Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949)


Mary Justin (Ann Todd, The Sound Barrier) is content with her marriage to rich financier Howard Justin (Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Mary has everything that she ever wanted; money, stability and a husband who adores her. The Justins attend a New Year’s Eve party where Mary meets her ex-boyfriend Steve (Trevor Howard, Ryan’s Daughter), and the unexpected encounter rekindles her passionate love for Steve.

Reaction & Thoughts:

In an interview, director David Lean stated that with The Passionate Friends he had intended to capture ‘thought’ on film, but felt like he had failed miserably. That’s why the film is short on dialogue and has lots of close-ups. I simply don’t agree with him. Using judicious editing and innovative camera angles, Lean takes us inside the characters’ minds. Perhaps the fact that Lean was at time seeing a psychoanalyst influenced his choices. I don’t know, but it worked for me. The technique makes the film both involving and visually exciting. Guy Green’s (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist) cinematography is particularly impressive. Green shoots some fantastic scenes, specifically the climax at the train station.

Based upon H.G. Wells’s novel, The Passionate Friends was conceived in an atmosphere of chaos. The title could have very well referred to the “passionate” people who made the film.

It began as the pet project of producer Ronald Neame and writer Eric Ambler. Neame wanted to direct it and was hoping to capture some of what had made Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) so special. It has never been established why Lean ended up rewriting a script that satisfied all the parties involved. Over the years, Lean refused to speak of his participation on the film, and Ambler and Neame never had anything good to say about it. Considering the atmosphere of discord that surrounded the film, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the film works as well as it does. It’s a bit cold around the edges, but it’s a fascinating psychological melodrama.

Todd, one of England’s biggest movie stars, was understandably annoyed with the turmoil, and Rains, who had been brought from Hollywood at considerably expenses, was not all that happy with what looked like a very unprofessional atmosphere. Yet Todd ended up marrying Lean shortly after the completion of the movie, and Rains developed a close friendship with Lean that lasted until the actor’s death in 1967 — that’s cinema for you, so much love came out of so much anxiety!

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Passionate Friends is not at the artistic level of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but it is a film that offers plenty of goodies, especially to Leanphiles — it’s a little gem! I loved the performances, the story, the superbly constructed flashbacks scenes, everything about it is top class. Give it a chance, I promise you won’t be disappointed. With Wilfrid Hyde-White (My Fair Lady), Betty Ann Davies (The Belles of St Trinian’s), and Arthur Howard (Moonraker). First film of Isabel Dean (Oh! What a Lovely War). B&W, 95 minutes, Not Rated.


6 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949)

  1. I have always thought this a superior film, and Ann Todd can do no wrong. The use of interior monologue is I think, far more successful here, than it was in: ‘Strange Interlude’.

    Lean was an able director, but seems to have had a need for what he plainly conceived of as: ‘scope’. I am glad he resisted that with: ‘The Passionate Friends’ (one can imagine the scenes in Switzerland, had he not), but he turned: ‘A Passage To India’ into a species of travelogue, thus losing the texture of the book. ( I have often wished Merchant-Ivory had produced it instead.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still need to watch Strange Interlude (I’m assuming you are talking about the 1932 film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play). Anyhow, you are absolutely right about Lean. I love his epics, but I do agree that something was lost after he became obsessed with “narrative breadth.”


  2. Wow – no wonder the film has been rather overlooked with all the turmoil surrounding it.

    That makes a lot of sense – now that you describe it – how it was meant to show thought on film. Like the scene were Rains is dictating to his secretary yet clearly thinking about Mary and Stephen not being at the theater. Perhaps it makes for a more “demanding” film – I felt like I had to pay closer attention to figure out exactly what the characters were feeling…like how it’s never spelled out that Mary seems to have a deeper love for Stephen in the end.

    Thanks for sharing your review of this film – it really helps understand the film a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So happy to find another fan of this one. I think it makes a good companion piece to Brief Encounter, as the two films share many similarities. The photography and location use in this film are beautiful. I think Claude Rains delivers one of his best performances here.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s