How a Picture Perfect Brief Encounter Dissolved into a Not-So-Still Life

Last night, when it was time to dim the lights, set up the screen, and decide upon a movie to take in, I could be convinced to leave Broadway and Hollywood behind to make it David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Mind you, it did not require much coaxing. I purchased a copy of the film a few weeks ago, but believed myself to be not deserving of experiencing it just yet. Some motion pictures are so grand that they demand not only our attention but our emotional receptiveness. I have always thought it possible, and indeed imperative, to approach art with a keen eye and an open heart, to feel it and to feel like thinking about it at the same time. To examine Brief Encounter without being enveloped by it would be tantamount to noting the ingredients of a great meal without taking time to savor it.

Only after I had dried the tears I was neither inclined nor able to hold back, did I go in search of another interpretation of the story—cinema reconstituted as radio drama. A while back, I did as much with Lean’s Blithe Spirit, but knew right away that, in this case, radio could not hold a candle to a portrait so delicately outlined and exquisitely lit.

When the Theatre Guild reworked both Brief Encounter and Still Life, the Noel Coward play of which the film is an adaptation, the show’s producers made a number of sensible choices. They managed to bring Ingrid Bergman to the microphone to assume the role of Laura Jesson, the married woman who inwardly rehearses the miracle and misery of her recent indiscretion rather than confessing it openly to the husband beside her. Subtle and dignified, Bergman is perfect for the part, her emotive voice well suited to capturing moments of dignity under the assault of passion.

At the time of the broadcast (6 April 1947), Bergman starred on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine, along with Sam Wanamaker and Romney Brent. Both her costars were heard in the Guild’s “Still Life,” with Wanamaker as Laura’s lover and Brent as her husband. Unlike Bergman, the two male leads do not quite communicate the vulnerability with which Trevor Howard and Cyril Raymond invested their parts.

Watching the film, I was under the impression that Laura was tormented by her overwhelming emotions, whereas the radio version suggested that she was torn apart by the two disparate men in her life, by the one wanting so little and the other demanding so much. What contributed to this impression was the way in which the adaptation by radio playwright and noted broadcast historian Erik Barnouw reframed Laura’s narrative without having access to a camera’s perspectival manipulations.

Lean’s film opens with the lovers’ last parting at the train station, a final farewell rendered furtive and mute by the sudden intrusion of one of Laura’s chatty acquaintances. Before the story of Laura’s affair unfolds in retrospect, the viewer already knows that something went terribly wrong for her, that the man who merely touches her shoulder has a stronger hold over her than she can permit herself to make public. Close-ups convey Laura’s grief, her isolation.

The radio version, on the other hand, opens with a scene of domestic life, as Laura’s husband struggles to control his two children who are unwilling to go to sleep before their mother returns home, presumably from a day of shopping. The listener is thus encouraged to prejudge Laura’s actions, to question the indiscretion of an inattentive mother who leaves her charge in the care of her husband while amusing herself with another man. Before she utters even one word of remorse, Laura is already a marked woman. In other words, whereas radio listeners are invited to accuse or pardon her, the film audience is given access to Laura’s own sense of guilt, her inner turmoil.

Generally, radio plays are quite capable of performing close-ups by means of whispered or closely-miked narration; in this particular cinematic challenge, however, the camera suggests so much more than unillustrated speech can express. When Laura acts on the impulse to end her life, her movements and features (pictured above) bespeak the horror that is her emotional imbalance.

In Barnouw’s adaptation, Laura merely talks in retrospect of having wanted to “throw [herself] under his [that is, her lover’s] train”—an unfortunate prosaic shortcut for the sweep and sway of Lean’s storytelling, aurally underscored images that reminded me, despite my love for the non-visual medium, what a sacrifice it can be to take leave of one’s complementary senses.

“War of the Worlds”: A Report from the Sensorial Battlefield

This 1950s paperback from my collection includes the script of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

We know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .

With these ominous lines, read by Renaissance ham Orson Welles, opened what is now the best-remembered and most widely discussed of all US radio plays—Howard Koch’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” (30 October 1938).  Apart from this introduction, a slightly tweaked passage of Wells’s original narrative, the infamous Mercury Theater production took great liberties with its source.  It was an infidelity that proved most felicitous; for rarely has any story been transferred from one medium to another with greater ingenuity and with such sensational results.

Steven Spielberg’s cinematic update, which I experienced yesterday, pays homage to both Wells and Welles by quoting these words, by delivering them in a sonorous, Wellesian voice (Morgan Freeman’s), and by employing them as a literary bookend for an episodic melodrama that unfold as a series of more or less stupendous set pieces.  Freeman’s voice-over narration notwithstanding, Spielberg’s conventional sci-fi thriller—some kind of intergalactic Jurassic Park—has none of the qualities that made the radio play such an engaging and provocative experiment in adaptation.

Like all filmic reworkings, Spielberg’s spectacle struggles with and falters under the pressure of making terror visible, of equating the evocative with manifest dread.  The opening montage sums up the war to be fought by zooming in on the sources of threat and salvation, cosmos and microcosm.  Neither infinite outer space nor infinitesimal innerspace remains hidden from view.

The camera soon assumes the role of the terrorizing invader alluded to in Wells’s introductory remarks, as the menaced protagonists are being “watched closely,” “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”  As in our daily lives, captured by infiltrating webcams and ubiquitous close-circuit security equipment, vigilance and violence coincide; the act of surveillance has become the art of assailants.  And still, the demand for ocular proof has to be satisfied at all costs.

Throughout the movie, the hero’s daughter is cautioned not to look as camera and special effects expose the audience to the horrors of alien warfare and the consequences of human frailty.  In one scene, she is being blindfolded by her father in an attempt to shelter her from the murder he feels compelled to commit.  For one brief moment, the audience is spared a graphic scene.  As the crime is being perpetrated behind closed doors, a close-up of the girl’s face reveals that her mind’s eye creates an image no less terrifying than the atrocities she had witnessed before.  The father, like most western adults, has become too dependent on visuals to recall the power of suggestion and the thrills produced by the insinuating ear.  The movie thus manages to disclose his failings—and our sensorial loss—but cannot combat the empire of the eye to which it is beholden.

However futile, the radio artists of the 1930s and ‘40s were among the last dramatists to wage war against the dominion of the visual world.  Howard Koch’s adaptation proved to be one of the last victorious battles, dealing such a blow as to put censors on guard against the forgotten force of non-visual stimulation.  Then, “in the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. . . .”