Arsenic & Ambiguity in David Lean’s Madeleine (1950)

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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.

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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.

mad07MADELEINE 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.

Further Reading:
Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene Phillips
- Forgotten Lean: The Ann Todd Trilogy by John Orr

25 Responses Arsenic & Ambiguity in David Lean’s Madeleine (1950)
Posted By Doug : June 6, 2013 6:24 pm

Kimberly, another great post-I love history, and learning more about film makers and the events they choose to portray in their films.
If David Lean had a ‘weaker’ period, I imagine that it was still head and shoulders above anything those critics ever created.
I’m reminded of another biographic movie, “Dance With A Stranger” with Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis. She was stunning.
I am fine with ambiguous endings-sometimes the journey through a film is enough, and a ‘tacked on’ resolution might diminish what went on before.

Posted By Doug : June 6, 2013 6:24 pm

Kimberly, another great post-I love history, and learning more about film makers and the events they choose to portray in their films.
If David Lean had a ‘weaker’ period, I imagine that it was still head and shoulders above anything those critics ever created.
I’m reminded of another biographic movie, “Dance With A Stranger” with Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis. She was stunning.
I am fine with ambiguous endings-sometimes the journey through a film is enough, and a ‘tacked on’ resolution might diminish what went on before.

Posted By Gene : June 6, 2013 9:03 pm

Kimberly, thank you again for bringing another great film out of the shadows of indifference. I love Brief Encounter as well as Great Expectations (how can anyone NOT love that film?). Ambiguity in film is a great gift. It leaves a resonance and adds nuance to the story. And, as if we know if Lucretia Borgia was really the monster history has made her to be, or who Jack the Ripper really was, or what the whole story about JFK’s assassination is. History is full of ambiguity so why not the cinema?

Posted By Gene : June 6, 2013 9:03 pm

Kimberly, thank you again for bringing another great film out of the shadows of indifference. I love Brief Encounter as well as Great Expectations (how can anyone NOT love that film?). Ambiguity in film is a great gift. It leaves a resonance and adds nuance to the story. And, as if we know if Lucretia Borgia was really the monster history has made her to be, or who Jack the Ripper really was, or what the whole story about JFK’s assassination is. History is full of ambiguity so why not the cinema?

Posted By Susan Doll : June 6, 2013 10:41 pm

Just looking at the stills makes me want to see this film. And, the storyline seems right up my alley.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 6, 2013 10:41 pm

Just looking at the stills makes me want to see this film. And, the storyline seems right up my alley.

Posted By Marco : June 6, 2013 11:17 pm

I love this movie! The entire movie leads up to one of the best Court Room scenes ever filmed. The manner in which the defense lawyer conducts the cross examination and his summation of Madeline’s innocence is unrivaled in any film dealing with legal cases. The knowledge that this film is actually based on a real case makes it even more compelling. The “Not Proven” verdict that only occurs in Scotland’s legal system makes the ambiguity of the ending that much more interesting. The all male jury couldn’t decide, so the viewer gets to pass judgment on this unlikely murderess. I have watched this movie every time it has appeared on TCM, and I still can’t decide if Madeline is guilty or innocent, but Ann Todd is definitely credible in this role.

Posted By Marco : June 6, 2013 11:17 pm

I love this movie! The entire movie leads up to one of the best Court Room scenes ever filmed. The manner in which the defense lawyer conducts the cross examination and his summation of Madeline’s innocence is unrivaled in any film dealing with legal cases. The knowledge that this film is actually based on a real case makes it even more compelling. The “Not Proven” verdict that only occurs in Scotland’s legal system makes the ambiguity of the ending that much more interesting. The all male jury couldn’t decide, so the viewer gets to pass judgment on this unlikely murderess. I have watched this movie every time it has appeared on TCM, and I still can’t decide if Madeline is guilty or innocent, but Ann Todd is definitely credible in this role.

Posted By SergioM : June 7, 2013 9:11 am

KIM

You’ve just seen it for the first time a few days ago? I’ve seen it a couple of times over the last 15 years or so. I first saw it when my local PBS station (back then when PBS was actually good) would show once a year in rotation. Fantastic film. I know there were plans for it to come out on DVD in the U.S. a few years ago but that unfortunately didn’t happen. I’m still keep hoping one day (Criterion maybe?) I was so intrigued by the film that did some research on the actual case and found out that the film pretty much sticks the the actual facts of what happened.

As for the “ambiguity” factor, that is a common theme in many of Lean’s films. Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson, Lawrence and Zhivago are all ambiguous characters. Lean intentionally never gives you a clear fix who exactly these man are. And Passage to India is all about ambiguity

Posted By SergioM : June 7, 2013 9:11 am

KIM

You’ve just seen it for the first time a few days ago? I’ve seen it a couple of times over the last 15 years or so. I first saw it when my local PBS station (back then when PBS was actually good) would show once a year in rotation. Fantastic film. I know there were plans for it to come out on DVD in the U.S. a few years ago but that unfortunately didn’t happen. I’m still keep hoping one day (Criterion maybe?) I was so intrigued by the film that did some research on the actual case and found out that the film pretty much sticks the the actual facts of what happened.

As for the “ambiguity” factor, that is a common theme in many of Lean’s films. Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson, Lawrence and Zhivago are all ambiguous characters. Lean intentionally never gives you a clear fix who exactly these man are. And Passage to India is all about ambiguity

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:24 am

David Lean had a lesser period? Would Hobson’s Choice be included in that lesser, early-50′s period? If so, then I say “Nay!”. I love the look of this movie. I really want to see it now, and then you tell me it’s only available on foreign DVDs and on Amazon. Dagnabbit!

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:24 am

David Lean had a lesser period? Would Hobson’s Choice be included in that lesser, early-50′s period? If so, then I say “Nay!”. I love the look of this movie. I really want to see it now, and then you tell me it’s only available on foreign DVDs and on Amazon. Dagnabbit!

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:26 am

I also like a good ambiguous ending. Unfortunately, too many people have to have everything spelled out and need a tidy bow to top off the movies they watch.

Posted By robbushblog : June 7, 2013 11:26 am

I also like a good ambiguous ending. Unfortunately, too many people have to have everything spelled out and need a tidy bow to top off the movies they watch.

Posted By Kingrat : June 7, 2013 12:54 pm

Kimberly, thank you for a great piece on a film which is much better the second time around, once you know the ending. There is a great article on the real Madeleine Smith by Miss F. Tennyson Jesse (google the name and you can find a reference to it.) Lean followed the known facts of the case.

Madeleine did indeed share a basement room with her little sister, and her lover used to come to the window to talk to her. Lean establishes the motif of Madeleine looking up at her lover. You’ve captured a great shot of her doing this. During the dance she also looks up at him on a mezzanine, and there’s a spectacular shot as she enters the courtroom up a narrow staircase.

MADELEINE and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS are the stepchildren among Lean’s films, but the latter now has its partisans, and the responses to your article show that MADELEINE does, too. Lean is an amazing director, one whom other directors have gladly imitated.

Posted By Kingrat : June 7, 2013 12:54 pm

Kimberly, thank you for a great piece on a film which is much better the second time around, once you know the ending. There is a great article on the real Madeleine Smith by Miss F. Tennyson Jesse (google the name and you can find a reference to it.) Lean followed the known facts of the case.

Madeleine did indeed share a basement room with her little sister, and her lover used to come to the window to talk to her. Lean establishes the motif of Madeleine looking up at her lover. You’ve captured a great shot of her doing this. During the dance she also looks up at him on a mezzanine, and there’s a spectacular shot as she enters the courtroom up a narrow staircase.

MADELEINE and THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS are the stepchildren among Lean’s films, but the latter now has its partisans, and the responses to your article show that MADELEINE does, too. Lean is an amazing director, one whom other directors have gladly imitated.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 7, 2013 2:24 pm

Thanks for all the responses! I’m glad others feel as strongly about the film as I do. Lean’s one of my favorite directors but I haven’t had the opportunity to see any of the films in his Ann Todd trilogy until now. Apparently US video/DVD companies didn’t think they were worth releasing in the US but they apparently aired on US TV (including TCM) a few times.

The film was pulled off of Amazon right after I posted this piece, which is really strange. I’ve contacted them to find it why but haven’t gotten a response yet. Hopefully that means some US DVD company is planning to release it in the states soon.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 7, 2013 2:24 pm

Thanks for all the responses! I’m glad others feel as strongly about the film as I do. Lean’s one of my favorite directors but I haven’t had the opportunity to see any of the films in his Ann Todd trilogy until now. Apparently US video/DVD companies didn’t think they were worth releasing in the US but they apparently aired on US TV (including TCM) a few times.

The film was pulled off of Amazon right after I posted this piece, which is really strange. I’ve contacted them to find it why but haven’t gotten a response yet. Hopefully that means some US DVD company is planning to release it in the states soon.

Posted By swac44 : June 8, 2013 9:32 am

I’ve wanted to see this film and The Passionate Friends for years now, but haven’t bothered getting the UK editions, figuring at some point somebody’s got to issue them on this side of the pond. I mean, this is David freakin’ Lean we’re talking about here. Meanwhile, new Jess Franco films are surfacing on blu-ray with increasing regularity. (Not meant as a knock to Franco, it’s just curious to me.)

Maybe Criterion will get around to them, but I’m hoping at least for an airing on TCM at some point down the road. Maybe they were shown for his 100th birthday five years ago (I didn’t have TCM then), I’m not sure, but I’d like to see them before his 110th rolls around.

Posted By swac44 : June 8, 2013 9:32 am

I’ve wanted to see this film and The Passionate Friends for years now, but haven’t bothered getting the UK editions, figuring at some point somebody’s got to issue them on this side of the pond. I mean, this is David freakin’ Lean we’re talking about here. Meanwhile, new Jess Franco films are surfacing on blu-ray with increasing regularity. (Not meant as a knock to Franco, it’s just curious to me.)

Maybe Criterion will get around to them, but I’m hoping at least for an airing on TCM at some point down the road. Maybe they were shown for his 100th birthday five years ago (I didn’t have TCM then), I’m not sure, but I’d like to see them before his 110th rolls around.

Posted By swac44 : June 8, 2013 9:40 am

Slight correction: an MGM/UA “David Lean Collection” including both Madeleine & The Passionate Friends was slated for release in NA, but was cancelled at the last minute–after artwork for the set had been released–due to rights issues. More info on that here:
http://forum.dvdtalk.com/dvd-talk/567884-david-lean-collection-cancelled.html

But there’s a Spanish double-feature DVD that includes both of those films in one case. Hmmm…

Posted By swac44 : June 8, 2013 9:40 am

Slight correction: an MGM/UA “David Lean Collection” including both Madeleine & The Passionate Friends was slated for release in NA, but was cancelled at the last minute–after artwork for the set had been released–due to rights issues. More info on that here:
http://forum.dvdtalk.com/dvd-talk/567884-david-lean-collection-cancelled.html

But there’s a Spanish double-feature DVD that includes both of those films in one case. Hmmm…

Posted By jennifromrollamo : June 9, 2013 11:56 pm

Great Lean movie, Madeleine, and glad you wrote about it. I liked the ending, as it was true to the actual case. I did a bit more reading about Madeleine, and she lived out her life independently, but with a shadow around her as some thought her guilty. I thought the actor who played the French guy played his role perfectly, charming at first, then the audience sees his controlling side, his greed, and ambition to marry into a well-to-do family. I also felt so sorry for the guy who Madeleine’s father wants her to marry. He really loves her and has all of these hopes and dreams for their future life together, only to have it all dashed to pieces!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : June 9, 2013 11:56 pm

Great Lean movie, Madeleine, and glad you wrote about it. I liked the ending, as it was true to the actual case. I did a bit more reading about Madeleine, and she lived out her life independently, but with a shadow around her as some thought her guilty. I thought the actor who played the French guy played his role perfectly, charming at first, then the audience sees his controlling side, his greed, and ambition to marry into a well-to-do family. I also felt so sorry for the guy who Madeleine’s father wants her to marry. He really loves her and has all of these hopes and dreams for their future life together, only to have it all dashed to pieces!

Posted By Brief Encounter (1945) | timneath : July 24, 2013 6:55 am

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