Classics From Criterion: THE BROWNING VERSION (1951)

One of the things I enjoy the most about the Criterion Collection is discovering hidden gems within the collection.  There are always the splashier, more famous titles that we all know and love for good reason.  But every once in a while I pick up a movie that I have heard little to nothing about, one I have never seen before and find interesting and give it a go only to find that it is an amazing film that deserves to be talked about more.  THE BROWNING VERSION is one such film.

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Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master of classics at an English public school.  Getting on in years, he has been forced to leave his position due to poor health.  At the suggestion of his doctor, Crocker-Harris is taking a lesser position at a smaller school and leaving his classics behind.  His current class is less than dismayed at this turn of events.  “The Crock”, as the boys call him, is not well liked either by his students or his peers.  He is pedantic, reserved to the point of being stuffy, and generally unable to endear himself to his fellow man.

Someone who does not suffer from this problem is Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie (Jean Kent).  In fact she has made many friends, including the science master Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) with whom she has been carrying on an affair.  She despises her husband, seeing him as weak, ineffectual, and totally absorbed in his work.  Clearly she had different ideas as to what her husband would be doing with his life and career when they got married.  She has given up on any hope of happiness with her husband, and her husband has given up any hope of happiness in his life at all.

Crocker-Harris is aware that he is disliked, aware that his students not only dislike him but loathe him as well.  He also knows that his colleagues have no regard for him and that his career is not what he wanted to make of it.  He knows that his wife dislikes him and that any semblance of a happy marriage has disappeared long ago.  He feels himself a failure, not only as a teacher but as a man, and he has resigned himself to being a failure for the rest of his days.  When he meets his successor and hears that fellow staffers refer to him as “The Himmler of fifth level”, he is hurt but accepts that this is only proper and just considering what his life is.  It isn’t until one of his students, a lad named Taplow, brings him a good-bye present that things begin to change for Crocker-Harris.

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THE BROWNING VERSION is based on a one act play written by Terence Rattigan, and was adapted for the screen by the same.  While the play ends when Crocker-Harris receives his gift from Taplow, the film continues on and gives a much more complete and emotionally satisfying ending.  The fact that Rattigan himself wrote this new ending is perhaps more reassuring that this was the ending that he always meant to infer with his play.

If you are hoping to find something similar to GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS then I am afraid you will be extremely disappointed.  THE BROWNING VERSION is an examination not only of a man’s life and his family, but also of failures of all kinds.  The failure of unfulfilled dreams, of incompatible love turned into mutual destruction, of disconnection, and resignation to ones lot in life.  It also asks the question, when is it too late to change or is it ever too late?

I have heard this film described as a man looking back on his life and realizing that he has been a failure in his job and his marriage.  But I think that that is a very simplistic view.  I think that Crocker-Harris was aware that he had failed in many aspects of his life but it wasn’t until he was presented with the end of his current position and with a possibility of some kindness and consideration that he must confront this failure and decide what is to be done.  Tallow’s gift echoes pieces of Crocker-Harris’ past, pieces that he had given up and that those around him have forgotten.  For a moment when he receives this gift her can see a possibility of happiness once again if only he could figure out how to get it.

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Mrs. Crocker-Harris could easily been seen as a purely nasty person but I think that she has been disappointed just as her husband has, but her disappointment comes from the man she married and his inability to be the person she wants him to be.  When she realizes she can’t inspire or affect him to become that person, she decides to destroy him instead so that she can at least have some satisfaction from watching him to respond to something of her making.  While many of the people in THE BROWNING VERSION are mean, I would not say any of them are bad.  Rather they are all unhappy and dissatisfied in their own ways, and they each respond to this dissatisfaction differently.

This film also presents a fairly unflattering portrait of public education staff life.  Teachers are shown to be petty, rude, and gossipy.  Another teacher is leaving along with Crocker-Harris but he is leaving to play cricket and the difference between the two farewells is obvious and hurtful.  When the head master asks Crocker-Harris to allow the younger master to give his farewell speech second, a slight to the more senior master, because the expected response and applause will be far greater than the one for Crocker-Harris, we can feel the harshness of the comment because it is something that still happens today.  Popular sports outweighing academia once again.

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Finally, Michael Redgrave is phenomenal.  He carries this film utterly and he manages to portray Crocker-Harris not only as a unpleasant person but also as one that we can sympathize with.  We can dismiss him as simply a man who has failed at life but if we take the time to really listen to the words being said and really see the nuances in Redgrave’s performance we will see that here is a man who once had hope and promise, and through a series of decisions has lost that.  There is tragedy here and it is a tragedy that we can all relate to as who among us hasn’t had a moment where we wondered, “What if?”

 

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The CMBA Fall Blogathon: THE LADY VANISHES (1938)

This post is part of The CMBA Fall Blogathon: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Be sure to take a look at all the other entries here!

It is always difficult to talk about Alfred Hitchcock films, not because they are bad but because they are so tricky and well plotted that one is constantly making sure not to spoil the surprises of the story.  With that in mind we will proceed with a mild spoiler warning.  I will not give away the ending but as we talk about the film a few plot points may be revealed so if you are sensitive to that or have not seen this film yet, you might want to keep this in mind.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a young Englishwoman on a mission.  She is trying to get back to London in order to marry her chosen fellow but a recent avalanche has blocked the railways.  She and several other passengers are stranded at an inn in the country of Bandrika, including cricket fans Charters and Caldicot, a lawyer called Todhunter, his “wife” Mrs. Todhunter, and governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty).  That night Iris is having a terrible time getting any rest due to music being played in the room above her.  When she complains to management they remove the musician from his room.  This is all fine and dandy for a time, until the musician shows up at Iris’ door.  Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), a fellow stranded passenger, having been dispossessed of his lodgings has decided that he will now share a room with Iris, much to her chagrin.  Unlike Iris, Miss Froy enjoys music and is listening to a local folk musician playing under her window.  Unseen by her, someone comes from the shadows and kills the man.

Morning comes and Iris is already having a bad day.  On her way to the train she was hit on the head by a planter and had to be helped aboard by Miss Froy.  Iris blacks out and when she awakens she is in a compartment with Miss Froy and several Italian women.  Iris and Miss Froy strike up conversation and soon make their way to the dining car for tea.  Iris asks for the name of her new friend but is unable to hear her answer over the roar of the train.  Miss Froy writes her name on a window for Iris to see and the two continue their pleasant afternoon.  Upon returning to their compartment, Iris falls asleep.

When she awakens, Iris cannot find Miss Foy any where.  The other people in the compartment claim to have no knowledge of an elderly English woman.  Stranger still Todhunter, who had actually spoken to Miss Froy, now claims to have never seen her as do Charters and Caldicot.  The European doctor on board, one Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), believes that Iris is suffering from a concussion and has imagined Miss Froy but Iris is insistent.  The only person will to believe Iris is Gilbert, and the two begin searching the train for their lost friend.  Their search turns up nothing but as they return to Iris’ compartment they spy a familiar hat.  Hurrying forward they find a woman…a German woman, one dressed exactly like Miss Froy but one who is decidedly NOT Miss Froy.

First conceived as a script called The Lost Lady, to be directed by Roy William Neill, the first film crew was kicked out of Yugoslavia after the local police found that they were not being portrayed in a positive light and the project was scrapped.  A year later when Alfred Hitchcock could not find a project to direct to fulfill his contract with producer Edward Black, he was offered The Lost Lady.  Hitchcock accepted and after some tweaks to the script, THE LADY VANISHES was born.  For his leads Hitchcock chose two relatively unknown actors.  Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, who was a rising theater star but had no influence in cinema.

I love Michael Redgrave.  He brings such a great quality to Gilbert, who comes across as a roguish character with truly decent heart.  He is utterly charming and you can’t help falling for him.  Margaret Lockwood is terrific as well, portraying the character of Iris as intelligent and determined without being obstinate.  The best parts are when Iris and Gilbert are working together.  She knows what she saw and who she is looking for, and he is initially somewhat amused by her but as time goes by he becomes more and more certain that something is going on.  He always believes her but at first he takes it more lightly until finally becoming completely convinced that something terrible is going on.

This is also one of my favorite Hitchcock films.  It has what can only be described as a cracking good mystery with some truly entertaining and complex suspects.  Each supporting character has reasons and motives to be suspicious, each one feels like a fully fleshed out person and not like a piece of the background.  There is also such terrific wit and intelligence to the dialogue that just listening to the characters talk is an engrossing experience.  THE LADY VANISHES is fun, thrilling, tense, and unexpected.  I love every minute!

As this is a blogathon about transportation let us take a moment and talk about the train in THE LADY VANISHES.  It is practically a character unto itself.  In each scene the sounds of the train can be heard, the characters gently swaying with the movement.  The train adds several elements of suspense to the story.  First there is a question of space.  A train is small, cramped, with many places to hide but not enough room to move quickly.  This means that around every corner and in every compartment there could be someone hiding and listening.  It also means that escape is difficult but pursuit is even more so.

The fact that a woman has vanished in such a small space also makes the mystery so much more confusing.  How could a woman vanish on a moving train and no on see her?  It doesn’t make sense!  One of the things that Hitchcock did best was to get into his audience’s heads.  He manages to make the audience think and feel exactly the way his main characters do.  So while Iris is astonished and confused about the disappearance of Miss Froy, we are as well.  We want to know why people are lying about not seeing a woman that they spoke to the night before?  We want to know why a woman has vanished from an enclosed space?  The train is the perfect environment for this mystery to occur.

There is also a deadline, a time when the mystery will no longer be solvable.  The train approaches its final destination and with each station that passes the question of what happened to Miss Froy becomes more and more difficult to solve.  Each stop is a chance for someone to get off the train, a chance for new people to get on, a chance for someone to hide something or leave something behind.  And when the train finally stops at the last station it won’t matter if Miss Froy has been found or not, everyone will depart and it will be almost impossible to find them all again.  Each stop, each lurch of the train, each squeal of the brakes and hiss of the engines adds a layer of anxiety to the story as we feel the stakes rising each time and the chances of discovering the truth behind what happened to Miss Froy falling in return.