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Great Expectations

Directed by David Lean with John Mills, Martita Hunt, Jean Simmons, Valerie Hobson, Finlay Currie, Francis L. Sullivan, Alec Guinness, black and white, 118 minutes, 1946

DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

In 1939, Kay Walsh shared a dressing room with Martita Hunt, who was then performing in Alec Guinness's adaptation of "Great Expectations" at Rudolph Steiner Hall in London. Walsh was married to David Lean and urged him to go to the play. "Not bloody likely," he replied, according to Kevin Brownlow, Lean's biographer.

In his chapter on the film in his book, Mr. Brownlow provides the following account by Kay Walsh:

"We sat on little gilt chairs and in five minutes the whole lot of us were spellbound," said Kay. "It was Alec Guinness's adaptation of Great Expectations produced by George Devine. Alec Guinness sat on one side of he tiny stage and Merula, his wife, on the other and they narrated. Marius Goring played the grown-up Pip, Yvonne mitchell played littled Estella. Vera Poliakoff the gorwn-up, Alec played Herbert Pocket and Martita was Miss Haversham. It was absolutely wonderful."

Mr. Brownlow wrote that "David Lean said that unless he had seen the Alec Guinenes stage version he would never have done the film," adding that he thought it would make an "exceptional film" but "hehad to be sure that Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan shared his enthusiasm." Neame soon put the idea to J. Arthur Rank who said "Go away and make it." Lean wanted a Dickens expert to write the script and Havelock-Allan suggested Clemence Dane, but Lean, according to Mr. Brownlow, found that "What she wrote was so awful I cannot even begin to describe it," adding that "It had practically every incident in the book but done in shorthand so one never got to grips with any one scene. She took snippets of everything and didn't give anything real weight." Lean and Neame set about doing the script themselves and Lean left out anything he thought was "dull," adding that he was "rather encouraged by the Clemence Dane approach because it removed my fears of trespassing on the great."

Kay Walsh came up with the idea for the film's ending: "I thought if Pip had a long white beard...and Estella had put on forty pounds and they met in a graveyard, Wardour Street wouldn't come through with the money and anyway, you couldn't finish the film like that. And so I got the idea of Miss Havisham and her influence on Estella, who'd just been jilted. It seems so obvious now that she would repeat the pattern of Miss Havisham. What was really good was Pip coming back and the voices - 'Don't loiter, boy!' and the gate creaking and the camera going up the stairs and you think you're going in to Miss Havisham and it's not her at all, it's Valerie [Hobson] as Estella. John Mills was absolutely thrilled with the ending because it gave him the chance to pull the curtains down, for the mice to run out, and for 'I have come back, Miss Havisham!' and 'Out into the sunlight!' and all that."

John Mills and Alec Guinness

John Mills as "Pip" and Alec Guinness as "Pocket"

According to Mr. Brownlow, Lean "had been impressed by Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (see The City Review article)...,and he tried to analyze why it made such an impact," adding that "he realied that cinematographer Arthur Edeson had used long focus lenses, which provided a heightened sense of intimacy by keeping the faces sharp while softening everything around them." "When production designer John Bryan heard what David had in mind," Mr. Brownlow continued, "he realised his sets might disappear into that softness and brought the ceilings sharply down so they would appear in the picture. Forced perspective had been a feature of German silent films, and Kane revived the practice, but in few films would it be used with such boldness. Once the sets were built in this way, the furniture had to be designed to fit. David was so intrigued by this idea that he allowed it to take precedence over his Casablanca scheme. 'John's sets are all planned to be shot from one angle,' David told Norman Spencer, 'it takes away my freedom, but they're so bloody good I don't mind.'"

Shortly after the film opened, Mr. Brownlow provides the following quotation from Lean:

"What we were trying to do...was to create that larger-than-life picture which is really just characteristic of Dickens' kind of writing. The scenes of the boy, Pip, lying terrified in his bedroom after a night of fear, creeping downstairs at dawn and then stealing the food for the convict out on the marshes was something Dickens wrote as if he were inside the boy himself. We tried to make the audience share Pip's fear. If we hadn't done this, we should have been face with quite a different problem - making the audience accept what is really a pretty exaggerated piece of melodrama. They might easily have found the convicts and their fustian dialogue just funny instead of terrifying if we had not built up the fear in the audience at the same time as we did in the boy - first of all, of course, with the sheer physical shock when Pip suddenly collides with the convict in the churchyard at the beginning of the film and hears the horrifying threats in this throaty voice."

Mr. Brownlow quotes Lean was stating "Who has ever seen a lawyer like Jaggers? We were lucky that Francis L. Sullivan was alive and a good actor. He was wonderful." Of Martita Hunt, he quotes Lean was stating that "That part could so easily descend into a kind of farce. She was another outsize character."

At one point, Lean replaced Robert Krasker as the cinematographer and replaced him with Guy Green, who won an Oscar. Lean confesses that when he saw "The Third Man" that Krasker went to work on his reaction "Oh my God, what a terrible mistake I made. What an injustice."

I saw the film in 1948 two years after it was made and when I was an impressionable 8 years old. Finlay Currie scarried the daylights out of me and the macabre Miss Havisham made me suspicious of the very rich but not so much as not to be enchanted by Jean Simmons and bemused by the quite stout and pompous Francis L. Sullivan. In retrospect, John Mills was the Robert Redford of British films in those days - handsome and heroic and while he is widely reviewed as rather bland in this role he went on to a very illustrious career, though not as great as that of Alec Guinness who would shortly after this film make some of the greatest comedies in film history like "The Man in the White Suit" (see The City Review article).

Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons

Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and Jean Simmons as young Estella

In his August 22, 1999 review of the movie, Roger Ebert states that it "does what few movies based on great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens' classic set-pieces to life as if he'd been reading over our shoulder: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip's first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows."

"In Miss Havisham's mansion," Ebert continued, "is the young Estella (Jean Simmons, astonishingly beautiful at 17). The old woman has adopted the girl, and brought her up for one purpose only: to break men's hearts. Pip falls instantly in love with her, but Estella tries to warn him away, perhaps because she really likes him. Her purpose is to cause men pain, so that Miss Havisham can somehow settle her account with an unfair world. Pip, who has been reared by his shrewish older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, the good-hearted blacksmith Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), is too rough-hewn for the elegant Estella, but a mysterious benefactor finances his transformation. Pip is summoned by Jaggers, Miss Havisham's lawyer, and told that his expenses will be paid while he undergoes education and training in London - not least in how to dress and speak like a gentleman. He shares rooms with elegant young Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness), who sets a fine example. Of course Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that he is being groomed to marry Estella (played by Valerie Hobson as a 20-year-old). Whether he is right or wrong is one of the questions Dickens solves in his story's melodramatic conclusion. The Lean version makes minor repairs on the ending to satisfy the sentimental requirements of audiences, which means that those familiar with the novel will not necessarily know how the film ends. Since Dickens draws his characters in bold, colorful strokes, typecasting is probably the best approach to filling the roles. Pip himself is a somewhat colorless hero; like many of Dickens' central characters, he's not the source of the action but a witness to the colorful events and people that thrust themselves into his life. It's the supporting cast that makes the story vivid....The only misstep in the casting may have been the choice of John Mills as the adult Pip. Mills was 38 when the film was made, and Pip is supposed to be 20 going on 21."

For contemporary audiences accustomed to color and special effects and the sumptuous settings of PBS series set in great English country houses, "Great Expectations" may at first be somewhat disappointing. Its strengths, however, shine through from the casting to the cinematography to the direction and to the great underlying themes of loyalty, honor, familial ties, and class issues.

"Great Expectations" was nominated for five Academy Awards and won for Best Art Direction and Best Black & White Cinematography.

This film is rated 39th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the 500 Greatest Sound Films.

 Click here to order the DVD Criterion edition of the film from

Click here to order "David Lean" by Kevin Brownlow, a Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press, New York, 1996, 810 pages

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