David Lean

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Brief Encounter
C L A S S I C   F I L M

1945 Classic romantic drama

UK BW 82mins


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  • Celia Johnson Laura Jesson
  • Trevor Howard Dr Alec Harvey
  • Cyril Raymond Fred Jesson
  • Stanley Holloway Albert Godby
  • Joyce Carey Myrtle Bagot
  • Everley Gregg Dolly Messiter
  • Margaret Barton Beryl Waters
  • Dennis Harkin Stanley
  • Valentine Dyall Stephen Lynn
  • Marjorie Mars Mary Norton
  • Irene Handl Organist


  • Dir: David Lean
  • Prod: Anthony Havelock-Allan
  • Scr: Nol Coward, Lean, Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame, from the play Still Life by Nol Coward
  • Ph: Robert Krasker
  • Ed: Jack Harris
  • Mus: Sergei Rachmaninov
  • Art Dir: L.P. Williams


    Trevor Howard later became a wonderful actor, but, oh dear, there were a lot of things that went straight over his head.
    - David Lean, during the filming of Brief Encounter, 1945

Alexander Walker has written, 'To several generations of filmgoers, Howard had always been the romantic Englishman - his reputation as such sealed by one film. Brief Encounter. Howard a romantic? Well, not for very long. He was thirty-two when Brief Encounter was made and Celia Johnson eight years older. Yet Brief Encounter has a passion and power that lifts it head and shoulders above the conventional love story. It is simply one of the best films ever made.

Written originally by Noel Coward as a forty-five-minute dramatic sketch called Still Life, it took place in a single setting, the refreshment room of the fictitious Milford Junction train station. In the original 1935 stage production Coward played Alec, the married doctor, opposite Gertrude Lawrence, for whom he had written the piece, who played the respectable suburban housewife Laura. It was Coward's private joke to make the housewife's first name the first half of his glamorous co-star's surname.

Alec and Laura meet originally by accident in the refreshment room while waiting for their respective trains. Laura gets some grit in her eye and Alec, displaying his doctorly skills, comes to her rescue. During further encounters a strong mutual attraction develops, and they start meeting by arrangement. Their friendship blossoms into love, but, realizing that they will hurt people close to them if they continue their affair, they decide to part. She returns to her family, who suspect nothing, and he departs to a new life in Johannesburg.


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Coward had discovered during the filming of In Which We Serve (1942), his first collaboration with the triumvirate behind Cineguild - director David Lean, producer Anthony Havelock-Allen and screenwriter Ronald Neame - that although he enjoyed having his work turned into movies he disliked film-making. He had faith in Cineguild and gave it a free hand to interpret his work as the company saw fit, but he insisted on being consulted before the cast was finalized. Brief Encounter was their fourth collaboration, following on the heels of This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945).

Lean had originally wanted to sever his links with Coward after Blithe Spirit. The Maestro's ascerbic comedies had helped him to make a name for himself and had been fun to do, but it was time for a change. He wanted to move on. But when he told Coward of his plan to adapt and film a historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, Coward looked aghast. 'What do you know about costumes?' he demanded to know, and when Lean hesitated for a moment Coward answered his own question. 'There, you see? Nothing. And I know nothing either! For heaven's sake, David, don't be a fool. Stick to what you know best.'

Coward then offered him Still Life which he thought might be worth 'having a go at'. He put it no stronger than that and, as originally written, one can see why. It was a one-act stage play, all talk and no action, in a solitary, drab setting. Very un-Cowardlike, dreary and terse from start to finish. When Lean tactfully pointed this out, Coward said, 'But I thought you wanted to escape from comedy. Really, David, you must make up your mind.' It was agreed that Coward would convert Still Life into a film script and that other writings would be shelved until the words were ready.

Lean felt certain that the project was a dead duck, but he owed Coward at least the benefit of the doubt until the script was delivered. It was typical of Coward to do the unexpected. When the revised article arrived ten days later, Lean was impressed but continued to harbour doubts, and he said so. A further rewrite was completed by Coward in four days. The theme of forbidden love and guilt had been retained and the story expanded to include visits to a cafe, a cinema and a boating lake, a drive in the countryside and an attempted seduction in a friend's apartment which goes horribly wrong. The essential ingredients of the film were in place.

Celia Johnson, a particular favourite of Coward's after In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, was his first choice to play Laura on the screen. The director and screenwriter shared his enthusiasm for her. Coward had no clear-cut choice of an actor to play Alec but believed that Roger Livesey would do an excellent job. Lean could not visualize Livesey as a persecuted romantic. He also wanted an actor who was, as yet, unknown in films, so that the character could be shaped by the storyline and not by any preconceptions of the actor. Unfortunately he could think of no one suitable and was beginning to feel depressed about it when, by chance, he was invited by Anthony Havelock-Allen, who was to produce Brief Encounter, to see a rough cut of The Way to the Stars. Howard's playing of the nonchalant but fated RAF flight commander caught Lean's eye.

Afterwards Lean commented, 'He [Trevor] only had one shot on an aerodrome. A plane came in over the field and did a victory roll. Trevor looked up and said, "Lineshoot." It was wonderful. Just that one word, the way he said it and the way he looked. I said to Tony, "That's him! That's our Alec!" Havelock-Allen agreed. When they brought the scene to Noel Coward's attention at a private viewing, Coward watched the film in silence, right up to the moment when the Howard character is killed off. He signalled for the projectionist to halt the screening, turned to Lean and said crisply, 'Well done. Don't let's look any further.'

A silly misunderstanding almost cost Howard the role. The script was forwarded to his apartment in Pall Mall by his agent, Eric Goodhead, but it remained unopened and unread. Howard was the world's most reluctant opener of envelopes - letters lay untouched on his hall-mat for days, as his wife Helen has readily confirmed, and on this occasion Goodhead failed to track him down with the good news that the role was his for the asking. After days of hearing nothing, the producer phoned Howard at his apartment to ask if he could attend a meeting at Denham that same afternoon.

    'Out of the question, old chap,' said Howard.
    'Might I inquire why?' asked Havelock-Allen.
    'Certainly,' replied Howard, 'Today I'm taking Helen to see This Gun for Hire.'

Havelock-Allen could not understand why watching an Alan Ladd film was more important to Howard than a costume fitting for his first major role, but that was not the case, at all - as the actor ruefully explained when the two men came face to face the following day. The misunderstanding was quickly sorted out, and they both had a laugh about it. 'Blame Eric,' said Howard. He always blamed Eric, whether or not the long-suffering agent was at fault.

With most of the action taking place in and around a railway station, and with the war still on, permission was needed from the Ministry of War's transport department to film the exteriors. The south of England was ruled out. It remained vulnerable to aerial attacks, particularly from the V2 rockets, seen by many as Hitler's last-ditch attempt to recover the initiative. Carnforth, in Lancashire, on the London Midland and Scottish line, then approaching its first centenary, was one of several stations suggested by the Ministry as being suitable, that is, outside the potential danger zone. One of the reasons why Lean favoured Carnforth was the design of the walkway between the station platforms and the subway that linked them. The walkway had a slope rather than concrete steps. He thought that Laura would look more dignified and composed - 'swan-like' - hurrying between platforms.

He also liked Carnforth because it had long ceased to be a mainline station. The surburban service that used it no longer operated at night, which meant he could work uninterruptedly on those atmospheric night scenes. Seeking to employ local extras, the production company, Independent Film Producers Ltd, contacted the Morecambe Visitor which printed a story on 24 January 1945 under the headline 'Chance for Film Fans'. It wrote, 'Those people who have desires to appear in films . . . will have opportunities commencing Monday February 5th onwards ... the shots will be taken between 10.00 p.m. and 5.00 a.m. and it is stated that meals and good remuneration will be provided. It should be very interesting and perhaps good fun.'

Filming began at the station on that date and continued until the 18th, the final activity being the recording and rerecording of steam engine noises, of trains starting up and braking to a halt and flashing past the platforms at eighty miles an hour. Lean liked the results so much that he used these same effects in his 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

The cast's home-from-home while on location was the Low Wood Hotel on the eastern shores of Lake Windermere, where hot food and coal fires were especially welcome when they arrived back after those wearying zero-temperature, all-night shoots. At first, Celia Johnson had hated the idea of being miles from home at 'some horrible station ... up north' and would certainly have turned down the offer but for the tremendous appeal of the character. Her first glimpse of Carnforth Station, bleak and desolate in the bitter January wind, did nothing to dispel her doubts. Later, when filming got under way and she got to know people, including several locals who had been recruited as extras - and was offered a few small but unexpected courtesies, such as being allowed to pass the time between takes in the warmth of the station-master's office - Celia's dislike for the location mellowed sufficiently for her to concede in a letter home that 'working in the station is far better than I expected . . . there is a very good atmosphere on location'.

Filming was paused at half past one every morning for a brief dinner break. Food was served in two restaurant cars commissioned for the purpose. The cast and senior production staff ate in one of the cars, and the technicians and 'lower orders' had the second one. Celia was unimpressed by the standards of catering and said afterwards, 'Most of it was uneatable - and, goodness, I'm not fussy!' This view would have found little sympathy among the extras and other minions on the set, who were delighted at being rescued, if only for a couple of weeks, from the rigours of wartime rationing. Yet despite the discomforts, the freezing cold, the unsociable hours and catering which Celia felt left a lot to be desired, she remembered it as a contented, well-managed unit. Even David Lean, who lived off his nerves much of the time, seemed calm and relaxed.

The script was opened out so that audiences would see the lovers going to the cinema, together in a rowing boat, taking a drive, lingering over a stone bridge. The 'stone bridge' sequence was the last one filmed in the Lake District, at Middle Fell in Langdale, after the company had already wrapped up at Carnforth. There was a regrettable delay of two days because, being February, the light levels were poor. On the third day, impatient to return south to get on with the boating sequences, which were scheduled to begin on Regent's Park boating lake on 23 February, Lean took a gamble, opened the lens up and filmed on the bridge. Two further locations in the south of England were used to good effect in the film. The fictional town of Milford, where the lovers have tea and go to the pictures, was filmed on the streets of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, and the cinema where they watch Flames of Passion was, in reality, the Metropole in Victoria, London, where 'business as usual' meant that the crew could only gain access to the auditorium after the building emptied, usually at around 10.30 or 11 p.m. each night.

By late May, when these sequences were shot, Howard had become so used to working on this film during the night that he was in his element when the cameras started turning. Celia, however, had never been much of a night owl and told friends that the whole business was getting her down. Some critics who applauded her tetchiness in the film were unaware that it had its basis in reality.

There was also a slightly incongruous dream interlude in which Laura succumbs to her romantic fantasies and imagines Alec as the perfect lover, sweeping her off her feet to the lush second movement of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2, played on the soundtrack by Eileen Joyce, with Muir Matheson conducting the National Symphony Orchestra. To this day the music and the film have become inseparable. These soft-focus images and passionate sounds are counterpointed starkly by the uncosy, unwelcoming apartment where Laura's guilt and Alec's ham-fisted attempts at seduction drive the final wedge between them.

Unlike the two lovers in the film, no visible sparks flew between Celia and Trevor Howard in real life. Both Celia and David Lean formed negative opinions of him at first, although she conceded halfway through filming that he was 'going to be good'. But later, in a letter to her husband Peter Fleming, she called Howard 'pleasant but pretty stupid'. The cause of their impatience may have been that Howard was relatively new to filming, unfamiliar with the techniques and protocols of the industry and perhaps slower on the uptake than she or David Lean would have liked.

Lean never tolerated actors querying explicit directions and became irritated when Howard asked questions. But challenging the director's authority was the last thing he intended. He merely wanted to know what Lean had in mind. In the theatre it was normal behaviour to discuss directions. One flashpoint between them was the scene in which Laura arrives at the borrowed apartment, where their joy at finally being together is marred by the realization that they are about to betray their married partners whom they love. To ease their consciences, they start talking inconsequentially about the weather and the firewood and the rain - everything except what they are about to do.

Coward had employed a similar tactic earlier in the film when the couple's mutual attraction first begins to develop into something serious. Alec talks animatedly about his aspirations as a doctor and his belief in the importance of preventive medicine, but the real cause of his excitement - hers, too - is their deepening mutual attachment, which neither of them can bring themselves to admit.

On the way to the apartment Laura has got soaked by the rain. Alec warns her about catching cold. Howard muttered the lines to himself a few times, then turned to Lean and said, 'If you don't mind me saying so, David, this sounds fucking awful.'


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Lean wanted to know why he felt that way.

Howard said, 'I know why she's here. She knows why she's here. What's all this stuff about the rain and the fire not starting and the damp wood? Why doesn't he just get stuck in?' The actor was clearly a lot more certain of his ground than the dithering Alec.

Lean sighed wearily and tried to explain. 'Listen, Trevor,' he said. 'Have you ever been put with a girl, ever been on a dance floor with her, and you know that you're going to make love, whether it's her place or your place, it doesn't matter, but you know it's going to happen. And then when you get there and the door is shut and you are alone, just the two of you, everything has changed and there's a kind of embarrassment that you hadn't got when you were surrounded by people?'

Howard stared at him for a moment, shook his head and said, 'God, you are a funny chap.'

Stung by the remark, Lean replied, 'Funny chap or not, that's how we'll do it.'

Afterwards, Lean observed, 'Trevor was so insensitive he didn't know what we were doing half the time. He later became a wonderful actor, but, oh dear, there were a lot of things that went straight over his head.'

Laura's character was the main focus of the story, in so far as the impact of the affair and later the break-up are viewed entirely from her perspective: it is her family, not Alec's, which comes under the spotlight. After the break-up, when he strides off to catch his train, he's gone, out of the picture. We learn nothing about him from that moment on. There is no information as to whether or not he succeeds in getting his life back into any kind of order or, indeed, if he ever manages to get to Johannesburg. Yet without Alec there is no story, no affair, no drama, nothing to resolve, and Howard was frustrated by what he saw as undue deference to Celia. The huge difference in their salaries also rankled. Howard was paid 500; Celia received 12,000. Even allowing for the fact that she was an established star, paying Howard just 4 per cent of her salary seems, in retrospect, rather mean. Alfred Bergus, a young fireman at the time who helped to put the locomotive through its paces for the cameras, told a reporter that 'Celia Johnson was friendly and spoke to us. She was beautiful, a real lady.' Howard, by contrast, he remembered as 'a bit reserved . . . unapproachable'. The disparity in their pay-cheques may have had something to do with it.

Everyone agreed that the title of the play, Still Life, was completely inappropriate for the film. This was a movie, and the title suggested a bunch of flowers on canvas. Ever the ringmaster, Coward conceded an uncharacteristic lack of inspiration. 'I've been racking my brains. Now it's your turn!' he told his art supervisor Gladys Calthorpe (who designed the truly eye-catching hat that Celia Johnson wore in the 'grit-in-the-eye' scene). 'Let's not try to be too clever. We need something a bit snappy, something brief.'

Gladys thought for a moment and said, 'You want something brief? What about Brief Encounter?' Coward repeated the words aloud a couple of times and nodded his head. Later he would jokingly claim to be the author of half the title.

Victory for the Allies in Europe was formally confirmed on 8 May 1945, a month before the interiors of Brief Encounter were completed at Denham Studios. The two weeks at Carnforth had yielded just over ten minutes of screen time. It took Celia Johnson four days to record the narration, at the end of which she confessed to feeling exhausted and suffering from laryngitis. After seeing the rough cut of the film Noel Coward wrote in his diary: 'Celia quite wonderful. Trevor Howard fine and obviously a new star. Whole thing beautifully played and directed - and, let's face it, most beautifully written.' He told Lean, 'I don't know how you could have done it better.'

More than half a century later Coward's assessment still holds true. Craftsmanship leaps from every frame. The emotions that today would be expressed differently seem fundamentally honest. It is easy to imagine Laura's predicament, having to choose between a loyal but dull husband and the charismatic Alec. It was a dilemma with a national perspective. The war had separated millions of families, but now it was the duty of government - which had split them originally - to reunite husbands and wives and children and keep them together. To rebuild itself into a cohesive nation Britain needed to re-establish family life. It was the recipe for not only stability and progress but for that other important ingredient which had also been missing from people's lives - happiness.

If there was a message in Brief Encounter it was a warning against yielding too easily to temptation. Enjoying a bit of slap and tickle between air raids - characterized in the film by the saucy banter between the ticket collector and the buffet manageress - was harmless enough, but serious affairs like the one between Alec and Laura had to be resisted for the sake of the families and for society as a whole. Coward's script, although set just before the war, read in places like a government White Paper on post-war morality. Guilt and hesitancy ran through it like lettering through a stick of rock. And the establishment view triumphed in the end. Conscience got the better of passion, and everyone went back to square one. Laura thought she wanted a dream lover, but when she landed one the only garment she would remove for him was her hat.

Imaginative use of light and shadow created the atmosphere and captured the tension that occupies the core of Brief Encounter and which holds the story together. Lean relied heavily on his director of photography Robert Krasker to achieve the effects he wanted. Krasker, who had Austrian and French parents, developed his technical skills in pre-war Germany as an exponent of German expressionism; its stark imagery, menacing shadows, strategic and economic use of lighting and low-angle camerawork later were to become the hallmark of Hollywood film noir. As Alec and Laura cross under the subway we see Krasker's skills in action - their shadows on the wall, enlarged and distorted, give advance notice of their appearance; a passing train pumps white-hot steam into the black sky. The mood of tension and alienation created by Krasker extends to the faces of the couple as they walk sadly, wordlessly, to their last goodbye.

Nobody at Cineguild realized that they had a movie classic on their hands, because the first reactions to the film were unpromising. A preview in Rochester, Kent - held there because Lean had already started location work on Great Expectations (1946) - went badly wrong when the audience, apparently more street-wise than Alec, guffawed at his lame attempts to get Laura into bed. The hope that its slightly risque theme would appeal to French audiences were dashed when the distributors in France, Gaumont, refused at first to handle it, but they changed their minds when it won the Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. Its reception was warm but unexceptional. In 1946 Celia Johnson was nominated for Best Actress at the American Academy Awards. She failed to win the ballot. David Lean had a nomination for Best Director, but he, too, was unsuccessful.

While the passage of time has been kind to Brief Encounter, its reputation became a millstone round Howard's neck in later years. 'Anyone would think I made nothing else,' he once roared after slamming the phone down on yet another caller asking him to talk about Alec Harvey. Right at the tail-end of his career, while filming White Mischief in Kenya in 1987 , accompanied by his good friend and occasional 'minder' David Williams, Howard found himself being treated to a showing of Brief Encounter. At the end of a day's filming the unit camped on location at Lake Naivasha, miles from the comforts of their Nairobi hotel, were sometimes shown a film in the main dining tent. News that Brief Encounter would be screened ensured a bigger audience than usual that night.

Howard acknowledged their applause at the end with his usual courtesy. As they walked outside, Williams said to him, 'I've never understood all the fuss about Brief Encounter, Trevor. I think The Third Man is a better film.' Howard went rigid, then launched himself into what Williams called his 'bull moose roar'. 'So do I!' he shouted. 'So do I!'


    1946: Nominations:
    Best Director, Actress (Celia Johnson), Screenplay


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