other people and for one’s own self-respect, the two being intricately connected in Brief Encounter. And there are recurring images, visual and aural, that recall the old film.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
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Brian McFarlane

This chapter records some of the numerous references to the film, either by invoking the title to make a point about the emotional conflicts involved, or in more sustained situations. The latter include a witty advertising film for refrigerators and a potter’s enactment of a scene between two lovers who raise their coffee mugs that are engraved to reveal emotional responses. The range of such allusions, along with many usages of the title in novels and reviews of yet other books, reinforces our sense of the far from still life of the movie.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter
Brian McFarlane

Radio versions, drawn from the film not the preceding play, attracted many well-known actors. There were also two plays and an opera bearing the film’s title and narrative outline, the opera stage perhaps less amenable to the intimacy that was part of the film’s appeal. The Kneehigh Company’s production was especially imaginative in its use of mixed-media resources. The TV film, Staying On, saw Johnson and Howard reunited in an Indian-set tale with some details that recall the old film, at least for the cognoscenti.

in The never-ending Brief Encounter