Madeleine (1950) Directed by David Lean. Ann Todd, Norman Wooland, Ivan Desny, Leslie Banks (114 min).

Madeleine appears to be the dutiful daughter of a stern Victorian patriarch.  In fact, she’s carrying on a clandestine affair with a caddish Frenchman.  When he pressures her to reveal their relationship publicly, she retaliates, with unexpected consequences. “Madeleine is a significant film that deserves wider viewing” (Structures of Desire: British Cinema 1939-1955 Tony Williams 180).

Nice girls didn’t used to have sex outside of marriage.  The birth control pill changed that in the 1960s, but before that there had been another great societal upheaval, WW II.  Many Englishwomen who wouldn’t have dreamed of such an intimacy threw caution to the winds when so many young men were leaving for the battle front, some never to return.  David Lean’s film speaks directly to those women who had experienced some unaccustomed freedom from policing of their private lives during the war, and for whom a return to peacetime meant a reluctant sacrifice of that independence.

The film was based on a real-life murder case from 19th century Glasgow, Scotland, which was billed “the trial of the century” in the contemporary press.  Madeleine Smith was one of five children of a prominent Scottish architect.  In 1855, the family moved to 7, Blythwood Square into the lower levels of a house shared with her uncle, who lived upstairs.  Madeleine slept in a basement bedroom, with a private entrance for the servants, which enabled her clandestine meetings with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, who worked as a clerk in a nearby warehouse.  Her parents, oblivious to their daughter’s secret life, arranged a match with a suitable gentleman at a time when Madeleine’s love affair was beginning to erode.  L’Angelier died of arsenic poisoning, and after her amorous letters were found at his lodgings, she was accused of his murder.

What does Madeleine need with that Prussic acid?

Her story has inspired fiction and non-fiction books, including Wilkie Collins’ The Law and the Lady, films, radio plays and television shows, essays and memoirs.  Joan Crawford’s long sought-after Letty Lynton, famous for a style-setting Adrian dress, but embargoed by a frustrating copyright conflict, was supposedly an earlier film adaptation.  Lean uncovered a 1928 Broadway play based on the case, called Dishonored Lady, which had starred Katharine Cornell,  filmed in 1947 starring Hedy Lamarr.  I can state unequivocally that, except that the leading lady is named Madeleine, and that there is a trial, there are absolutely no plot points similar to the historical case of Madeleine Smith.  Perhaps, with the exception of one man after another telling her who she is, how she should feel, and what she should do. Which, of course, would be similar to many of the films made in classic Hollywood.  Dishonored Lady is much closer in plot details to Lady in the Dark, up to and including the fashion magazine milieu, the bossy shrink and annoying suitor.  The real-life Madeleine Smith lived to be quite old, and in her 90s in 1926, a Hollywood film company asked her to appear in a film about her own murder case!

In Lean’s film, Madeleine is symbolically caged, caged by the bars of her basement bedroom, and caged by the power of the men in her life, her dictatorial father, her untrustworthy lover (we suspect him right away because his carefully tied cravat is just a little too large to be properly tasteful) and caged by her sanctioned suitor, who promises her another generation of stifling respectability.  She’s caged as well  by her enormous crinoline petticoats.  The structured framework is actually called a cage crinoline, probably for its resemblance to a birdcage.  One critic wrote that “Madeleine’s immediate fascination with the dark isolated basement symbolically expresses the subterranean emotions of this apparently well-bred Scottish young woman” (Phillips 163).  By subterranean, they imply wicked. But, there are many reasons to hide. She shares a basement bed and bedroom, not with her lower-class lover (Phillips uses the phrase “sinning beneath her station”), but with her innocent little sister, mysteriously oblivious to her older sibling’s comings and goings.

One night Madeleine  acts boldly on her own desires.  Out on a country walk, Madeleine and Emile wander far from the prying eyes of her family. The camera follows a couple they observe at a riotous local Scottish dance, who work themselves up into such a frenzy that they bolt from the party, presumably to take a roll in the hay outdoors.  At the same moment, Madeleine is consciously yielding her virginity to Emile (in an oblique scene that nevertheless would never pass the Production Code in the US).  She acts on her passion and shows no regret. She takes his silver headed cane—he is never without it–and tosses it aside. The men around her are so limited in their imaginations as far as what women really want, that they only see her through the lens of her demure respectability.  Even as she is brought to trial, before a male judge, jury and predominantly male spectators, they struggle to see her as an individual, as she sits primly under her veiled bonnet.  They are unable to ascribe any unruly passions to her.

The trial part of the film followed official transcripts closely.  Notable British Trials devoted two volumes to the courtroom proceedings.  In one of the letters Madeleine wrote to Emile on May 6, 1856, “Am I not your wife?  Yes, I am, and you may rest assured that, after what has passed I cannot be the wife of any other but dear Emile; though we should, I suppose have waited til we were married” (Phillips 161).  This was explicit passion that had never before been revealed in a British court of law, and likewise was forbidden in American films by the Production Code.

The trial, demurely veiled, but wearing “changable” moire taffeta (it looks like different colors, depending on the light).

David Lean is primarily remembered now for his epics, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, as well as his British Charles Dickens films, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and that masterpiece of suppressed passion, Brief Encounter. This early film is relatively unknown, and indeed was considered by Lean, himself, to be his worst.  He did not make many films, but the three early British ones just noted are regularly included on lists of best British films, and his epics, beginning with The Bridge on the River Kwai, set the standards for intelligent, well-scripted big budget films.

David Lean was born in Croydon, England, in 1908.  His upbringing was Quaker, but his father scandalized the family by divorcing Lean’s mother for a comely war widow. The boy loved his Brownie Box camera (he developed his own film) and adored the cinema, eventually getting a home movie camera of his own.  He had no interest in apprenticing with his father’s accounting firm.  But, his father did know the accountants at the Gaumont Studios and at 19, the movie-struck teen applied for a job at and was taken on without pay as an assistant who ran errands and fetched tea.  Hired at 10 shillings a week, he quickly found a place he loved; in the editing room.  When he was 22 he married his first cousin, Isabel, who was already pregnant with their son, Peter.  She would be the first of his six wives and one of his many affairs.  Because of his editing expertise, Noel Coward gave him a chance to co-direct In Which We Serve, a popular WW II film about the sinking of a Navy destroyer.  In 1945, he directed two more Coward works,  Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit.  His beloved Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist were next, and then two with his then wife, Ann Todd, considered by many film historians “the only outright failures of his 30-year directorial career” (Pickard 274).

Ann Todd was a huge star in British films in the 40s and 50s, her most famous role in the US is Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case.  She was “widely regarded as glacially beautiful, enigmatic and cool. The British fan magazines often referred to her as ‘the British Garbo’” (Brownlow 254).  Working with Hitchcock in Hollywood gave her tremendous prestige at home. Lean was determined not to single her out for star treatment just because she had been feted in Hollywood.  Todd looked forward to working with Lean, unaware that he had determined to treat her sternly.  The first day of shooting on their first film together, The Passionate Friends, consisted of long shots at a ball sequence with numerous extras in fancy dress.  “David swooped into my life on a camera crane and I was very impressed since he was a very imposing figure.” When she was late for one shot because she hadn’t been called to the set, she was scolded for not appearing on time, whether or not she had been called.  Todd thought “Lean apparently assumed she fancied herself ‘a conceited grande dame’ and thought she should be taken down a notch or two.” Furious, she complained to co-star Claude Rains, who advised her, “You do your job, earn your paycheck and don’t fuss” (all quotes Phillips 150).  As the film progressed, however, they reassessed their first impressions and began an affair, revealed both by the amount of time she spent in the director’s hotel suite, and the lush close-ups he was filming of her.

A glamour shot in Madeleine’s wedding gown

Lean had been separated from his second wife Kay Walsh for years, but finally divorced her to marry Todd in 1949.  His new wife had a pet project, or perhaps, more accurately, an obsession; the Madeleine Smith murder case. She even owned some of Madeleine’s love letters, as well as her ivory handled parasol.  In fact, I wonder if that is the very parasol she uses at the conclusion of the film.

In 1944, Todd had appeared in a play based on the case, The Rest is Silence, which Laurence Olivier had envisioned as a film starring his wife, Vivien Leigh.  When that deal fell through, Ann Todd convinced her husband to take on the project, although Madeleine’s script was original, not based on the play.  There was even some filming at 7, Blythswood Square.  Ann Todd said, “I attract spirits and in that house Madeleine Smith came and visited me.  I get a certain reaction when I know.  David went upstairs and I felt it very strongly.  It was an extraordinary film.  I felt it most of the time we were making it that she was there.  When I show it at home on cassette I still get a reaction” (Brownlow 269).

Lean had hoped for either Yves Montand or Gerard Philipe for L’Angelier, but neither were available and they settled on a relative newcomer, Ivan Desny.  Lean was in psychoanalysis, and intentionally incorporated Freudian symbolism into the film, most notably the use of L’Angelier’s distinctive walking stick.  Lean and Todd were recently married, but were already squabbling. She was keen to psychoanalyze her character through endless discussions with Lean, who was concerned that the film was slipping farther and farther behind schedule.  One cannot but speculate that his Freudian interpretation might have clashed with hers.  Since Lean had begun as an editor, he had precise ideas of how he wanted to shoot and they argued constantly about her process and performance.

Todd and Desny

The reviews were terrible.  Lean said, “Madeleine was the worst film I ever made and I don’t think I put more sheer hard work into any picture.  Beware of making any artistic creation for the wrong reasons!  The negative forces create poltergeists.  Nothing works, from script to cutting” (Brownlow 275).  “Ann was terribly stuck on this idea…but it really wasn’t my cup of tea” (Williams 181).  They made one more film together, Breaking the Sound Barrier, and were divorced in 1957. Their divorce was acrimonious:  perhaps this is why he regarded the film as a low point in his career.

The striking and relatively historically accurate Victorian costumes were designed  by Margaret Furse.  The hairstyles are baffling, though, Todd’s is a 50s page boy with some puzzling twists in the back.  Furses’ name is not a particularly well- known one today, but, she won an Oscar for Anne of the Thousand Days, an Emmy for Love Among the Ruins and a BAFTA for Becket, among many other award nominations.  She started designing for the theater at the end of WW II.  She was married to production designer Roger Furse for a time, and his connections to Laurence Olivier brought her into Olivier’s Henry V.  During her work on Lean’s Great Expectations they had a passionate affair which shattered his second marriage.  According to Kevin Brownlow, “Maggie Furse has been characterized as a graceful, sophisticated person, who looked as if she had stepped from the cover of Vogue.” Lean’s second wife, Kay Walsh, had a different point of view.  “It’s difficult for me to describe Maggie Furse because I absolutely loathed her and planned to murder her.  I used to call her Gypsy Petulengro because she wore those swathe turbans and curtain ring earrings and all the dingle dangles…Maggie eventually became a very good friend of mine.  It was difficult not to like her.  She was very courteous, very good person to work with, once you put aside your wrath.  Didn’t matter whether you were a star or an extra, she really knew how to take care of actors” (Brownlow 217).  Gene D. Phillips account of the affair is more measured, “…he had developed the habit of having an affair with a young woman involved in the making of every picture he directed.  On Great Expectations it was Margaret Furse, the wardrobe assistant, who was his inamorata.  These affairs were passing fancies and never lasted longer than the duration of the production period of the film in question” (Phillips 122).  Interestingly, like Cecil B. DeMille, who also had an active love life, the break-ups were not destructive enough to endanger a valuable future working relationship.

Madeleine has control of Emile’s walking stick.

The black and white photography, with some striking deep focus shots, seems to have been inspired by a film noir mood, in spite of the historical setting.  Madeleine waits for night, so she can retreat to her dark cellar to await her lover.  “Lean’s frequent use of the moving camera highlights the ecstasy of a desire that can only express itself in the dark confines of a film noir basement area.  The film visually emphasizes the repressive nature of her patriarchal entrapment” (Williams 182).  Although the film is not from Gainsborough Studios, the passionate heroine does hark back to the more flamboyant Barbara of The Wicked Lady.

The film was criticized for its “excessively slow pace, a deliberate tempo for Lean was at pains to sketch in the background of the Smith family and capture something of the flavor of life in mid-nineteenth century Glasgow” (Pickard 274).  I would entirely disagree with this attitude, because the careful depiction of Madeleine’s life, and the crime of which she was accused needs to be laid out carefully, since we, the audience, will be asked to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt or innocence of the heroine.  In fact, this was proposed as the reason the film was a failure, because the director does not tell you what to think at the end.  Lean’s intention was not to solve a mystery, but to create a portrait of the tragic consequences of a transgressive, forbidden love.  At the end, the audience is forced to take sides. Just as the men in Madeleine’s life do not understand her, it seems Lean did not understand Todd’s performance, either, and how she was speaking to the contemporary female audience.  At the end, there is only Ann Todd’s face in extreme close-up, looking deeply at the camera and daringly, demanding: “Judge me.”


Wikipedia: Madeleine Smith, Realism and Tinsel:  Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-1948 by Robert Murphy, Structures of Desire: British Cinema 1939-1955 by Tony Williams, “David Lean” by Roy Pickard in May, 1974, Films in Review, David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, Beyond the Epic:  The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips