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David Lean: The Definitive Ranking

David Lean: A Gentleman's View of Action Cinema - Shepherd Express

Meh. No cute introduction. Just go to my Top Ten to see why Top Ten’s are all wrong.

David Lean was a great filmmaker who grew up in the British studio system preceding the outbreak of World War II and became a director, hitched to Noel Coward, during the conflict. After working directly with Coward for four films, he broke out on his own and became one of the most important British filmmakers. His great epics tend to overshadow his smaller films, some of which are pretty much just as great, and that’s really why I do these exercises of running through entire filmographies.

Sure, before this I could say that I’d seen four or five of his movies, but they were all from his later career and missed so many little gems of his early years.

Madeleine (1950)

16. Madeleine

“The movie has a broken opening, a pretty good middle as Madeleine navigates the dangerous waters she set up for herself, and then a rather dull ending. There’s something of a twist in the final shot, but considering the frustrating way that the movie gets to that I find it irritating more than intriguing. It’s not worthless by any means. Ann Todd gives a fine performance. It’s handsomely filmed with some striking images here and there, but it’s also deeply flawed.”

Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, and Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

15. Doctor Zhivago

“The recreation of the last days of the Tsars, the trenches on the Ukrainian front, and the reality of life under communism in Russia are impeccably presented and convincing. I just wish the story supported it all.”

Ryan's Daughter (1970)

14. Ryan’s Daughter

“So, while I felt like the movie was too long pretty much from the hour point on, I was still mostly enjoying the experience. I think it was the late introduction of the gunrunning plot and the storm that pulled me down just a bit more. This is definitely not Lean’s worst movie. It’s simply too well made for that. However, it is definitely the lesser work of a filmmaker who’s lost touch with what made him great to begin with.”

Blithe Spirit (1945)

13. Blithe Spirit

“It’s an entertaining little morsel of fun from Coward and Lean, something that uses the occult in an entertaining way and is filled with witty, fun dialogue. It’s not my favorite screwball comedy (that would probably be Bringing Up Baby), but it’s certainly a highlight.”

Oliver Twist (1948)

12. Oliver Twist

“This was what I was thinking about when I said it was pretty much impossible to make a great film of a Dickens novel, sacrificing breadth and dept in order to fit as much in as possible. The movie is really well made, well-acted, and great to look at, but the script ends up taking a series of shortcuts in the middle that undermine the believability of the action in order to wipe out a series of side-characters and just make Oliver’s journey from orphan to street rat to rescue fit within the confines of a two hour film.”

In Which We Serve (1942)

11. In Which We Serve

“It’s handsomely made and very much of its time being made mid-war and about the war effort itself. However, Coward’s pen and Lean’s directing makes it about the men themselves which turns the timely tale into a timeless one of men in war and the women they leave behind. It’s a strong opening work and a good example of how working one’s way up to the directing chair by learning other elements of the craft first can yield strong narrative and cinematic dividends. Lean did not direct this on his own, but he did start his directing career with a winner.”

Summertime (1955)

10. Summertime

“As a whole, it’s a nice travelogue with a nice little romance with nice little thoughts about how temporary emotions can be. It’s not grand art, but it’s an enjoyable look at Venice and love.”

A Passage to India (1984)

9. A Passage to India

“What A Passage to India represents is David Lean re-applying the earliest lessons of his filmmaking career after a fourteen year hiatus. This is David Lean figuring out how to use epic filmmaking appropriately while balancing it with an intimate story. This is David Lean at his most colorful since Summertime. This is David Lean going out on a strong, confident note.”

This Happy Breed (1944)

8. This Happy Breed

“It’s a solid little drama that, much like Lean’s previous film, is very much of its time but strong enough to stand outside of it as well. This Lean fellow might have a future in directing.”

The Sound Barrier (1952)

7. The Sound Barrier

“It’s a solid entertainment with an almost tricky focus that ends up working out quite well. Probably one of Lean’s most underrated films.”

The Passionate Friends (1949)

6. The Passionate Friends

“Temporary things give way to more permanent things that were always there. It’s an idea that Lean seems to have returned to repeatedly in different forms over the years, and it’s a surprisingly moral take from the director. It’s also an effective take imbued by Howard, who is more of a side character for most of the runtime. The film’s good until its final moments when it becomes something else. Perhaps a better focus on Howard or a stronger central character in Mary might have helped even more, but as it stands, this is still a very good film.”

John Mills in Great Expectations (1946)

5. Great Expectations

“The movie looks great, is performed extraordinarily well, and feels like it could exist without the original source novel’s existence. It is an exceptional adaptation and story told with the practiced hand of David Lean, and is one of the best cinematic versions of a Charles Dickens novel put to film.”

Charles Laughton, Brenda de Banzie, and John Mills in Hobson's Choice (1954)

4. Hobson’s Choice

“It wasn’t one of David Lean’s epic masterpieces that has convinced me he was one of the greatest directors to ever work in film. No, it was this little comedy based on a little known stage play from the second decade of the twentieth century that convinced me.”

Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, José Ferrer, and Jack Hawkins in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

3. Lawrence of Arabia

“It’s a production of the highest order with an intelligently told study of a man at its center. This is more than just a critics’ delight, this is grand entertainment.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a great film with great writing, great performances, and great cinematography that uses great framing to do several great things. This is the work of a professional filmmaker who spent decades learning his craft and applying those lessons in spades to a story with a much broader scope.”

Brief Encounter (1945)

1. Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter, though, is a touching little film about brief emotions and how they can linger and even fade over time. Over the course of Laura’s internal confession, she feels everything she felt, and in the end, she finds that she can begin to move on. It’s a wonderful little film that expertly uses sight and sound to create its series of emotions and sell them to the audience.”

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