A poor country boy named “Pip” (John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter) becomes a gentleman with the help of a mysterious benefactor (Finlay Currie, Around the World in 80 Days). But money and social status don’t make “Pip” happy — what he really wants is the love of the beautiful but heartless socialite Estella (Valerie Hobson, Bride of Frankenstein).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“In trying to become a gentleman, I had succeeded in becoming a snob.”
After all these years, David Lean’s Great Expectations remains one of the all-time best book-to-film adaptations — it’s a near-perfect adaptation of a fantastic book.
Based upon Charles Dickens’s novel, the screenplay was written by director Lean, Cecil McGivern and producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan. Initially, Lean was intimidated by Dickens and hired a scholar to produce an adaptation. When the resulting script proved to be unfilmable, Lean decided to work on the script himself. Lean’s then-wife, actress Kay Walsh (Oliver Twist), came up with the ending.
The drama comes courtesy of Dickens, but the look is Lean’s. The stunning production design, by John Bryan (Pygmalion and Major Barbara), which mixes German expressionism with post-war realism, shows how much British cinema had grown over a relatively short period of time. The cinematography by Guy Green (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.) is spectacularly good too!
Lean had been impressed with Michael Curtiz’s use of long focus in Casablanca and instructed cameraman Green to mimic Arthur Edeson’s brilliant work for Curtiz. Art director Bryan had to adjust the sets to the proposed camera angles, not the other way around. Great Expectations looks fantastic in b/w and both Green and Bryan were awarded Oscars for their extraordinary work.
There are many memorable sequences. The scenes at the graveyard are justly legendary; a textbook on how to use quick editing, camera angles and sound to create tension. It’s a scene of high visual purity. I also loved the climax at the decayed mansion.
The acting is extraordinarily effective too. Minus Valerie Hobson, who was clearly miscasted as the adult Estella. John Mills is very good, but the character of “Pip” is not a terribly interesting chap (blame Dickens, not Lean, for the character’s dullness).
The supporting cast steals the show. Martita Hunt (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) is perfect as Miss Havishman, a role she had played on the London stage. Jean Simmons (Elmer Gantry and Spartacus) is a revelation as the young Estella. She succeeded where Hobson failed. Simmons projects the right combination of arrogance and cruelty that her part demands. The cast also includes Bernard Miles (1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) and Francis L. Sullivan (Joan of Arc). Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) makes his film debut as Herbert Pocket.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Great Expectations was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The film won multiple awards and solidified Lean’s career. The success of the movie also gave British cinema a much-needed shot of vitality. B&W, 118 minutes, Not Rated.