British filmmaker David Lean is the current Director of the Week on the streaming-video channel FilmStruck, which offers almost all of his films for viewing. Tucked between his celebrated Charles Dickens adaptations from the 1940s and his later, grandiose epics are four more unassuming films from the 1950s, leading up to the classic Bridge on the River Kwai.
An overlooked gem by David Lean, this 1950 British drama recounts the true story of Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd), a young upper-class Glaswegian who became the subject of a notorious murder trial in the late 1850s after her secret French lover died from arsenic poisoning. The picture is compromised by Lean’s casting of his wife as the title character; at 40, Todd is visibly too old for the role, and her wooden performance leaves a void at the center of the story that Lean has no choice but to use strategically. As a specimen of classical film grammar, though, this is a wonder; Lean first made his reputation as an editor, and the movie is a constant reminder of how carefully he set up his shots to be cut together. 114 min. —J.R. Jones
The Sound Barrier
Public excitement over jet travel helped make David Lean’s 1952 British feature a big hit, though its science doesn’t wash and its majestic aerial sequences are uneasily wedded to a starchy familial drama. Ralph Richardson is the imperious owner of a pioneering aircraft company, who barely bats an eye when his lily-livered son (a young Denholm Elliott) dies in a test flight; Ann Todd (Lean’s wife at the time) is the aerial tycoon’s daughter, who blanches when dad enlists her ex-RAF husband (Nigel Patrick) to pilot his new supersonic plane, the Prometheus. Terence Rattigan’s script has its moments, but it takes a backseat to the air show—the real-life jet planes are even listed among the supporting players. 118 min. —J.R. Jones
Charles Laughton’s swaggering performance as a tyrannical boot maker—sort of a domestic Captain Bligh—is the best reason to see this 1954 Victorian comedy; he refuses to let his three daughters marry, because he’ll lose the free labor in his shop, but the eldest (Brenda de Banzie) becomes secretly engaged to the chief assistant (John Mills) and begins to plot her revenge. David Lean directed, with wit and tact. 108 min. —Dave Kehr
Katharine Hepburn, a lonely spinster on a European vacation, is seduced by the charms of Venice in this expert 1955 melodrama by David Lean. Two years before the fateful Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean still shows some sense of subtlety, and Summertime contains some glowing moments. The film shifts to mechanical manipulation, though, shortly after Rossano Brazzi makes his appearance as Hepburn’s swain. Recommended, with hesitations. 100 min. —Dave Kehr
The Bridge on the River Kwai
David Lean’s antiheroic war epic (1957), about a band of British POWs forced to build a bridge in the wilds of Burma. For what it is, it ain’t bad, though it serves mainly as an illustration of the ancient quandary of revisionist moviemakers: if all you do is systematically invert cliches, you simply end up creating new ones. The cast, effectively, is drawn from warring schools of acting: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, and Jack Hawkins. 161 min. —Dave Kehr