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Tag Archives: Finlay Currie

Great Expectations (Dec. 26, 1946)

I’ve never held Charles Dickens in the high esteem that many others do. Granted, I’ve only read one of his novels in its entirety — Hard Times (1854). Based solely on that book and the story “A Christmas Carol,” which I’m pretty sure I’ve read in its original form at least once, Dickens was a splendid caricaturist. I could picture every facet of the grotesque antagonists and tenacious protagonists of Hard Times. They looked and acted like real people. But it was all on the surface. None of them felt like real people, and I was never convinced that they had internal lives or realistic motivations. I’m a big fan of psychological realism and believable characters, so if I’m going to read a Victorian novel, I’d much rather it be by George Eliot or Thomas Hardy than by Dickens.

The only other Dickens novel I’ve ever taken a crack at was Great Expectations (1861), which was assigned reading in my 9th-grade English class. I never finished it. (Sorry, Ms. Lee-Tino.)

But based on the roughly 25% of the novel that I did read, David Lean’s Great Expectations seems like a pretty solid adaptation. Orphaned boy Phillip “Pip” Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his ill-tempered older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), a kind-hearted blacksmith. One night, out on the moors, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), who makes him promise to return with food and a file with which to saw through his chains. The terrified Pip keeps his promise, but the authorities arrive on the scene, Magwitch attacks another escapee, and they’re both taken back to prison.

Soon, we meet one of Dickens’s great grotesque characters, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), a mentally twisted shut-in who is gleefully brainwashing her beautiful young charge Estella (Jean Simmons) to be the ultimate heartbreaker, and punish men who are foolish enough to fall in love with her. Pip is sent to Miss Havisham’s on a regular basis to improve his manners, but it should go without saying that he ends up receiving a very different kind of education.

All of this is very well done, and beautifully filmed — especially the scenes at night on the moors. The problem for me came after about 40 minutes, when several years pass and Anthony Wager is replaced by John Mills — as the adult version of Pip — for the rest of the picture. Although Pip has only supposed to have aged a few years (from boyhood to manhood), Mills was 38 years old, and the effect is jarring. He’s perfectly handsome, but he just doesn’t look like a young man starting out in the world. The other major actor to change is Estella, which is even more jarring. The gorgeous 17 year-old Jean Simmons is replaced by the 29 year-old Valerie Hobson, who is far less charming than Simmons and looks nothing like her.

Great Expectations premiered in the United Kingdom on December 26, 1946, and opened in the United States during the spring of 1947. At the 20th Academy Awards, it was nominated for best picture, David Lean was nominated for best director, and the film was nominated for best adapted screenplay. It won two awards, one for best black and white cinematography and one for best black and white art direction.

I enjoyed it, but the change of actors in midstream and the general Dickensian nonsense of the plot kept me at arm’s length. Great Expectations is beloved by a great many people, however, so if it sounds as if it’s up your alley, by all means check it out.

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I Know Where I’m Going (Nov. 16, 1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the talented pair of writers, producers, and directors whose early collaborations included One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944), worked together under the name “The Archers” throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and produced some of the most enduring films in British history. Powell was a native-born Englishman. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who found refuge in London and who prided himself on being “more English than the English.”

I Know Where I’m Going, which premiered in London on November 16, 1945, is a warm, romantic drama. The film stars Wendy Hiller as Joan Webster, a stubborn young woman who, according the narrator, “always knew where she was going.” After a montage that shows Joan’s growth from headstrong toddler to headstrong teenager to headstrong 25-year-old, we see her dressed in smart clothes, meeting her father (played by George Carney) at a nightclub, where she blithely informs him that she plans to travel to Kiloran island in Scotland to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy, middle-aged industrialist whom she has never met. Her father is aghast, but, as always, Joan knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s doing.

Handled differently, this setup could lead to a grim, Victorian melodrama, but I Know Where I’m Going is a playful film with touches of magical realism. On her trek to the Hebrides, Powell and Pressburger delight in each leg of her long journey (and there are many), and pepper the montage with fanciful touches, such as a map with hills made of tartan plaid, a dream sequence in which Joan’s father marries her to the chemical company owned by Bellinger (literally), and an old man’s top hat that becomes the whistling chimney of a steam engine.

On the last leg of her journey, she is forced to put up in the Isle of Mull, as weather conditions do not permit water travel to Kiloran. Joan stays in touch with Bellinger, who is never seen, only heard (as a stuffy voice on the other end of a telephone). While cooling her heels in Mull, Joan meets a charming, soft-spoken serviceman named Torquil MacNeil, who is on an eight-day leave. (Torquil is played by Roger Livesey, in a role originally intended for James Mason.)

The joke implicit in the title becomes more and more clear as Joan and Torquil begin to fall for each other. The closer they become, the more determined she is to reach Kiloran. Eventually willing to risk life and limb to get there, it becomes clear that at least when it comes to love, she has no idea where she is going, and is too hard-headed to see anything clearly.

Livesey, who was in his late thirties when this film was made, was originally told that he was too old and too heavy to play the role of the 33-year-old Torquil, but he very quickly slimmed down to get the part, and he cuts a dashing figure, although not a classically handsome one. Interestingly, Livesey never set foot in the Western Isles of Scotland, where most of the film’s exteriors were shot. He was starring in a play in the West End during filming, so Powell and Pressburger made clever use of a body double for long shots, and filmed all of Livesey’s interior scenes at Denham Studios, in England.

Besides its fine performances and its involving love story, I Know Where I’m Going is enjoyable to watch simply because Powell and Pressburger show such incredible attention to detail. The interiors may be shot on a soundstage, but it’s easy to forget that with effects that perfectly marry them to the location footage, such as rain lashing the windows, subtle lighting, and the shadows of tree branches moving back and forth on the walls of the houses and cottages on the island. There are no short cuts or cut corners in this film. Joan’s dreams don’t appear in a cloud of dry ice or in soft focus, they swirl kaleidoscopically around her head. And elements that might seem silly in another film, such as an ancient curse hanging over Torquil’s head, seem palpably real when they’re embodied by shadowy, decrepit, and glorious real-world locations like Moy Castle.