By Claudia Siefen-Leitich
When David Lean took his first job as “teaboy” at the British Gaumont Studios at the age of twenty, it didn’t take him long to spend his first nights in the editing room. He was fascinated by the techniques for making films that were possible at that time. He had enjoyed a strict upbringing until then: within the British Quaker community, his parents had forbidden him to go to the cinema regularly. He was allowed to work on the set to the extent that he had to operate technical equipment there and had no intention whatsoever of indulging in storytelling. In order to keep his promise to his parents, he worked on the set exclusively as a camera assistant, changed film roles, filled in the camera reports and papers, and kept away from the actors. Which first led to some outbursts of amusement with his mentor, the director of light-hearted relationship comedies Maurice Elvey (1887-1967). Elvey finally put the young man into the editing room.
In his early years, from 1928 to 1930, Lean moved back and forth between the set and the editing room, and already developed the first approaches that made his editing work stand out as something extraordinary. Didn’t actors need years to develop their own unique technique? This technique had to be recognized and made more tangible in the editing room. And in the end, it was just a matter of telling a story, not losing sight of it and keeping the audience in their seats until the last minutes. It took three films as “assistant to the director” (Sailors Don’t Care, 1928; The Physician, 1928; High Treason, 1929) to give Lean his first true place in the filmmaking industry: the editing room.
In the editor’s work, Lean can be assigned a fundamental pioneering work based on the old editing reports, which can be viewed at the British Film Institute: he collected the rushed arriving daily and arranged the individual takes shot chronologically according to the script version. Today this is part of the usual procedure in the editing room, not only to bring order to the existing material, but also to work out a first feeling and a first tension within the first days of shooting. First director Sewell Collins (The Night Porter, 1930) smiled about this, but he was finally grateful to be able to work more efficiently with this technique. The raw version of the film could be created in a more time-saving way and one could deal with the subtleties, for example in the dialogues, in more detail.
For the efficiency of the dialogue editing, Lean began by distributing the individual soundtracks to the respective actors. This made it possible to cut dialogues more quickly, and the actors were able to let each other speak without falling into acoustic “tone holes”. The speed of the sound editing logically led to the speed of the images. In Bernard Vorhaus’ Money For Speed from 1933, Lean’s predilection for fast but smooth cuts became apparent early on, not only to emphasize the content of the story. Lean combines the wild motorbike chases in a grandiose way between the studio shots and the races in an actual motorbike track; he also makes use of a sound archive created especially for these scenes, so that the corresponding engine sounds are not missing during the thrilling races.
Lean’s career established itself steadily. In 1942 he worked for the first time with the author Noël Coward (In Which We Serve): A British warship is shot off the coast of Crete; its survivors, clinging to a life raft, remember better days in complexly structured flashbacks. For his first official means credited film as a director, David Lean had to share his directing credit with screenwriter and leading actor Noël Coward, epic grandeur on the high seas and expert realism in detail! Over the years, this intensive collaboration was to develop into a private friendship. In Blithe Spirit, for example, a British writer in search of a bestselling material does not shy away from summoning his deceased wife at a seance, who now goes about describing the future wife of her godfather’s husband in an erotic, smoky voice, criticizing his lifestyle and confusing pretty much everyone involved.
Noël Coward had set up his stage opus in Kent’s glamorous, chic setting — the play was still a success with the public when Coward asked for a film version of his material. Lean, for his part, felt quite uncomfortable in the metier of “upper-class-comedy”. In keeping with the genre, Rex Harrison radiates the complacency of a fat chimney cat… But the eccentric, incompetent and best mood spreading medium (played by Margaret Rutherford) finally calls: “Let’s make it a real rouser!” — Coward should always be found in Lean’s work, often unnamed in the credits. His dialogues and their direction fit wonderfully into Lean’s stories, which as a central theme always bring the egocentricity of the respective main character to the screen. Loneliness resulting from misunderstandings: the visions of the protagonists could not be big enough for Lean, who originated in petty bourgeois circumstances.
Lean’s male characters over the years are imposing and constantly fail due to misunderstandings in their social environment. Examples such as The Bridge on the River Quai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Dr. Zhivago (1965), put Lean in the role of the “male director”. That this cannot be true is shown by the impressive list of Lean films in which he deals with the female view of the story to be told. Lean even proves to be a great feminist, in which he attributes to his female main characters a longing for freedom in search of themselves, just as he does to his much more famous male protagonists. The list is long: Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), Madeleine (1950), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Summer Madness (1955), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and finally A Passage to India (1984), his triumphant comeback after a fourteen-year break from work, triggered by the critical accusations against Ryan’s Daughter.
The classicist film adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel about a British Indian culture clash (illustrated by the momentous journey to India of a young English woman in the 1920s) once again combines Lean’s ironic criticism of British self-importance and shows his partisanship for self-determined women. From the magical light of the moon to the hideous stomping of approaching trains, Lean’s cinematic obsessions come to the fore for the last time. The landscape that Lean photographs can never be far enough to do justice to the dreams and hopes of its protagonists. And Lean never excludes women in these dreams, does not reduce their dreams to pure family happiness but shows their longing for a self-determined and free way of life. This is also the case in Madeleine: inspired by his then wife Ann Todd, Lean took this hot-blooded material about sexual desires, differences of status, discipline and traditional values to give it an ice-cold staging. His mastery in the staging of female desire is also unmistakable here. Ann Todd took on the role of Madeleine, but the real leading role is played by cameraman Guy Greene’s lighting design – despite the Victorian background, none of Lean’s works is closer to “film noir” than Madeleine.
But Lean also shows his helplessness in the face of all kinds of desires for freedom. In Sound Barrier (1952), he has Ralph Richardson addressing his daughter: “It’s a terrible thing to make a man doubt everything he has lived for so far. In Ryan’s Daughter Lean also addressed the helplessness that can afflict a man when he feels inferior to a woman. Lean avoids the level of dialogue as often as possible: one remembers less dialogue than images, and in his black-and-white productions Lean creates the same intensity of the unspoken word that he otherwise underscores with his colours.
The clash of cultures Lean courageously tears against the grain with Summertime: the innocence of the New World (Katharine Hepburn) makes its stomping entrance into the Venice train station! At first she scans the tourist attractions with her camera, but soon in the course of this “adult love story” the true possibilities of capturing memories for a lifetime are revealed to her. After her first encounter with the Italian antique dealer Renato, she is already struggling with romantic desires and the question of whether she should get fully involved or not. He turns out to be a married romantic and not very resistant to Hepburn’s grace and athletic, slender charm. Two worlds collide, but before the “wild Europeans” can be condemned by an American audience, Lean introduces a US couple on a vacation trip – all this phosphorized by the city of Venice, its noises, colours and smells.
Lean as a black and white photographer? After all, eight of his 16 films as a director are not shot in colour, and yet over the years the cliché has become established that Lean is an exclusively colour director. The depiction of loneliness manifested through “recognition” is shown by Lean, for example, in Brief Encounter he makes palpable the distance between Laura and her husband in one “over shou
lder”-shot: Two otherwise married partners, a housewife and a doctor, experience a brief, platonic and passionate love affair in a small English town. An expressive study on the incompatibility of erotic attraction and social norms. Lean’s production extends Noël Coward’s short drama, which served as a model for the film, by many atmospheric details and concise marginal figures; the deceptively banal entrance scene in the smoky station restaurant, which returns in a completely different meaning at the end of the film, is probably one of the most refined dramaturgical changes of perspective in western film history. And with the help of the light setting alone, Lean literally puts Laura in the shadows, so that she can observe her husband, sitting on the sofa and solving a crossword puzzle. In this process, Lean gradually draws the woman into the blur, while her husband is illuminated ever brighter, until finally the black and white contrasts blur. They blur, as does Laura’s own view of her husband and the question of whether she should confess her love affair to her husband.
The alienation of a person from their surroundings is a common thread running through Lean’s work. In Lean, alienation means above all the destruction of the long established purpose of life, which is usually not as dramatic as its content would suggest. Within this alienation, Lean focuses primarily on the contrast between the isolated and protected world of the protagonists and the existing, usually threatening environment. Words manifest this destruction, and it is the image ultimately found to this end that makes this process of destruction tangible. In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence gets into the car, his driver waiting for him. Lawrence literally shrinks into himself in the passenger seat; he is about a head smaller than his driver as the latter, in a good mood, steers the SUV onto the dusty road (Lean had the passenger seat removed and Peter O’Toole sat on a wooden box to emphasize the now drastic visual difference). Where are we going? asks Lawrence, completely irritated by the relaxed cheerfulness: Home, Sir…