Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean's Great Expectations (1946)


For the uninitiated, the plot revolves around a poor country boy named “Pip” (John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter), who becomes a gentleman with the help of a mysterious benefactor (Finlay Currie, Quo Vadis). 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:

Based upon Charles Dickens’s classic novel, the screenplay is by director David 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. Lean’s Great Expectations remains one of the all-time best book-to-film adaptations.

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.

Lean had been impressed with Michael Curtiz’s use of long focus in Casablanca and instructed cameraman Guy Green (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.) to mimic Arthur Edeson’s work for Curtiz. That meant that art director Bryan had to adjust the sets to the proposed camera angles, not the other way around. The film 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 love the climax at the decayed mansion.

The acting is extraordinarily effective too. Minus Hobson who was clearly miscasted as the adult Estella. 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 characters are much more interesting. Martita Hunt is perfection as Miss Havishman, a role she had played on London stage. Jean Simmons (Spartacus) is a revelation as the young Estella. She succeeded where Hobson failed. Simmons projects the right combination of arrogance and cruelty that the part demands.

The stellar cast also includes Bernard Miles (Saint Joan), and Francis L. Sullivan (Joan of Arc). Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Star Wars) makes his film debut as Herbert Pocket.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Great Expectations was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It solidified Lean’s career and it gave British cinema a much-needed shot of vitality. B&W, 118 minutes, Not Rated.


2 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

  1. This is one of my favorite movies. The black and white cinematography is stunning, well-suited for the aforementioned blend of expressionism and realism. I do agree Hobson was miscast; I feel they should have just made Simmons up to look older. It’s not like she actually was a small girl and they couldn’t make her look like she was in her early twenties; she was about seventeen.

    Liked by 1 person

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