The Passionate Friends (1949)

16 May

The Passionate Friends was directed by David Lean during a period when he made three films with his lover and then wife, Ann Todd: The Passionate FriendsMadeleine, and The Sound Barrier. These films, however, tend to fall through the cracks between his early films such as Brief Encounter and his two Charles Dickens films and his later epics such as Lawrence of ArabiaThe Passionate Friends, however, just might be my favorite David Lean film that I’ve seen so far.

The story is based on a novel by, of all people, H.G. Wells. It is a romantic triangle, about a woman married to an older man, but she loves another, though the film does not develop as one expects.

The film unfolds through various flashbacks. Mary Justin (Ann Todd) is married to the wealthy banker, Howard Justin (Claude Rains). When she was younger, she was passionately in love with Stephen Stratton (Trevor Howard), a poetry-quoting young biologist. But she said she could not bear to belong to anyone; she wanted to belong to herself. Stephen maintained that if two people love each other, they want to belong to each other, but she said she did not like the clutching and grasping and instead chose to wed Howard, who understood that she did not love him, but felt that they could make a good marriage based on affection and a shared enjoyment of wealth and power.

But when Mary and Stephen unexpectedly meet years later, the powerful spark of attraction is still there and they begin a passionate affair, with Stephen convincing Mary to leave Howard. Before she can, however, Howard returns. He’s furious and he convinces her that she would not be happy with Stephen and she agrees with Howard, leaving Stephen flat. Nine more years pass and she and Stephen meet at a mountain resort in Switzerland. The spark of uncontrollable passion is gone, but Howard does not believe it and starts divorce proceedings, which threaten to ruin Stephen’s job, his reputation, and his marriage.

Mary and Stephen

(Spoilers are Rife) The way Lean begins the film is fascinating, because it is set up to make you think that Mary is trapped in a sterile relationship. She bumps into Stephen in a crowd of people. They are at a New Year’s costume party. She then joins Howard, who is sitting in a box high above the rest of the crowd, watching the crowd uninhibitedly kiss and dance and sing while Howard observes them from a detached perspective, even commenting that they look like puppets on a string. In our first sight of Howard, he turns around to face the camera looking rather like Mephistopheles. Stephen, on the other hand, is imbued with romanticism and their encounters are accompanied with romantic words and music. It makes one to expect Anna Karenina (or at least how Anna sees her story).

The brilliance of the film, though, is how by the end of the film, everything is reversed. “Do you know, Stephen, that we are practically strangers.” Mary says, when they meet again in Switzerland. Stephen has found more lasting, tangible love with another woman and has two children. Mary sees that he is happy. Not passionately happy, but contented and at peace with his life…perhaps a more lasting kind of happiness than their delirious love affair.

And it is clear that Mary’s marriage to Howard has not been as flat as it initially appeared. She considers it a success, they like the same things, clearly discuss politics and his work and seem to be a team with genuine affection for each other. She is highly self-aware, so that although she is carried away by romance, knows that romance is not enough. But the real irony is what happens to Howard.

Howard and Mary

Claude Rains as Howard Justin is absolutely magnificent. Ann Todd and Trevor Howard are good, but it is Claude Rains who really leaves an impression on the viewer. He plays a man coldly rational, a man who sees himself as a manipulator of events, such as when he contrives to let Mary know that he knows about her affair with Stephen. His rationality is repeatedly contrasted with the romanticism of Stephen. And yet in the end, he emerges as the genuinely romantic one while Stephen fades into staid gentility.

It’s an amazing transition that happens subtly. What has happened is that Howard has fallen in love with his wife, though he did not know it. He’s found unexpected depths of passion and initially reacts with furious jealousy. It’s shown subtly. In the beginning of the film, he seems complacent about his relationship with Ann. By the end, before he discovers that Mary and Stephen saw each other in Switzerland, he is almost boyishly excited to see his wife again. When he thinks he’s discovered that she’s been unfaithful to him again, his hurt is palpable rather than the mere anger he experienced the first time. He even cruelly tells her to get out and that he doesn’t want her anymore, which crushes her.

And he perhaps has some reason for feeling jealous. Because although nothing happened between Stephen and Mary – it served more as a lovely meeting that brought closure to their relationship – it seems that Mary does love Stephen in a new way. Less emotional, more mature, deeper. A love that seems to think about him rather than herself. When Howard sues for divorce and names Stephen, she is concerned about Stephen and how it will ruin him and his family, not herself, and even resolves on an Anna Karenina-like suicide in order to prevent the divorce from going forward.

Contemplating dying a la Anna Karenina

Howard, however, is the one who gets to rescue her. After dismissing Stephen’s love “as the kind that makes big demands,” of “nearness” and “belonging” and prone to “romantic hysteria,” he ends up loving a woman who does not love him and never will. A love that, essentially, makes no demands. The look of wonderment she gives him after he stops her from killing herself and asks her to come home is rather beautiful.

This post was written as part of the “Underseen and Underrated”, the CMBA Spring Blogathon. Click here for more posts!


Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Movies


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34 responses to “The Passionate Friends (1949)

  1. John Greco

    May 16, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I am completely unfamiliar with this David Lean film. Thanks for bringing it to light, or at least to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 16, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      It is a rather obscure! I only came across it because I was looking at Ann Todd’s filmography. It is on youtube, though….and can be streamed from Amazon and FilmStruck.


  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    May 16, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    I saw this film only once and I was about 12 years old, so a lot of it was over my head. However, there are scenes, particularly the ending which left a lasting impression. This is most definitely a film I should watch as a mature person, able to appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Katrina Morrison

    May 16, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    This sounds like a marvelous movie. I do want to see it. It kind of reminds me of a more recent movie with Julia Roberts, Clive Owens, and Jude Law…Closer I think was the title. You simply didn’t know how it would end. Love movies like this, especially when you like the ending..
    Excellent review Christina..your writing had me enthralled 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 16, 2017 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you! Those are the best, aren’t they, those films you don’t know how they will end! It seems like too many movies are either predictable or we already know too much coming in.

      That sounds like a great cast for a film similar to The Passionate Friends. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. stephencwinter

    May 17, 2017 at 4:47 am

    Your category of those films as Underseen and Underrated is fascinating. You have mentioned Claude Rains on a number of occasions but I think he would be high on a list of underrated actors. Perhaps he suffered from not being classically handsome and so was often relegated to the ranks of character actors and not the leading man.
    I thought I knew David Lean’s work but this is a new one on me. It definitely belongs to the Underseen category!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2017 at 10:11 am

      It is rather obscure, isn’t it! I only came across it because I was poring over Ann Todd’s filmography…she didn’t seem to make many movies. And the fact that it starred Claude Rains sold me on it. I think you’re right – he’s seems underrated, but always worth watching! Sometimes I think his presence alone can make a film worth seeing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Marsha Collock

    May 17, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Oh – how wonderful to be able to look forward to another great Claude Rains performance! Many thanks for spotlighting this film. It’s o my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2017 at 10:22 am

      You’re welcome! Claude Rains is one of the best, isn’t he! I hope you really enjoy the film.


  6. carygrantwonteatyou

    May 17, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Haven’t heard of this one. Really enjoyed the first half of the review and then had to skip because I don’t want to know how it turns out…thank you for the spoiler warning:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2017 at 10:24 am

      You’re welcome! I almost forgot to include the spoiler warning and am now so glad I remembered! I will be so fascinated to know what you think after seeing it, especially since you were able to avoid knowing the ending before watching it – I accidentally found out before I saw it.


  7. Linda Sandahl

    May 17, 2017 at 9:13 am

    I have actually never seen this one — it sounds fascinating. Claude Rains never put a foot wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2017 at 10:26 am

      So true – he was marvelous in everything! It’s hard to get too much of him.


  8. Jocelyn

    May 17, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Oh wow, I was so intrigued by this one from the first few paragraphs of your review, that I couldn’t finish and risk reading the spoilers. 🙂 I definitely want to watch this; British melodrama is very much my cup of tea. I’m a big fan of Claude Rains-who isn’t?-and I’m sure his acting brilliance is put to good use here. Thanks for highlighting this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 17, 2017 at 8:35 pm

      Oh yes, this is a really marvelous example of British melodrama!! I agree, Claude Rains is the best and really gets a good role. It’s doesn’t seem to be out on DVD, but is available on youtube, FilmStruck, and streaming from Amazon.

      I’m so glad the spoiler warning was helpful and hope you get a chance to see it!


  9. maddylovesherclassicfilms

    May 18, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Great post. I love this film so much. I wish it was better known. Rains and Todd give strong performances. The finale in the tube station is unforgettable. So happy to find another fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 18, 2017 at 10:44 am

      Yay – I’m so glad to find another person who loves this film, too! It seems really odd that it is not better known, doesn’t it? Especially since it is by Lean and has such a great cast. It’s funny how that happens to some films, but I hope it begins to get more recognition as it becomes easier to see!

      Liked by 1 person

      • maddylovesherclassicfilms

        May 18, 2017 at 10:46 am

        It certainly is odd. Excellent performances all round and a very good story. I think the film has some similarities to Brief Encounter and in a way you could view it as a sequel to that film. I join you in hoping this gets more attention.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 18, 2017 at 11:06 am

          Oh, I haven’t seen Brief Encounter yet, but perhaps I should make that the film I see next. That is very interesting how they form a kind of sequel!

          Liked by 1 person

          • maddylovesherclassicfilms

            May 18, 2017 at 11:10 am

            Hope you enjoy Brief Encounter.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. Eric Binford

    May 18, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Great review of an underrated film! I loved it! I think it is one of Lean’s best movies. Very interesting that Lean thought it was “a failure.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 18, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      Did he really! That is interesting. I wonder what he was going for that he felt the final product was a failure.

      Is it, perhaps, owing to his low opinion of the film that has led to it being so undervalued, then? Do you know which ones he liked the best?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        May 19, 2017 at 10:55 am

        Last year I read “David Lean: A Biography” by Kevin Brownlow. It’s a really good book. I used some of the book’s quotes for my review of The Passionate Friends:

        Anyhow, Summertime (1955) was Lean’s favorite movie. He also called it “my most personal movie” (strange, since the film is told from the perspective of the female character). Lean was also fond of The Sound Barrier (“one of my favorites”) and Lawrence of Arabia (“the greatest film adventure of my life”). He was very proud of Brief Encounter and his two Dickens films. Lean’s least favorite was Madeleine (1950), with Todd (have you seen it?). He also said he was ashamed of Blithe Spirit (1945).

        Lean’s favorite actor was Charles Laughton. He also adored Celia Johnson and Kate Hepburn. According to author Brownlow, Lean had a love/hate relationship with Alec Guinness.

        BTW, your review is absolutely on point! You have a very perceptive eye! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 19, 2017 at 1:29 pm

          Thanks so much! It was so impressive to me how he managed his three characters and presented them to us

          And thanks for such a thorough answer! I’m realizing that there are still a lot of David Lean films I have not seen. So far, I’ve seen only the two Dickens films (was really struck with those), The Bridge On the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago, Hobson’s Choice (which I also loved!) and now Passionate Friends. I am really eager to see Brief Encounter next, while my brother is still wondering why in the world I have not yet seen Lawrence of Arabia (I’m not sure why, either).

          That is extremely interesting which films he enjoyed making (especially his choice of Summertime!). Sound Barriers seems like a curious choice, since it sounded like a very atypical kind of film for him…though he seems to have had extraordinary range as a director. It’s interesting how he seems to have moved from more intimate personal dramas to epics in his career, too.

          Ashamed of Blithe Spirit! Wow – that is quite the reaction! 🙂 Will definitely have to look for that book by Brownlow… and explore more Lean films.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Eric Binford

            May 21, 2017 at 10:59 am

            I’m a big fan of Hobson’s Choice. Brief Encounter is fantastic! I can’t believe you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a great movie. Anyhow, this is how I rate Lean’s films …

            Ranking Lean (in order of preference):


            Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
            The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
            Brief Encounter (1945)
            Great Expectations (1946)
            Hobson’s Choice (1954)


            A Passage to India (1984)
            Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
            Oliver Twist (1948)
            Doctor Zhivago (1965)
            The Passionate Friends (1949)
            The Sound Barrier (1952)
            Summertime (1955)

            Good, but not great:

            In Which We Serve (1942)
            This Happy Breed (1944)
            Madeleine (1950)
            Blithe Spirit (1945)
            The Greatest Story Ever Told (uncredited) (1965)

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              May 21, 2017 at 2:47 pm

              That’s pretty impressive! So he never made a stinker of a film? I didn’t realize he worked on The Greatest Story Ever Told.

              Liked by 1 person

          • Eric Binford

            May 21, 2017 at 11:10 am

            According to Brownlow’s book, Lean had serious issues with fidelity. He could never stay faithful to the women in his life. That’s why, I think, most of his movies deal with characters struggling with loyalty. Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, Summertime, Passionate Friends, etc. Even in films like Hobson’s Choice (obedience to the father) and Lawrence of Arabia (allegiance to a country), you see the idea of a person betraying someone or something. Interesting, don’t you think? 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              May 21, 2017 at 2:56 pm

              That is very interesting! It makes for gripping viewing. Perhaps issues of loyalty to one’s friends, lovers, family, nation and trying to reconcile those with personal conviction, ambition, desire makes up the basis of much human interaction? It’s interesting how he explored that theme both on a personal level and a grand and epic one.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Lesley

    May 21, 2017 at 8:46 am

    A really excellent analysis of a movie I have but have never watched—on my watch list now. This sounds like a really mature movie about romantic relationships, a rare thing. Brief Encounter is another. Anyway, so looking forward to watching this. Thank you for spotlighting it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 21, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      You’re welcome – and thank you! Isn’t it funny how we can own movies and never seem to get around to them? I have a number of films that I need to see, too. 🙂

      The more I hear about Brief Encounter, the more it sounds like a must-see – am really looking forward to it. I hope you have a lovely time with The Passionate Friends, too!


  12. Ivan G. Shreve Jr.

    May 21, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    I had to be careful and not read too far ahead in the material because I haven’t seen this one and you did give me a “spoilers” heads-up. Very good review, Christina — I enjoyed it muchly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 21, 2017 at 7:26 pm

      Thanks so much! I nearly forgot the “spoiler” warning, but am so glad I remembered and that the plot is not spoiled for you! I hope you get to see this film sometime!



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