Friday 2 November 2007

Madeleine (1950) David Lean

Madeleine Smith was the eldest daughter of an upper class family in Glasgow who has been great fodder for amateur criminologists for the last 150 years, her trial for murdering her lover being in 1857. Her lover was foreign born Emile L'Angelier, but her family had selected someone else for her to marry. When she tried to break things off and have her many letters returned, L'Angelier refused and threatened to expose what to Victorian social circles were highly immoral activities if she didn't marry him. He mysteriously turned up dead from arsenic poisoning and Madeleine was soon the focus of investigation.

The verdict at her trial was 'not proven', which is a peculiar yet logical Scots verdict that means that the jury felt she was guilty but that the prosecution hadn't proved it. The scandal meant that she had to move away from Glasgow and the circumstances of her later life are material for conspiracy theorists. She may have gone to New York or New Orleans or New Zealand, any one of a number of New places where she hid under a false name. Her story has been written many times, as books or plays, but surprisingly rarely reached the big screen.

Seemingly the only version filmed was this one, made in 1950 by no less a director than David Lean. It comes after his solid work on early films like In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, after his first masterpiece, Brief Encounter, and after his notable couple of Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, but before the epics for which would become best known. I'm still catching up with Lean's work, having seen many of his more obscure works and not all of his more famous ones, but so far I've been highly impressed even with the lesser known films.

Ann Todd plays the lead character, and she's completely believable in all the facets of her role: the dutiful daughter, the secret lover and the subtle but not subtle enough apparent murderess (there's always the possibility that she didn't do it, but it's not a very strong one). She reminds somewhat of Greta Garbo, epecially in profile, and that's hardly a comparison to shy at. She also looks admirably different in age between the earlier scenes and those in court, as her experience believably aged her. The men in her life are played by Norman Wooland and Ivan Desny, who works a good balance between good and patient lover and reluctant yet resolute blackmailer.

I recognise others in the cast too, not least John Laurie who seems to crop up anywhere where there's a need for a dour and vehement Scotsman. Here he's a religious fanatic picketing the court where Madeleine will be tried and calling for her to be hanged. The counsellors at the trial are Hammer regular André Morell defending and Barry Jones prosecuting. The real stars though are director Lean and cinematographer Guy Green, who had co-founded the British Society of Cinematographers and who had shot both of Lean's Dickens films. The use of light and shade is powerful yet deceptively subtle and is deserving of much closer scrutiny than may be immediately apparent. In comparison the story is just there. It says what it needs to but doesn't do anything else.

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