The Passionate Friends (1949) *****

April 1st, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: David Lean | Writer: David Lean, Eric Ambler; Stanley Haynes, David Lean (both adaptation); H.G. Wells (novel) | Cinematography: Guy Green | Cast: Ann Todd, Claude Rains, Trevor Howard, Isabel Dean, Betty Ann Davies | UK | Drama | 95′

Before embarking on his widescreen epics, this romantic drama was Lean’s first filming foray outside the UK when he replaced Ronald Neame as director, due to clashes with Ann Todd. For his part, Lean had been having an affair with Todd for some time and the two would eventually marry sometime shortly after filming The Passionate Friends which competed in Cannes on the year of its release.

Travelling to Chamonix and Lake Annecy in Switzerland The Passionate Friends tells a similar love story to that of Brief Encounter (1945) although on this occasion the focus is on the ménage à trois rather than simply the couple in love, although all three characters here are aware of each other and essentially out of control concealing their emotional distress with a graceful sense of propriety and aplomb. The classic English rose Ann Todd stars as a woman who has one last flirt with the man she had fallen in love with (Trevor Howard’s Steven), before marrying Claude Rains’ rich banker for stability, wealth and social position. While on her luxurious Swiss holiday awaiting her husband’s arrival, Todd’s Mary Justin reflects on her previous lover who has been (unknowingly) booked into the hotel room next to hers. Mary had refused to marry Steven fearing their sexual passion would stifle her emotional integrity, and therefore her freedom to operate as an individual. With Howard she enjoys an affectionate companionship, but it she really as emotionally independent in her marriage as she imagines? In their thoughtful script, Lean, his co-writers and H G Wells explore how habit, affection and compatibility can be just as emotionally bonding as sexual passion, where marriage is concerned.

Captured in Guy Green’s box-fresh black and white camerawork, the elegant London interiors contrast with the magnificence of the Swiss lakeside settings to offer an enjoyable moral drama, and although it lacks much of the tear-jerking emotional undertow of Brief Encounter, The Passionate Friends is unexpectedly moving largely due to Claude Rains’ impeccable performance as the financier, Howard Justin. It is also notable for H.G. Wells’ romantic storyline that explores different kinds of loving and commitment – quite a departure from his usual Sci-fi writing but displaying a consummate understanding of male and female psychology – and Lean successful employs the use of flashback to achieve considerable dramatic tension, particularly in the final denouement.

Ronald Neame was not the only one to have issues with Todd. According to David J. Skal in the biography Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice: “Rains disliked Todd, who he felt had wasted everyone’s time through her prima donna behavior with Neame over the script and Neame’s direction. As Lean later told his biographer, Kevin Brownlow, “I said I was going to stop the picture. We couldn’t go on spending money at that rate. We had commitments to Claude Rains, and we had permission to pay him in dollars. You don’t realise how difficult that was. That had to be a top-level decision. He’d already been sitting there doing nothing for most of the time he’d been in the country.” In addition to his dislike of Todd, Rains was also concerned about Lean’s personal life which seemed to be slipping over onto the set and affecting the picture. He also knew that Lean was seeing a psychoanalyst at the time which didn’t bode well. Yet, Rains recognized Lean’s immense talent and said, “I can’t say enough about the man as a director. He’s magnificent.” (TCM).



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