My affection for the cinema of David Lean is decidedly equivocal. He practically defines the British “Tradition of Quality” strain of filmmaking that favors taste and literary pedigree over personal sensibility and stylistic adventure. You’ll never find the fierce authorial intelligence or cinematic thrill of Alfred Hitchcock, or the fearlessly romantic imagery or wild heartiness of Michael Powell, in a David Lean film. I’m respectful of the crisp professionalism of Brief Encounter but not moved by the encounter. On the other hand, neither Hitch nor Powell could have created an epic work with the mythic dimension and human grounding and sheer visual sweep and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia. And the wide-eyed charge and understated warmth (not to mention a genuinely Dickensian cast for a big screen incarnation of the colorful supporting characters) he brings to Great Expectations pumps the blood through the smartly adapted script.
With Hobson’s Choice (1954), Lean brings broad humor and light satire to the “Tradition of Quality.” As in his Dickens adaptations, there is a sharp sense of class distinction and the safe distance of period filmmaking with which to make it. But he also plays off those great expectations of period seriousness in the opening scenes, as the prowling camera establishes the deserted cobblestone streets and the signs on the shop windows on a rainy night before slipping inside the quaint 19th century boot shop to take inventory of the fashionable boots and smart shoes on display. The stillness is cracked by a pounding thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. Then a human shadow falls ominously upon the shop door. It’s a moment right out of Great Expectations, until that shape belches and stumbles through the door to reveal Charles Laughton in comic mode, playing the drunk and loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed.
Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work his shop as unpaid employees. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work. She decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny. Willie, the meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. John Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.
Set in the industrial Northern England of Lancashire in the late Victorian era and peopled with a colorful cast of Dickensian folk, Lean creates a vivid sense of place and atmosphere, with the assistance of crisp photography by Jack Hildyard and detailed production design by Wilford Shingelton. This is no picaresque cobblestone and quaint storefront recreation of an idealized past, but a ruddy place where working class Willie lives in a miserable rooming house in a squalid slum and a walk in the park ends by the river, where the view takes in acres of industrial plants sprouting smokestacks into the sky. Maggie leaves the cozy but cramped family home, overstuffed with showy dÃ©cor, for a dark, noisy basement apartment and shop, and turns the Spartan quarters into a home for her and Willie, who still seems in shock from the whirlwind pace of their almost businesslike courtship and sudden leap into their own business.
Lean has plenty of ideas to work with â€“ the play was beloved British institution for forty years before Lean took his turn at it â€“ but he works those details beautifully. When Willie slowly takes off his wedding suit, nervously anticipating his wedding night, we see a man too poor to afford the full suit and faking it with a false shirt bib and cuffs, but proud enough to put up the outward appearances for the ceremony. The younger sisters are flirtatious but shallow creatures, snooty and stuck on themselves and suffering from social pretensions that would have them snub Willie, a man who has earned his way with his hands. Maggie has no such illusions of social privilege and stature. “My brains and your talent will make a working partnership,” she promises, but she’s not all mercenary calculation. She sees a future with him and works to bring out his own pride and ambition and sense of self worth.
The film is most famous for Laughton’s “Dance of the Puddles,” a comic set piece where Hobson drunkenly “chases” the moon from puddle to puddle on the wet cobblestone street, trying to catch the reflection that keeps outrunning him, until he tangles with a set of chains around an open chute in the sidewalk. But Hobson’s Choice is not his choice â€“ or his story â€“ in the end. It’s powered by Maggie and given heart by Willie and his journey to self respect and confidence.
Criterion produces the film’s DVD debut with a crisp print and sharp transfer. Alain Silver and James Ursini, co-authors of David Lean and His Films, provide solid tag-team commentary, offering historical details and critical observations in an approachable framework. The disc also features the 1978 BBC program The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton, a 44-minute biographical sketch of the actor from the documentary series, and the original trailer. Armond White writes the original essay in the accompanying booklet.
For more views and reviews:
I wrote a feature on the film for Turner Classic Movies
Dave Kehr’s short review in The New York Times
Gary Tooze takes a more technical look at the disc at DVD Beaver
Other notable DVD releases this week:
The Kaiser’s Lackey, Wolfgang Staudte’s 1951 adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan – my DVD review on MSN
The Midnight Meat Train, an American adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story by Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura – my review on Parallax View
Changeling, from director Clint Eastwood – A.O. Scott in the New York Times