BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the most erotic movie ever made.
From the opening shot, with a train shooting along the express track of a nocturnal station, smoke billowing from its stack against a stark, black-and-white background, accompanied by the low, rhythmic piano and lush strings of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto no. 2 in C Minor”, David Lean’s artistry with images and Noel Coward’s artistry with words form one of the most incredibly passionate films in the history of the form.
The affair between Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) has ten times the amount of sexual energy than any of Hollywood’s empty “romantic” pictures of the last several decades, and of course is far more moving and powerful than any pornography ever could be. By what it doesn’t show, so perfectly internalized in the brilliant monologues delivered by Celia Johnson, the film manages to evoke all of the emotions, frustrations and endless regrets of unrequited love.
The supporting characters are necessarily somewhat limited to “types” due to the scope of the film, which focuses far more on its two main characters, but these supporting characters are remarkably effective and involving, particularly the working class couple played by Joyce Carey and the brilliant Stanley Holloway (two decades before immortalizing himself in the role of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady).
It is perhaps a tribute to Lean’s skill as an editor that he manages to compress time so effectively and efficiently in this film. Although it depicts events that occur over the span of several weeks, Lean only shows what is absolutely necessary before moving on. At 86 minutes, it’s a briskly- but perfectly-paced film, never feeling rushed. The unique flashback structure is an effective means of arranging time within the film, and the voice-over, always a difficult technique, is used creatively enough to bring us into the minds of the Laura character, without ever feeling convenient or lazy as screenwriting.
Robert Krasker’s cinematography combines the Expressionist noir aesthetic so common of the period, but grants it a kind of soft-edged beauty that distances us from the usual, dark connotations of such high-contrast lighting. What it does retain, however, is the anxiety associated with Expressionist technique. The use of Rachmaninoff’s music is a brilliant artistic decision, creative and influential in its way as any film soundtrack featuring pre-existing, recognizable songs. The film seems to have been a fairly significant influence on Billy Wilder, who used Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto” for comic but instantly recognizable effect in his film of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Intriguingly, Wilder also commented on one of the most ambiguous parts of the film, that in which Alec brings Laura to the apartment of a friend for an illicit tryst, but is interrupted when the friend returns home early. This character so intrigued Wilder that he even wrote down an idea for a script based on this character: “Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers”, which eventually became THE APARTMENT in 1960.
There are few other films that reach the levels of conceptual and artistic perfection as that of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It is quite possibly the most powerful emotional experience ever committed to film.