Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 6, 2013
I planned on writing about a completely different film this week but something unexpected happened that caught me by surprise. I watched David Lean’s magnificent MADELEINE (1950) yesterday for the first time and I was so moved by this vastly underrated and utterly brilliant true crime drama that I just had to share a few of my thoughts about it with you. Proceed with caution because I indulge in spoilers that may lessen the film’s impact if you haven’t had the opportunity to see it for yourself.
MADELEINE was made during what some have referred to as David Lean’s “forgettable period” (the early ‘50s) while he was involved in a creative partnership with his then wife, actress Ann Todd. Todd suggested they make a film based on the crimes of a notorious 19th century socialite named Madeleine Smith who was accused of murdering her French lover with arsenic while she was engaged to another man at her father’s request. The event made headlines around the world and was the subject of numerous plays. Ann Todd became obsessed with Madeleine’s story after she starred in a stage play about the crime and it’s been suggested that Lean chose to direct the film as a “gift” for his new bride. If that’s the case the couple both greatly benefited from this creative decision. MADELEINE contains what might be Ann Todd’s greatest performance and it also marks a fascinating turning point in Lean’s directing career. It was Lean’s first historical drama based on the real life of a British citizen and it features many of the same elements that made his early films so effective and his later work so powerful. It’s a noteworthy bridge that’s somewhat crucial in understanding the director’s fascinating career arc, which spanned five generations and in my estimation didn’t contain one misstep. So why was MADELEINE, a film I find as just rewarding as BRIEF ENCOUNTER and GREAT EXCPECTATIONS (two films that share some similarities with MADELEINE), a critical and box office failure? And why is it still considered a “lessor” Lean film today? For the answer to this perplexing question I’ll quote Lean’s friend and early collaborator, playwright Noël Coward. Coward was invited to a special screening of the film before it was released and like many he responded rather coldly to MADELEINE and concluded “I don’t think you can end the film not knowing whether she did or didn’t kill him. Somehow you’ve got to tip the scales one way or the other.”
Ambiguity has always been unwelcome by a vast majority of filmgoers. Many prefer simple linear storytelling methods that dictate every emotion and ask audiences to take sides and come to easy conclusions leaving little room for uncertainty of any kind. In 1950 the purposefully ambiguous MADELEINE must have seemed somewhat alien to audiences who were used to being told how to feel and when to feel it based on heavy-handed musical cues and unsubtle acting techniques. Many also singled out Ann Todd’s low-key portrayal of Madeleine Smith as one of the film’s greatest failings but that shortsighted observation overlooks the film’s entire premise.
The film takes place in Scotland during the 19h century when Victorian morals and manners were incredibly constrictive and women had very little control over their lives. They were expected to marry and when they did, they were expected to choose a beau pre-approved by their father. Passionate, ambitious and opinionated young women with ideas and aspirations of their own found it extremely difficult to navigate this world full of unspoken rules based on class structure and social standing. MADELEINE tells the strange and rather sad story of one woman trying desperately to satisfy her own desires while living under the roof of a domineering father (Leslie Banks) she both admires and fears. It’s easy to assume that this is simply a film about a selfish woman who loses her unguarded heart to a handsome French dandy (Ivan Desny) that only wants her good name and family fortune. When Madeleine discovers the Frenchman’s motives she attempts to end their relationship and agrees to marry a wealthy Scotsman (Norman Wooland) at her father’s insistence. But the Frenchman refuses to give her up and threatens to blackmail Madeleine into marriage using their love letters as currency. Naturally this upsets Madeleine and it’s assumed that she poisons the creep rather than suffer the cruel judgment of her father. But David Lean’s clever direction and Ann Todd’s understated performance turn this basic premise on its conventional head and MADELEINE succeeds at being a much richer and rewarding viewing experience for it.
Todd plays the character of Madeleine close to her chest and refuses to succumb to the expected hysterics that too often plague period costume dramas of the time. The dialogue is also sparse so Todd internalizes the character and it brings Madeleine to life in the most unexpected and compelling ways. A twitch of her eye, a strained smile, a sudden movement or the restrained way that she simply brushes her hair signal to observant viewers that this a woman suffering from profound duress. Madeline is an independent lady who longs for a husband-free life where she can do as she pleases and romance men whenever the carnal impulse strikes. The only person Madeline truly loves is herself and although she desperately wants approval from the men in her life (especially her controlling father) she knows deep down that the approval will never come. The murder Madeleine may or may not have committed plays out like an unconscious act of revenge in defense of her adventurous spirit and sensual heart that has been crushed under the heel of her father’s boots since birth.
David Lean seems to relish the film’s erotic undertones and although he was restricted by the times, he injects phallic symbols into MADELEINE using the Frenchman’s walking stick as a totem of masculine fertility. It may sound heavy-handed but it’s not and actually works beautifully within the context of the film. MADELEINE contains many of Lean’s favorite motifs; a train promises to carry Madeleine to safety at one point in the film but is abandoned. And he uses the unpredictable natural world (sudden rain storms, falling leaves, etc.) to illustrate the human emotions that these uptight Victorians can’t express. Lean relies on heavy shadows, intimate close-ups and carefully composed framing that continually suggests Madeleine’s already imprisoned by the times she lives in. The film also benefits from using historic props as well as the real home of the accused murderer to tell its tale and true crime buffs like myself should appreciate these touches.
MADELEINE is a thoughtful period drama as well as a suspenseful crime story that ends with a tense courthouse reenactment. Few directors could have managed these cinematic transitions so effortlessly but David Lean makes it look easy and I suspect that modern audiences might be somewhat more appreciative of the film’s ambiguity. It’s important to point out that the real Madeleine Smith was allowed to go free after a vigorous trial because there wasn’t enough evidence to charge her with any crime. But the newspapers had already sentenced her and many still believe she was guilty of murder. David Lean’s film refuses to accuse Madeleine Smith of anything but it slyly hints at her possible guilt as well as her possible innocence. We will probably never know if Madeleine was actually guilty of murder and the film is a welcome reminder that life contains very little certainty.
As far as I know the film is only available as part of an all region DVD set released in Korea and a PAL (British) DVD set released in the UK but it’s currently streaming at Amazon and occasionally airs on TCM.
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