British Cinema, Romance, Unsung Classics

Unsung Classics 2: The Passionate Friends(1949)

 

Today I’m focusing on this British romantic drama, starring Trevor Howard, Claude Rains and Ann Todd. I find it so hard to choose just one film as my all time favourite, but if I had to choose just one, I really do think this film might well be it. It really makes you feel for the three characters and the difficult situation they find themselves in. 

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Mary and Steven enjoy a fast boat ride. Screenshot by me.

If you think that H.G Wells only wrote science fiction, then you really need to think again. In 1913, his novel about adultery, called The Passionate Friends was published. This film written by Eric Ambler and directed by David Lean is based upon Wells’s novel. I’ve never read the novel, but from the write up I’ve found online I think I’d be better off sticking with the screen adaptation, as the original story doesn’t actually sound like my cup of tea. I may check it out at some point if I ever come across it.

Mary Justin(Ann Todd)is married to Howard Justin(Claude Rains), a much older man who is very wealthy. At a New Year Eve party, Mary runs into her former lover Steven Stratton(Trevor Howard)and discovers that she still has feelings for him. The pair strike up a friendship and keep in touch, but neither one can deny their romantic attraction.

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Howard and Mary enjoy a happy moment together on New Year’s Eve. Screenshot by me.

Howard discovers their affair and he puts an end to it, or at least he thinks he does. Nine years later in a Swiss hotel, Mary and Steven meet again, and once again they discover that they can’t deny their feelings. Mary has to choose which man she will stay with.

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Mary and Steven in Switzerland. Screenshot by me.

Not only is Mary now torn between two different men, but she must also choose between two very different types of love, the physical and the emotional (represented by Steven who is passionate, tender and expressive); there is also Howard who is more reserved, gentle, and very set in his ways. Both men love her very much, but with which man (and which type of love) does she find herself happiest with?

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Howard tells Mary how he feels about her having an affair. Screenshot by me.

I like how this film doesn’t judge the three characters for the choices they make. All three find themselves caught up in a very upsetting and difficult situation. We sympathise with each of the three characters as the film goes on. A situation like this love triangle can and does happen often in life. Such a love triangle is not easy or pleasant for those involved in it. Imagine how hard it must be to choose between two loves, or to leave both and start your life again. This film shows us how wonderful, painful, and most of all how all encompassing love and desire can be. 

 

In many ways I think that this film mirrors David Lean’s earlier classic, the 1945 romantic drama, Brief Encounter. In fact you could almost view this film as a sequel to that film, with Trevor Howard appearing in both films and also playing a doctor in both. The Passionate Friends rather mirrors the plot of the first film by having the dull but loving husband; a woman desperate for love who finds herself torn between one lover and another; both films even contain a scene at a train station where a main character contemplates suicide, and both of these suicide consideration sequences feature a shot of a bright light glowing on the face of the character as they stand contemplating this act.

Ann Todd is superb as the young woman struggling against her own feelings and not really wanting to hurt either of these men, but knowing whichever choice she makes will end up hurting one of them.

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Ann Todd as Mary. Screenshot by me.

Ann Todd was married to David Lean and appeared in several of his films, she is an actress who deserved many more film roles. Ann is a very expressive actress and in this film she doesn’t need words in most scenes as her face tells us all we need to know(particularly during the tube station finale.) Mary goes from being quite a reserved and glacial woman, to being a woman full of life and glowing with joy, and finally to a woman wracked with guilt and pain. 

This film features my all time favourite Claude Rains performance. He is heartbreaking as the man who knows what is going on under his nose, doesn’t like it, but finds he is incapable of giving up the woman he loves so much.

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Claude as Howard. Screenshot by me.

Claude also makes us really feel for Howard Justin and makes him likeable, which makes the situation even more poignant all round. I especially love him in the scene where he confronts Mary and Steven and they realise he knows about them; Claude owns that scene and makes it quite funny.

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Trevor Howard as Steven. Screenshot by me.

Trevor Howard is very good as the outgoing, earnest younger man, who is desperately trying to start again with the woman he loves. I love him in the scene where Steven and Howard have a confrontation at Howard’s home, and in the scenes in Switzerland where Steven and Mary share some happy times.

There is some gorgeous and interesting photography in this and beautiful scenes of the Swiss lakes and mountains. The film also cleverly uses flashbacks to show us Mary and Steven’s earlier relationship and how happy and passionate they were.

My favourite scenes are the following. The New Year’s Eve party.  Howard’s outburst at Mary, which then leads us to the unforgettable finale. The entire sequence in Switzerland. The ending isn’t one you forget in a hurry and it is very moving and suspenseful. This is a film that deserves a great deal more attention. Highly recommended. If you happen to be a fan of this one, please do share your thoughts.

 

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