“Great Expectations” is far from Charles Dickens’ greatest novel, but David Lean’s adaptation (Cineguild, 1946) is, I think beyond any question, the best of all the many Dickens pictures. There is everything right with it. Frankly, I found the book, with its contrivances, coincidences and cartoon characters, so exasperating that I avoided the picture for many years. When finally I saw it (under protest), it so thoroughly enchanted and touched me that I had trouble remembering what, precisely, about the book could have displeased me. David Lean and his actors bring clarity and logic to the whole enterprise: the picture has a moral authority and a richly satisfying emotional pull that I failed to detect (much less appreciate) in the novel. The blend of buffoonish comical characters, multiple coincidences and social criticism is an uneasy one to make work, except as satire. But “Great Expectations” is by no means satire. Under David Lean’s direction, it’s a medium-grim fairy tale whose romantic atmosphere is repeatedly rent by sudden, startling flashes of realism that unexpectedly come crashing through and lighting up the fairy tale world like claps of thunder and bolts of lightning. Here’s one example of the sort of realism I mean. You will kindly note that it is also wonderfully poetic. It is Dickens, after all, and even the harshest reality in his work has poetry in it. I mean, really: beat this for filmmaking. It’s as perfect a cinematic moment as I’ve ever come across.
Whenever I look at this scene, I’m reminded of a tremendous line from a mad soliloquy spoken by Harry Andrews in “The Ruling Class”: it’s the day before he must pass a death sentence; he’s dressed in his play clothes (red military tunic, ballet skirt and a cocked hat), and he’s indulging in some auto-asphyxiation with a pearl-white silken noose, which his pear-shaped valet has suspended from his bedroom rafters. Just before he puts the noose round his throat, he murmurs, “Once you’ve put on the black cap, everything else tastes like waxxx f
Next to Shakespeare, Dickens is the most word-drunk popular author in the history of English literature. Like Shakespeare, Dickens is most notable for his imaginative use of language. One remembers his characters more for the way they express themselves than for anything else. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge: that he is a miser is not what fixes him in one’s mind; he is memorable on account of the force of his eloquent vituperation against charity in general and Christmas in particular. Silas Marner, his near contemporary, was also a miser: but who remembers what he ever said? Rhetorical exuberance is the engine that drives Shakespeare and Dickens. Of the two, Shakespeare is clearly the deeper philosopher, but both have at their command a genius for expressive turns of phrase. To date, no screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play has ever been entirely satisfactory, no matter how admirable individual scenes may have been. The most common theory about why Shakespearean movies never quite work is that Shakespeare is first and last about the Word, while movies are primarily about the Image; therefore, the argument goes, to film Shakespeare, you must first cut away much of the language; yet cut away the language, and you lose Shakespeare — and there you have an insoluble problem. This certainly seems true in the case of Shakespeare. (Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” kept all of the text, and that didn’t work either: in my experience, it is the most stultifying — though not nearly the worst — Shakespeare picture to date.) Yet Dickens gives the lie to this argument, since screen adaptations of his novels very often work splendidly, and the ones that work the best are always those that keep as much of his highly stylized, artificial, literary dialogue as possible. The crazy plots may be simplified, so long as the rhetoric is left standing: Dickens without his linguistic flights of fancy would not be Dickens — that is why modern adaptations of his works are doomed to fail (the Ethan Hawke/Gwyneth Paltrow modern version is an abomination: it should have been called “Great Expectorations”), and perhaps why there have been so few attempts to set his stories in the modern world. David Lean’s “Great Expectations” succeeds because so much of the dialogue has been taken from the novel verbatim, and because Guy Green’s superb cinematography captures Dickens’ descriptive passages with amazing accuracy and vivacity.
I’m lost in wonder at the stupendous number of ways David Lean and his colleagues have found to make “Great Expectations” a thing of exquisite beauty; the picture perfectly captures the spirit and sensibility of Dickens, while improving on the novel. And it’s a real movie movie — that is, it’s brilliantly cinematic (Guy Green won that year’s Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography, the first time a British picture ever won in that category), while also containing some of the best writing and acting ever to be put on film. Lean’s adaptation succeeds so brilliantly that I find it hard to understand how Dickens could have written the novel eighty-six years before it was made; the picture is so ideally cast that one gets the feeling that Dickens must have had these very actors in mind when he wrote it. Here’s the opening sequence, which should give you a reasonable idea of all the rest of the marvellousness to follow.
Shortly after this scene, we see Pip (the excellent Anthony Wager) steal the “wittles” and the file for Magwitch the convict (played with astonishing authority and musicality by Finlay Currie — one of the most reliably entertaining actors who ever drew breath). He sneaks out to the churchyard to deliver the stolen items and this is the scene that follows:
The entire picture is as excellent as these early scenes: it’s engrossing and emotionally satisfying from the first frame to the last. Every actor in the cast is perfect. As Uncle Bumblechook, Hay Petrie is the living embodiment of a few score of Dickens’ demented tertiary characters — he also looks remarkably like a tinier (he stood 5′ 3 ½”), freaked-out Claude Rains. If Ronald Searle had drawn a caricature of Rains, the result would have looked like Hay Petrie.
Here, without introduction, is Alec Guinness in his first appearance of what would prove to be his career-making performance as Herbert Pocket. Guinness had already played the part with great success in the West End, in his own adaptation of the novel.
It is probable that Miss Havisham is the most famous character in the story; she is played to perfection by the great actress and wit, Martita Hunt. Hunt was not yet fifty when she made this picture, but you’d never know it. Here are the first three scenes that feature Miss Havisham; I think it should be obvious why her character is so famous. I show them partly because Martita Hunt’s performance is so interesting, and partly because I want to pass along a funny anecdote about the redoubtable Miss Hunt after you have taken a look at the clips. The three clips, as you will see, are all quite short and superbly entertaining — but I believe you really must have Miss Hunt’s voice clearly in your head if the story I am going to relate is to have its maximum effect.
The young Estella is played by Jean Simmons. In a 1999 interview, she was asked if David Lean was difficult to work for. “With me and the boy, Anthony Wager, he was very gentle. He seemed amused by us for some reason. It was a perfect part for me; sixteen is the age of flirtation.” Did she break his heart, as Estella breaks Pip’s? “Oh no, no. But we liked each other. In fact, he saved my life on the film one day. I had to go up and down those damn stairs so many times holding the candle that I was tired late one evening and I kind of relaxed and let my arm drop. Suddenly there were flames shooting up. My apron was on fire! Anthony just rushed in and brushed it out. He was there before anyone else could move. Really a great sense of timing. I often wonder what happened to him. He may have just given up acting and gone into business.” (For the record, he did continue to act, but in the late sixties, he moved to Australia, where he acted in television shows. He died on the isle of Bali on December 23, 1990.)
When Estella grows to young womanhood, she is played by Valerie Hobson, who was married to the picture’s executive producer, Anthony Havelock-Allen at the time of the filming. Hobson played her last starring role in 1953, when she appeared as Mrs Anna Leonowens in the West End production of “The King and I.” The following year, she married John Profumo, a member of Parliament. In 1963, Profumo’s ministerial career ended in disgrace when it was discovered that he had lied to the House about his affair with his mistress, Christine Keeler. Hobson stood by her husband, and till the end of her life (she predeceased him by eight years), they worked for charitable organizations, dealing with lepers(!) and mentally handicapped children. (A story straight out of Dickens.) She died on November 13, 1998.
“It and I have worn away together; mice have gnawed at it. And sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.” The rhetorical brilliance and superb balance of that one short passage dazzle me. The technical skill of the writing is a pleasure for its own sake. There’s an echo of Richard II’s prisonhouse lament “I wasted time and now doth time waste me” in Miss Havisham’s words, both in her theme and in the figures of speech she employs. But then there’s the actress, who knows how to set those devices a-work. Martita Hunt, a great actress, makes everything count.
This next clip begins with another one of those fine British character actors, Francis L. Sullivan, who plays Mr Jaggers, the explosive attorney. He specialized in peremptory lawyers and timpano-bellied plutocrats, which he played with brio and swagger. He’s roughly the London equivalent of America’s Eugene Pallette; both men were reliably funny and conveyed a special soulfulness without ever engaging in the least bit of sentimentality, but I’m bound to say that Sullivan’s range was somewhat wider — perhaps so was his girth. In any case, Sullivan is always worth watching, even in the worst drivel, but he is especially suited to the world of Dickens, which is a society of outsized people and personalities.
After making such a success as Miss Havisham, Martita Hunt spent the rest of her career playing old dragons, aristocratic crones and high-falutin busybodies. Ten years after “Great Expectations,” she was cast in “Anastasia” (a scornful pleasure of the first water) as the Baroness Elena von Livenbaum, a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress Maria Federovna, which part was played by Helen Hayes. In Guy Bolton’s West End stage version of “Anastasia” in the early 1950s, the Dowager Empress was played by a highly respected British stage actress named Helen Haye (no “s”), who played the role to great acclaim. In fact, she was supposed to reprise the role in the 20th Century-Fox picture, but through a clerical error, the role went to that First Pixie of the American Theatre, Helen Hayes. (“Rather bad luck on our actress,” wrote John Gielgud, who was great friends with Miss Haye (no “s”), who had given him his scholarship to Lady Benson’s Acting School in 1921; “I remember Martita Hunt complaining bitterly because she only got a lady in waiting.”) While “Anastasia” was being filmed, Sir John was at a large party when Martita Hunt saw him across the room. She tottered up to him unsteadily — very tipsy, as he reported — and said in a dignified voice, “I am worn out by curtseying all day to that f-f-f-f-fucking Helen Hayes!” Even if Martita Hunt hadn’t been the brilliant comic actress she was, I’d have to hold her close to my heart for her taste in actresses.