The new David Lean Directs Noël Coward collection lets us thoroughly reassess filmmaker David Lean.  History favors Lean as a master of the widescreen epic—Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago—yet in his first four films as director, the David Lean on display cares about people, even when the movies themselves try to expand.

One could credit the influence of actor/lyricist/playwright Noël Coward, who helped develop these features, but Lean appears to be writing small independently of Coward.  Note their first collaboration, the WWII-set In Which We Serve.  Coward wanted an epic drama about the British Navy but Lean’s “epic” has a lower-case “e.”  His sea battles have some of the handheld intensity that made Das Boot so effective, with very few big establishing shots as Lean chooses to stay close to his intrepid seamen, highlighting their courage, their fear.  75% of the final cut doesn’t even take place at sea; Lean spends more time with his soldiers’ families since if we care about his heroes enough, our need to see them through the war safely will make the scant battle sequences more harrowing.

This Happy Breed continues the trend.  Whatever scope its premise suggests—we follow the working-class Gibbons clan through the major events in British history between World Wars I and II—falls subordinate to the family.  Lean and Coward chart the ebb and flow of this tightly-knit group with such precision; you anticipate what kind of adults the children will grow into, you shudder at the tragedies that threaten to pull the Gibbons apart.  The film has the casual rhythms of life itself, and the only flaws occur when Lean makes explicit Time’s passing using the world events surrounding his characters—the workers’ strike, the death of King George V.  Best just to watch the Gibbons live, and die, to feel that inexorable pull.

With Blithe Spirit, we find the anomaly; where the other three films are domestic dramas, this is a fantasy-comedy about a couple (Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings) haunted by the ghost of Harrison’s first wife (Kay Hammond).  Blithe Spirit has little emotional resonance, coasting along on Coward’s never-ending witticisms and the farcical plotting, but Lean compensates for the trivialities by going even tinier; he respects the source material’s staginess (Coward wrote Blithe Spirit for the theater), turning it into a chamber piece between four people (the fourth being Margaret Rutherford’s dotty medium).  In that sense, Blithe Spirit does fit in; think of it as a comical exploration on the perils of reconciling past relationships with current ones.  It just so happens, in this case, that one participant is already dead.

And then, there’s Brief Encounter.  Brief Encounter looks slight compared to Blithe Spirit, let alone Lawrence of Arabia: Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson star as a man and woman who meet in a café, fall in love, and meet up every Thursday for a few weeks before separating forever and returning to their spouses.  It runs only eighty-six minutes and has no sweeping romantic interludes; Howard and Johnson’s affair resembles a barely overheard conversation more than it does a grand melodrama.

It is also perfect and deserves a place in the canon next to Casablanca or Citizen Kane or The Godfather.  Lean and Coward create a masterpiece of subjective filmmaking; they entrench us so deeply in Johnson’s psyche that every minute emotional shift registers like a bomb.  DP Robert Krasker gives the picture the atmospheric texture of a film noir, and that feeling couldn’t be more apropos; even though it lacks the pulp of an Out of the Past, this tale’s heroes have noir in their bones: these good, flawed individuals make decisions that will leave permanent scars.

Through his collaborations with Noël Coward, David Lean became a scientist of the human story which makes it all the more peculiar that he all-but abandoned this mode.  The year after Brief Encounter, he jumped into the lavishly mounted adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and that scale kept rising until 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which sealed his legacy as the grandest architect of the epic genre.  Maybe it was inevitable; in only four films, he’d created the definitive statement on human psychology.  The only way to keep from repeating himself was to set the horizon itself as his next objective.  We are left, then, not with what could have been, but with what was, for one brief, shining run.

Criterion has utilized the BFI’s 2008 restorations of the four features, and the results are generally terrific.  The black and white entries (In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter) tend to look a little sharper than the color ones (This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit), but by and large, the prints are clean and well textured.  Each film also gets a crisp LPCM monaural audio track that is crisp and defect-free.

For navigating ease, Criterion has divided up its generous bonus supplements between the four discs.  On In Which We Serve: an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day; the A Profile of In Which We Serve documentary; an audio interview between filmmaker Richard Attenborough and Coward; and the trailer.  On This Happy Breed: another interview with Day; a conversation with Ronald Neame; and some theatrical trailers.  Blithe Spirit offers another Day assessment, a 1992 episode of “The Southbank Show” on Coward’s life, and the theatrical trailer, while Brief Encounter gets a Bruce Eder commentary, one last Day interview, the Profile of Brief Encounter featurette, the 1971 David Lean: A Self Portrait documentary, and the original trailer.  As always, Criterion’s package has a booklet, this time with essays from Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow.

Criterion’s work here rivals their exemplary America Lost and Found: The BBS Story box set; it is film history in four discs, and an eye-opening examination into a master filmmaker’s craft.  One of Criterion’s best ever products, and a clear front-runner for best Blu-ray of 2012.

David Lean Directs Noël Coward is available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: DAVID LEAN DIRECTS NOËL COWARD Offers a Master Class into...