Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Madeleine (1950)

Madeleine (1950)Synopsis:

A young British socialite, Madeleine (Ann Todd, The Sound Barrier), begins a clandestine love affair with a poor Frenchman (Ivan Desny, Lola Montès). She knows her rich father will never approve of the relationship, so Madeleine decides to go after a wealthy gentleman (Norman Wooland, Quo Vadis) instead. When her lover suddenly dies of arsenic poisoning, the young woman is accused of murder.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Based on a real-life murder trial that took place in Victorian England, Madeleine is David Lean’s 8th film and his only murder-mystery. It’s very much in the vein of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, specifically the master’s costume suspensers like Jamaica Inn and Under Capricorn. Because Lean is such a great stylist the film also resembles some of producer Val Lewton’s horror films of the 1940s.

Lean called Madeleine “the worst film I ever made.” I sort of agree with him. Of the seventeen feature films Lean made over a career that spanned five decades, Madeleine sticks out like a sore thumb. That being said, he shouldn’t have been ashamed of it.

Madeleine isn’t a great movie by any stretch of imagination, but I found it strangely compelling. I particularly loved its Gothic atmosphere. My main complaint is that I could never figure out what Lean was trying to say here. He is vague to a fault. Because we are kept in the dark about the main character’s feelings and motivations — is she a murderess or not? — the film fails in engaging viewers in a totally exciting way.

Lean always insisted that he had decided to make the film as a favor to his then wife Ann Todd, who was dying to play the title role. She had seen a play about the murder case and urged Lean to adapt it for her. The elusive nature of the character creates an identification problem. As I said before, we are never sure what the heroine is up to, so you never feel any sympathy for Madeleine. The problem is compounded by the fact that the story is told entirely from her perspective. A colder and more unsympathetic character is hard to find anywhere else. At the end, you don’t care whether she’s guilty of not.

Todd gives a superb performance as the chilly heroine and that helps a great deal. She has that old icy butterfly thing that characterized the work of Grace Kelley, Tippi Hedren, and Catherine Deneuve. Aside from Todd’s work, the acting in the film is effective, but unmemorable. However, the film sports some superb technical attributes. Guy Green’s noirish B/W camera work and John Bryan’s sets are fantastic. Marge Furse’s costumes are impressive too.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

I’ve talked to many film buddies and almost everyone agrees that this one of Lean’s lesser efforts. I still think Madeleine is an interesting movie. Not one of Lean’s best movies to be sure, but good enough to be considered a (minor) achievement. Recommended with caution. With Leslie Banks (1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), André Morell, and Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle). B&W, 114 minutes, Not Rated.

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