My friend Lawrie worked as an AD on David Lean’s THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS. We watched a documentary where Lean appeared, the twinkly elder statesman, in interview.

“David seems quite charming,” said Lawrie. “He wasn’t.”

Some directors are delightful on set, but probably the minority. Lean was a scowler. Kevin Brownlow, in his majestic biography David Lean, describes the great man complaining when he got stuck on the above scene from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, that his crew were full of annoying suggestions whenever he knew exactly what he wanted, but when he was short of ideas they were silent.

Lean was a great believer in prep — “You cannot turn up on location and go wandering in the woods looking for inspiration — it WILL NOT COME,” — but somehow had arrived at this boardroom without a strong image in mind to bring the scene to life. A plain old wide shot, followed by close-ups, would give us the setting and performances alright, but would not express anything cinematic.

The IDEA Lean wanted to express in visual form was that Lawrence, a terror on the battlefield, was rendered impotent in this political setting.

I think Lean prowled the set for a few hours before coming up with this —

“Of course. He’s a shadow of his former self.”

This is for the class I’m teaching today — it’s my contention that dramatic filmmaking is inherently expressionist.

4 Responses to “Reflections”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    You’re quite right on that point. Just got a spanking new Blu-Ray of James Whale’s ‘The kiss Before the Mirror” and it’s full of such visual-dramatic eloquence. Made in 1933 between “The OldDark House’ and “The Invisible man” it’s a kind of romantic melodrama about men murdering their unfaithful wives and their wives’ beauty providing proof of their infidelity. It opens with Gloria Stuart (never more lovely) walking along a dark “Frankenstein’-like forest dell on her way to a rendez-vous with her lover (played by a young Walter Pidgeon0 seated before bedroom mirror she puts the finishing touches on her make-up before being shot dead by jealous hubby Paul Lukas. It sounds sensational on paper but on the screen it’s downright seductive because of Whale’s mastery of film technique.
    We see gun and hear not only the shot but the sound of Gloria hitting the ground. I wonder if Brian DePalma knows this great work.

  2. That’s a good one! I underrated it for years until I saw a beautiful print in Bologna. The remake, Wives Under Suspicion, with Warren William, also by Whale and just a few years later, is markedly inferior save for a dynamic intro to his character, a DA who keeps an abacus made of toy skulls to mark the number of killers he’s sent to the gallows (or is it guillotine?).

    On The Old Dark House, Whale told Gloria he was dressing her in a white satin evening dress because he wanted her to be like “a white flame running through the house.” A Lean-like image-thought.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    A good part of film-making is preparation. Scorsese for instance is very Lean-esque in how he prepares stuff meticulously. Others though are good at legging it. Scorsese of course is an expressionist.

  4. Lean would make tape recordings of himself talking about the scenes and then play that to the crew, I believe. Or maybe just to himself as a reminder. He didn’t actually storyboard the way Scorsese does.

    Scorsese also scribbled the names of the bands he’s going to use on the soundtrack into the margins of his scripts, I’ve just learned from Glenn Kenny.

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