“Riskiest Thing I Ever Did”: Notes on Brief Encounter

The mysterious letter was signed “Joe.” David Lean’s lawyer had sent me a batch of old correspondence. Struggling with a biography of Lean, I was desperate for any leads, and this one seemed worth following up. But how does one start looking for a bloke called Joe? I wrote to the address on the letter. A few days later came a reply. “Joe” Kirby was not a bloke. She had been one of David’s girlfriends. Sadly, Josephine Kirby had died in 1979. Her son, John Clay, the writer, suggested I pay him a visit. He explained that she had never mentioned David Lean to either of her two sons but that she had talked a great deal about him to his wife, Catrine.

“She always said, ‘He was the love of my life, and I never got over it,’” Catrine recounted. Jo Kirby came from Cheshire, and in 1935 David took her on a romantic trip to Italy. The affair was short-lived. Later that year, he ended the relationship. She was on a train, on her way back to Cheshire with a new fiancé, but couldn’t bear the thought of life without David. She got off the train and caught the next one to London.

This scene, so similar to the one played by Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (1945), evokes the powerful link between railways and love affairs. One needs only to hear the slamming of doors and the guard’s whistle to feel the heartache of parting. Dramatically, Jo’s impulsiveness should have brought about a reconciliation, but it didn’t. “She knew in her heart of hearts that it would never have worked,” said Catrine. “He was just too interested in other women, and she had the feeling that he just never would be faithful. She was dead right about him, but I don’t think being dead right makes much difference to how you feel.”

Handsome and charismatic, Lean was irresistibly attractive to women. He could have made film after film about successful seduction. How ironic it is that one of his finest and best-loved pictures should be about a repressed love affair. “Riskiest thing I ever did,” he said.

He was afraid the film would turn out to be little more than a women’s magazine trifle. “There were no big stars,” he wrote. “The main love story had an unhappy ending. The film was played in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were approaching middle age. A few years ago, that would have been a recipe for box-office disaster.” In those days, glamour and escapism had been what the cinema was for. But, with the war now ending, these were different times.

Lean would never feel confident with love stories. And at this point in his career, he was still regarded in the industry as a technician, albeit of the front rank; nothing suggested he would be an artist—a Cukor or Wyler of the future. He spoke of himself as “a frightened rabbit,” and directing films scared the life out of him. He had started as an editor and was being propelled into directing by Noël Coward (and the urging of his wife, Kay Walsh). They’d made three films together before this one, In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945), with Coward as overall artistic supervisor. How much of the success of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit had been due to the Coward plays? Lean would never forget the harsh words his mentor had used about Blithe Spirit—making him want to break away—so he was hardly in a state of euphoria at the prospect of another project with Coward. But to his intense surprise, he enjoyed making Brief Encounter, and even found himself in tears shooting the emotional moments.

The man who wrote it with such insight as a play was homosexual, and there is an unfounded rumor that it was intended to be performed by men. Perhaps its being so far from these artists’ experiences led them to use their powers of observation in an unusually formidable way. The background suited Lean’s love of railways—a Lean film is incomplete without a locomotive—and the opening scene, with the Royal Scot roaring through Carnforth station, filling the screen with backlit smoke and bringing up both the main titles and the Rachmaninoff, is a heart-stopping moment.

Robert Krasker, who had been a camera operator for Alexander Korda on The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and was fairly new as a director of photography, lights the picture in the standard studio style of the time. But some of the night exteriors suggest an admiration for the silent-era expressionism of Germany, where Krasker studied optics, and anticipate The Third Man (1949), for which he would win an Academy Award. Working with such a versatile artist encouraged Lean to experiment; watch the moments when the camera tracks into Johnson and the background fades to black, against all the rules of reality. And when the express screams through the station, triggering her moment of madness, the camera not only tracks into her but tilts (à la The Third Man).

Johnson speaks with that cut-glass accent so familiar before the war but now almost vanished, which could easily cause laughter today. Fortunately, she is such a skillful actress that her character—Coward called her “suburban”—comes across as a convincing and very touching woman. Coward was obsessed with class; the dialogue in the refreshment room between the “refained” Joyce Carey and the good old cockney Stanley Holloway is entertaining but forced, whereas the exchanges between the couple all ring true. Lean disliked the comedy scenes, but as producer Anthony Havelock-Allan pointed out, Coward was a skillful theater writer who knew that the story would be intolerably sad without them.

Lean and his Cineguild colleagues Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame—who worked on all the Lean-Coward projects—had wanted to do a historical romance about Mary, Queen of Scots, but were laughed out of it by Coward (“What do you know about costumes?”). Lean read Coward’s short play Still Life and summoned up the nerve to declare that it wasn’t very good. “This woman arrives at a railway station and gets some soot in her eye, meets this man, and they arrange to meet next Thursday, and it goes on, and in the end they part. It’s got no surprises in it. You’re not saying to the audience, ‘Watch carefully. This is interesting.’” Lean suggested starting like this: “A busy waiting room. There are two people sitting at a table, talking, a man and a woman. Through the door comes another woman, who sits down at the table. As she sits, talking and talking, you realize there’s something not quite right going on, and a train comes into the station. ‘That’s your train,’ says the woman. ‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘I must go. Good-bye.’ He shakes hands with the other woman, and then you go back and explain that this is the last time they see each other. They were never going to see each other again. And you play once more the first scene in the picture—it made no sense to you at all, and you didn’t hear half the dialogue—and that’s the end of the film, with an added piece, perhaps, with the husband.

“[Coward] said, ‘Say no more,’ and off he went, for about four days, and he came back with what was essentially Brief Encounter.

Havelock-Allan, however, insisted that Coward wrote none of the script. “The script was written by David and myself and Ronnie. You realize that Still Life was a half-hour playlet which takes place entirely in the waiting room of a station. We had to invent scenes that were not there. And there were lots of places where there was no dialogue. We said, ‘Could they go for a row in the lake? Could they go to the cinema?’ Noël said, ‘Only if they go to a bad film.’”

Neame recounted how the Cineguild trio had learned to write like Coward. “We all knew pretty well the way Noël wrote, and so we would fill in scenes. We would put stand-in dialogue until we saw Noël, and I remember on one occasion he said, ‘Which of my little darlings wrote this brilliant Coward dialogue?’”

With the world in such turmoil, Brief Encounter must have seemed a very frail subject on which to expend so many valuable resources. The Blitz was over, but in 1944 a second Blitz began when Hitler launched his secret weapon—the V-1 rocket-launched bomb. The Brief Encounter company were regarded as official evacuees. They had originally been assigned a London railway station for the main location, but Carnforth was safer, being so much farther north, even though large quantities of munitions were regularly routed through it.

Modern audiences are often puzzled by the fact that this famous wartime film shows no sign of the war—lights are blazing, trains run on time, chocolate is purchased without coupons. But Still Life was written in 1935, and the film is set in the late thirties. The reason Lean put up with Johnson’s outlandish peaked hat was to signal both the date and the fact that she was meant to be provincial.

The winter of 1944–45 was bitterly cold. When they weren’t needed, the actors huddled in the waiting room, where the stationmaster maintained a roaring fire. “You’d think there could be nothing more dreary than spending ten hours on a railway station platform every night,” wrote Johnson to her husband, “but we do the whole thing in the acme of luxury and sit drinking occasional brandies and rushing out now and then to see the expresses roaring through.” However, she confessed to appalling nerves over the responsibility of “carrying” the film. “I am scared stiff of the film and get first-night indijaggers before every shot, but perhaps I’ll get over that. You need to be a star of the silent screen because there’s such a lot of stuff with commentary over it. It’s terribly difficult to do.”

Celia Johnson was among Lean’s favorite actors. He also admired Trevor Howard, whose first major part this was. But he was startled when Howard claimed not to understand the scene in the borrowed flat, with its talk of the weather and the fact that the couple didn’t go to bed. Howard said, “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him—why doesn’t he fuck her? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.” Hadn’t he ever been with a girl, convinced they would be making love, asked Lean, and once the door’s shut, a kind of embarrassment takes over? “Oh, God,” said Howard. “You are a funny chap.”

It is strange that the film was not threatened with censorship, not even in America, where the Legion of Decency might well have reacted to the adulterous affair and the suggestion of suicide, even though neither is consummated. But that was far from Lean’s mind when the film had its first preview. Rochester was a foolhardy place to choose because it was right next to Chatham Dockyard, and the cinema was packed with sailors. “At the first love scene,” said Lean, “one woman down the front started to laugh—I’ll never forget it. At the second love scene, it got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh, and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles. I remember going back to the hotel and lying in bed, almost in tears, thinking, How can I get into the laboratory and burn the negative? I was so ashamed of it.”

But after Rochester, the film opened more widely, and a miracle happened. The public embraced it, people went to see it again and again, and it broke box-office records. In New York, it ran for eight months, and Johnson was not only voted best actress by the New York critics, she was nominated for an Oscar. David became the first director of a British film since Korda to be nominated, and he, Neame, and Havelock-Allan were also nominated for the screenplay.

Thus began the career of a classic, one of the most celebrated and fondly remembered of all British films. Brief Encounter had been transformed from a clever but minor play into a fine, cinematic film. Lean had acquired so much self-confidence that he was keen to break away from Coward, much as he loved and admired him.

“When David left Noël,” said Kay Walsh, “Noël was magnificent. He could have said, ‘I’ve done all this for you and put you on the map.’ He did no such thing. He understood that this was a man who didn’t want to put the camera in the stalls”—he wanted to break out on his own, and away from the theater. “David more or less indicated that he was trapped, and he was right. Noël set him free.”

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