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Criterion Corner: David Lean Directs Noel Coward

One of cinemas greatest pairings, British playwright Noel Coward and Lawrence of Arabia filmmaker David Lean, forged a partnership to create several films that would provide high-brow entertainment for the masses.

None of these films were ever as successful as Lean masterpieces like Doctor Zhivago or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet the wit and craft of Cowards screenplays, when combined with Leans penchant for visual grace, resulted in films like Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, which would remain classics as long as Leans more successful counterparts.

The Criterion Collection has now assembled an expectedly comprehensive look at the output of their creative relationship in a box set entitled David Lean Directs Noel Coward, which is now available.

From Leans directorial debut in In Which We Serve to Brief Encounter, The Oracle takes a look at the collection that contains some of cinemas finest works.

In Which We Serve (1942)

Chronicling the tale of the British destroyer HMS Torrin, In Which We Serve is told in a series of flashbacks by a troupe of survivors as they cling to a life raft following the sinking of the Torrin. The film stands as a notable war film brimming with British patriotism, released amid the most trying times of World War II.

Leans directorial debut occasionally toes the line of propaganda, but is worthwhile if only for the chance to see Jurassic Park actor and Gandhi director Richard Attenboroughs first screen role alongside Coward, who plays the Torrins captain. Coward also co-wrote the films score, proving himself a multi-talented entertainer.

The Criterion picture transfer of the film is incredibly crisp, especially considering its been released in the past on DVDs that displayed the harsh toll that so many years can take on the quality of film cells. In Which We Serve isnt the paramount achievement of Lean and Cowards partnership, but its an unabashed look at wartime British cinema at its height.

This Happy Breed (1944)

A rare look at family life between World War I and World War II, This Happy Breed is a classic example of Coward encapsulating modern themes and events into one effective piece that is still quite potent by todays standards.

Breed concerns a working-class family headed by Frank (Robert Newton) and Ethel (Celia Johnson) Gibbons. The family struggles with many day-to-day issues that are present in a period of post-war national reconstruction. Yet the family also acts as a catalyst for its audiences to examine the personal trauma caused by this post-war world with the uneasiness of another possible war lingering, all while the family experiences new technological advances like that of the telephone.

An underrated gem in Lean and Cowards oeuvre, This Happy Breed can handle its themes heft by using the Gibbons family as an engaging way in which to siphon many of the films potentially dry matters, such as British politics.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Perhaps the most entertaining of the four films, Blithe Spirit is a whimsical comedy that blends its paranormal aspects and humor in a way that crackles on the screen.

When Charles and Ruth Condomine realize they are being haunted by the ghost of Charles first wife Elvira, they contact a medium named Madame Arcati to help them with their paranormal issues. The film doesnt have to employ found footage-style cinematography or schlocky effects to act as an effective chiller, as a seance scene between the couple and Arcati proves all thats needed is a few laughs and striking visuals to conjure up some chills.

Starring Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings, Spirit is a charming and lighthearted comedy that employs Leans visual prowess in a way that was absent from both In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Perhaps the best-known work of Lean and Coward, Brief Encounter is a story of forlorn love thats paved the way for everything from 1994s Before Sunrise to 2010s Up In The Air.

Following a serendipitous meeting on a train platform, a loyal suburban housewife (Celia Johnson) and a well-respected doctor (Trevor Howard) enter into passionate but forbidden love affair that could put both their lives and happiness on the line.

Its a film that British news publication The Guardian has coined the best romantic film of all-time, having earned three Academy Award nominations upon release and dozens of imitations have followed in its wake. Regardless, Brief Encounter stands as an unimpeachable classic, whose fog-filled train station offers a climate for Lean and Coward to craft one of the finest romantic relationships in cinema history.