A poor country boy named “Pip” (John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter) becomes a gentleman with the help of a mysterious benefactor (Finlay Currie, Ivanhoe). However, 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 lavishly produced Great Expectations remains one of the all-time best book-to-film adaptations — it’s a near-perfect picturization of British novelist Charles Dickens’s 1861 legendary book of the same name (first published in 1861 as a serial in a highly popular British weekly literary magazine).
Director Lean initially 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 (This Happy Breed), came up with the film’s ending. The shooting script is credited to Lean, Cecil McGivern (Blanche Fury) and producers Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure) and Anthony Havelock-Allan (Brief Encounter).
The drama comes courtesy of Dickens, but the look is Lean’s. The director had been impressed with director Michael Curtiz’s (The Adventures of Robin Hood) use of long focus in the Oscar-winning wartime melodrama Casablanca (1942) and instructed cameraman Guy Green (A Patch of Blue) to mimic Arthur Edeson’s (All Quiet on the Western Front and The Maltese Falcon) brilliant work for Curtiz.
The stunning production design, by John Bryan (Pygmalion), which mixes German expressionism with post-war realism, shows how much British cinema had grown over a relatively short period of time. Art director Bryan had to adjust the sets to the proposed camera angles, not the other way around. Great Expectations looks fantastic, and both Green and Bryan were awarded Oscars for their extraordinary work.
There are many memorable sequences. The scenes in the graveyard are justly legendary — it’s a textbook on how to combine 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 actors are extraordinarily effective, too. Minus Valerie Hobson, who isn’t all that good 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 role 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 director David Lean’s career. The success of the movie also gave British cinema a much-needed shot of vitality. Plus, Jean Simmons fans need to see one of her first great performances. A classic! B&W, 118 minutes, Not Rated.