Ordinary Flaws and their Tragedies: Three Films of the Last Century by Patricia Emison

David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), originally a stage play by Noel Coward from before the War, set mostly in the canteen of a railway station at a market town in the north of England (Milford Junction, actually Carnforth), was filmed after the War. An ordinary housewife who has gotten a glimpse of a happier life she feels she must forego narrates the story, which reinvents tragedy for a thoroughly domesticated world. The Rachmaninoff record Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) plays in her sitting room, the Piano Concerto No. 2 that we sometimes hear also as soundtrack during her excursions to the nearby market town, dignifies the emotional tumult of her humdrum middle-class existence as surely as flowing classical drapery elevated the tone of an old master painting. “I’m an ordinary woman,” she says quietly in the voiceover as Rachmanioff plays on the record player; “I didn’t think such violent things [as falling in love] could happen to ordinary people.” Low-key the film’s tenor may be; but for all that, a non-glamorous yet also not impoverished woman’s point of view has been made primary.[1] Would it be outrageous to compare Brief Encounter to the Mona Lisa, in which, similarly, a non-glamorous woman of no particular social rank is given revolutionary dignity? Both might be claimed as art that comes from the demos rather than descending from on high; both make extraordinary art out of the materials of ordinary life.

In the United States, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) took the cardboard hero from a popular magazine’s short story and created a tableau of small town life in which the frontier middle class, resentful of those double-crossing judges back East, justifies its cowardly pragmatism. An analogy with the concurrent McCarthy hearings, although evidently not intended, was noticed early and often. In the film, the town’s seemingly decent citizens find it expedient not to insist on supporting law and order, but instead resolve to do whatever needs to be done, including the betrayal of a good man, in order to protect their own hides.

As in Brief Encounter the drama is understated, and (disconcerting though it may be) twenty-first-century viewers have been known to fail to sympathize with Gary Cooper’s character, who could simply have left town as he was planning to do anyway. Like Laura Jesson, Marshal Will Kane acts dutifully rather than pursuing personal happiness. The result is tragic, despite the survival of the protagonist in both cases—an existential tragedy, played out against the pressures of inexorably elapsing time in both cases.

Again the music plays a crucial role. Introduced only late in the process of production, Tex Ritter’s contemporary folk ballad mightily contrasted with stereotypical movie music, which closely cued the viewer what to think and feel, scene by scene, sometimes in advance of the actual elapsing of action. The recurring song suggested instead the doggedly calm and determined attitude of Cooper’s character, Will Kane, and alternated with the insistent imagery of clock faces, making the real-time elapsing of minutes a source of narrative tension, as opposed to the usual escapism into a cinema world in which time doesn’t unfold naturally. Although the project doesn’t seem to have been conceived of as a modern Antigone set in a democracy, nevertheless it became a film about the problem of a citizenry’s cowardice. Among the myriad movies in which a few admirable individuals suffer and ultimately triumph, whether in love or war, High Noon sticks out as an exception. Triumph is not the mood, even if the sheriff does win the gun fight. High Noon derived from pulp melodrama and became a parable about middle-class cowardice.   A Western it certainly is, but one that has similarly evolved into a sort of genre limbo.

Thematically High Noon appears an indirect heir—a slightly eviscerated heir, in that Gary Cooper even in this richly problematic film satisfies for most viewers the persistent need for an American hero—to La règle du jeu (1939), an even more exceptional film, in which the death of the “hero” paradoxically fails to mark the tale as tragedy—or at least fails to mark the dead man as the tragic character. Renoir’s Règle was based on farce and, like High Noon, elapses for the most part in real time. Full of fine music including Saint-Saëns’ Dance macabre, it evolved well out of its pre-existing genre (although the characters acknowledge the farcical nature of the various events unfolding around them) into a sort of genre limbo, a limbo created by the collapse of the concept of hero.

These are three very different films: for instance, La règle du jeu and High Noon at least inadvertently were relevant to contemporary politics, which were exceptionally troubled; the scope of Brief Encounter is domestic (witness its transfer across the War). But in all three the ordinary has become art, a project anticipated by Virgil’s Georgics but not often attempted in visual art before the late sixteenth or seventeenth century. In each case ordinary people suffer heroically in the grip of that all-powerful villain, normalcy of one kind or another. As Christine says to Jackie in the denouement of La règle du jeu, “People are watching”—a line by which not only the characters in the story but also the viewers of the film are implicated. We are watching; and if, as in La règle, we are guardians of normalcy, then we are the villains of ordinary life.

Our genre expectations are thwarted by these movies, which are neither comedy nor tragedy, not history either, but complex fictions. If we heed them, they caution us against popular mores, that is, against our own identity as mass audience. Perhaps only film that featured ordinary people could attack the values of ordinariness, of wanting not to be noticed, like Will’s Kane’s supposed friends who hide when he comes to ask for help. “I’m only an ordinary women,” says Laura Jesson to herself and to us, asking implicitly to be excused for failing to rock the boat of her middle-class existence; and we are not supposed to condemn her for her stolidness, nor supposed to remember Noel Coward’s own carefree Design for Living and all those other vicarious celluloid adventuresome spirits. They were artists, after all, and Laura is a middle-class housewife with a kind husband and young children. Like Christine with her considerably less likeable husband, Laura is trapped into keeping up appearances, just as we the audience trap ourselves in celluloid stories and hope to lose in the dark our individual responsibilities and the demons of what might have been, as members of an audience whose responses have already been carefully anticipated by movie moguls and their marketing experts. If we merely enjoy these movies, then rightly would Brecht accuse us of “the incomprehensible optimism of a class which, in its unstoppable decline, can no longer afford to think about its own flaws.”[2]


[1] If not unprecedented, this is at least unusual. Mildred Pierce (also 1945) features a mature woman (Joan Crawford in the title role), but she is not meant to be without glamor and allure, and she certainly is the stuff of sensationalism.

[2] Brecht on Art and Politics, eds.~Tom Kuhn and Steve Giles, London 2003, 44.

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