David Lean passed away Tuesday at the age of 83, and with him went the hope that we'd get one more David Lean film. He had spent the past couple of years developing an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo," but financing eluded him, as did a satisfactory script.
Lean was a perfectionist, an Englishman who took his time preparing the movies he directed. His best-remembered works are the 1957 classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai," the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" (he won directing Oscars for both) and his biggest worldwide moneymaker, "Dr. Zhivago," released in 1965.Then came 1970's "Ryan's Daughter," which received a critical drubbing - something Lean wasn't used to. And, as he explained in recent interviews, he took the criticism to heart. His pain over the negative reception received by "Ryan's Daughter" and a lost opportunity, when his attempt to film "The Bounty" fell through, caused him to abandon filmmaking for 14 years.
When Lean finally did return to the business of making movies in 1984 with "A Passage to India," it was met with open arms - a critical and financial success that was nominated for several Academy Awards.
In 1989 "Lawrence of Arabia" was the subject of a much ballyhooed restoration project ("Bridge on the River Kwai" may get the same treatment in a couple of years). It was also Lean's favorite of his own films. And when critics compile all-time best-movie lists, "Lawrence" is generally in the top five.
And last year, while attempting to mount "Nostromo," Lean was honored with the American Film Institute's life achievement award. Despite all this attention, however, he was never quite able to get "Nostromo" off the ground.
"Bridge," "Lawrence," "Zhivago," "Ryan" and "Passage" mark what is commonly referred to as Lean's "epic period." All five films are frequently shown on television and are available for rent at most video stores.
But the less well-known body of work that preceded these is what I'll remember Lean for.
Lean began in the movie business as a "tea boy," essentially a gofer, in a London studio in 1927. He literally worked his way up to being an editor, first of newsreels and then feature films.
His first chance to direct came along in 1942, a co-directing credit with Noel Coward on "In Which We Serve." And it was clearly Coward's picture. In addition to co-directing, Coward also wrote the screenplay and musical score, and had a lead role among the ensemble cast. Though somewhat dated, this superbly crafted film still holds up quite well.
Working with Coward proved to be a fortuitous teaming and for Lean's first three solo directing efforts, Coward adapted the screenplays from his stage plays "This Happy Breed" (1944), "Blithe Spirit" (1945) and "Brief Encounter" (1946). Each is an excellent blend of comedy, pathos and commentary on the human condition. (I'm especially fond of "Brief Encounter," one of my all-time favorite films.)
Then followed Lean's two superb adaptations of Charles Dickens classics, "Great Expectations" in 1946 (considered by many critics one of the best films ever made) and 1948's "Oliver Twist," with Alec Guinness' unforgettable (and controversial) Fagin.
Lean then faltered a bit with a pair of soap operas in 1948 and 1949, respectively, "The Passionate Friends" (released in the United States as "One Woman's Story") and "Madeleine."
But his 1952 film "Breaking the Sound Barrier," about early jets and the pilots who tested them, picked up the pace.
Then, two years later, came his delightful comedy "Hobson's Choice," with Charles Laughton trying to marry off his daughters and intimidating poor suitor John Mills.
And finally, in 1955, "Summertime" (known as "Summer Madness" in England), a comedy-drama about a middle-aged schoolteacher finding romance in Italy, with Katharine Hepburn in what many critics consider one of her finest performances.
Unfortunately, of Lean's 11 pre-"Bridge" movies, only five are currently available on video - "Brief Encounter," Great Expectations," "Oliver Twist," "Hobson's Choice" and "Summertime." Some stores with older inventories may still have copies of "Blithe Spirit" and "In Which We Serve," which were once available.
Still, those should be enough for film fans unfamiliar with Lean's earlier work. Watching any of these will demonstrate why he was considered one of cinema's great geniuses.
It wasn't just huge extravaganzas Lean excelled at. In fact, one of the hallmarks of his later works was his ability to tell an intimate story within the framework of gargantuan production values and casts of thousands.
He learned how to do that by making his first 11 movies, which relied entirely on story and character and Lean's masterful touch in terms of both camera work and editing.
Truly, David Lean's death is a huge loss to the world of movies.
- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Omar Sharif: "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for `Lawrence of Arabia.' If it hadn't been made I'd still be in Cairo doing Egyptian films."
- QUOTE OF THE WEEK II: David Lean: "I hope the money men don't find out that I'd pay them to let me do this."