Blithe Spirit

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: David Lean, Ronald Neame, & Anthony Havelock-Allan (based on the play by Noel Coward)
Stars: Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth Condomine), Kay Hammond (Elvira Condomine), Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Hugh Wakefield (Dr. George Bradman), Joyce Carey (Violet Bradman), Jacqueline Clarke (Edith)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1945
Country: U.K.
Blithe Spirit Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Blithe SpiritBlithe Spirit, the third collaboration between director David Lean and playwright Noel Coward, is a fitfully amusing, but also somewhat clunky supernatural drawing-room farce. Lean was quite vocal about his dislike of Coward’s play (he thought it frivolous and superficial), which was first staged in London’s West End in 1941, where it was a huge hit and ran for four years. Unfortunately, Lean’s dislike of the material (as well as his uncertainty that he could direct a comedy) shows in the film, which exhibits little of the directorial verve he had displayed the year before in adapting This Happy Breed (1944). While Coward’s witty dialogue and pungent take on the mores of the British upper crust can’t help but elicit some smiles, as a whole Blithe Spirit feels like a film that is just going through the motions.

The majority of the story takes place in the lavish country estate of novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings). When the film opens, Charles and Ruth are getting ready for an evening with their friends, George and Margaret Bradman (Hugh Wakfield and Joyce Carey). The real purpose of the evening is not dinner, but rather to engage the services of Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), the local medium and clarivoyant who claims to be able to get in touch with those who have “passed on.” No one actually believes in Madame Arcati’s abilities; Charles has hired her simply to observe her practices as research for a new mystery he’s getting ready to write.

Although everyone is convinced she is a fraud, Madame Arcati’s antic rituals produce a startling result, albeit one that only Charles can see and hear: the summoning of his dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), who appears as a green-tinted apparition with blood-red fingernails and lips that foreshadow her vampy playfulness and impatient temperament. Thus, at night’s end Charles finds himself in something of a pickle, trapped in the house with two wives, both of whom are frustrated and cross with him. Elvira is irritated at having been summoned from the afterlife, while Ruth is irritated at first with what she thinks is Charles dragging out a bad joke, and then jealous that her husband is commiserating with a spectral former spouse she can’t see or hear and who she correctly suspects is trying to undermine their marriage (Charles didn’t help his cause by talking about how beautiful Elvira was prior to the séance).

Coward’s play (which he claimed to have written in five days) has a few nicely hidden twists and turns, and he has an indomitable way with sharp, droll dialogue that makes even the tersest of situations humorous. You also can’t help admire his daring in writing a comedy that revolves almost entirely around death at a time when Britain was engaged in a protracted world war, even though the primary conceit—an intelligent, well-mannered member of the upper crust being fought over by two women—is a tad chauvinistic, especially with the urbane Rex Harrison playing the lead. The adaptation by Lean, cinematographer Ronald Neame, and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan deviates little from the source material, which is unfortunately also true of Lean’s direction, which often feels like little more than canned theater despite having opened up the action substantially from the play’s one-room setting. Lean displays a few bright, imaginative flourishes that strike a nice chord between the comedic and the supernatural, particularly a striking shot during the séance when Madame Arcati steps off-screen while her fire-lit shadow dances and grows and shrinks along the wall; it a great atmospheric moment that is also quite funny. Otherwise, the film has little in terms of great visual inspiration, and the editing relies too often on cutting away to obvious double-takes and asides.

The performers are all game for the material, even if some of them feel miscast. Rex Harrison is his typically charming self, which runs contrary to the character as originated on-stage, where he was meant to be a fairly dumpy middle-aged bore. Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond make the most of their roles, which could have easily become one-note shrills, but the real stand-out is Margaret Rutherford, who is persistently delightful in her scenery chewing as the dotty old spiritualist (she originated the role on stage, as did Hammond). She invests the character with such cagey, just-this-side-of-over-the-top energy and enthusiasm that you can’t help but be moved by her zeal, even when it feels out of step with the rest of the film.

Blithe Spirit Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
David Lean Directs Noel CowardBlithe Spirit is available exclusively as part of the four-disc “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Brief Encounter (1945). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    SupplementsIn Which We Serve
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre
  • Original theatrical trailer

    This Happy Breed

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame from 2010
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Re-release trailer

    Blithe Spirit

  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward
  • Original theatrical trailer

    Brief Encounter

  • Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder
  • Video interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
  • Short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait 1971 television documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer

  • Insert booklet featuring essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateMarch 27, 2012

    The transfers for all four films in The Criterion Collection’s “David Lean Directs Noel Coward” boxset were made from elements obtained from the major restoration of Lean’s first 10 films, which was carried out between 2006 and 2008 by the BFI National Archive, Granada International, and the David Lean Foundation under the direction of the BFI’s senior curator Nigel Algar. The restoration work involved both traditional photochemical and digital processes. The 4K transfer of In Which We Serve was made from the original nitrate negative and parts of the nitrate fine-grain master, while the soundtrack was restored from a sound print made from the original negative. The high-definitional scan of both This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit were made from the restoration internegatives, which were produced from the original YCM negatives, while the soundtracks were transferred from sound prints. Brief Encounter’s 4K transfer was made from a duplicate safety negative, while the soundtrack was transferred from a sound print made from the original nitrate track negative. Simply put, the restoration work has resulted in a four stunning presentations, bringing these films as close to their original theatrical presentations as they are likely to look (Lean, ever the perfectionist craftsman, would be pleased). The black-and-white imagery in In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter is sharp and beautifully delineated, with a fine presence of grain and excellent contrast. The transfers of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit boast first-rate representations of three-strip Technicolor, although they make for a fascinating contrast, with the purposely tamped down palette of the former looking quite different from the more traditionally saturated look of the latter. Digital restoration has removed virtually all signs of wear and tear on the films (including the removal of a great deal of mold on This Happy Breed) without overly scrubbing them and losing their filmlike appearance, and the soundtracks are all acceptably clean, with a minimum of ambient hiss and little in the way of aural pops and clicks.
    The supplements are spread fairly evenly across all four discs in the box. Each disc features a new video interview with scholar Barry Day, author and editor of numerous books on Noel Coward, including Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noel Coward (2004) and The Noel Coward Reader (2011). In each of these interviews, which tend to run around 15 minutes in length, Day discusses the specifics of the particular film with a particular focus on Coward’s role in it. On the discs for In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter there are also short retrospective documentaries about the film’s production made for British television in 2000. In Which We Serve includes a lengthy audio recording of a conversation between Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre in 1969 and the original theatrical trailer. The disc for This Happy Breed includes both the original and a later re-release trailer for the film along with a 45-minute video interview with cinematographer-screenwriter-producer Ronald Neame, which was recorded in 2010 when he was 99 years old. The Blithe Spirit disc includes the film’s trailer and an episode of the British television series The Southbank Show from 1992 on the life and career of Coward, while the Brief Encounter disc includes David Lean: A Self Portrait, a 1971 television documentary. Brief Encounter also includes a well-written and informative audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, which appeared on the previous Criterion DVD and was originally recorded in 1995 for the Criterion laser disc. Eder offers a large amount of detail about every aspect of the film, from Lean’s use of sound, to comparisons of the film with Noel Coward’s original play, to discussions of the historical contexts in which the film has been received.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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