BRIEF ENCOUNTER: The Rain, the Sane, And Mainly Lots of Pain
When I was invited to join a celebration of rainy movie scenes, the first one that came to mind wasn’t something like this…
You see, I’m Irish. So of course I thought of this doomed, guilt-ridden duo.
The scene in Brief Encounter where Laura (Celia Johnson) tears through the wet streets after getting caught with Alec (Trevor Howard) is the flip side of every rain-drenched romantic scene ever filmed. Because this isn’t romance—it’s love. Sacred, fierce and terrifying, an untold blessing and an unholy mess.
“I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura says early on. “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”
And yet here she is, fleeing a stranger’s flat, where she’d gone to meet a man who was a stranger only weeks before.
After bolting from the safety of her homeward-bound train at the last second, Laura rushes to meet Alec at his friend Stephen’s apartment, where he stays every Thursday while working at the hospital. But when they hear Stephen’s key in the latch—he’s home early, with a nasty cold—Laura hurries out the back way, down the tradesman’s staircase.
Stephen (Valentine Dyall) hears the scuffling—and, smugly sizing up the scene, picks up the scarf Laura left behind, letting it dangle from his fingers. “This is a service flat… it caters to all tastes,” he smirks, all but oozing a trail of slime across the carpet. “You know Alec, you have hidden depths I hadn’t suspected…”
Laura, meanwhile, is flying through the strange streets in the middle of a downpour, heading anywhere at all as long as it’s away. (“I felt humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully ashamed…”)
Finally, too tired to keep running but in no shape to go home, she huddles into a callbox at a tobacco shop and concocts a story for her husband, with a quick-witted nimbleness that appalls her. (“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.”)
Wandering back out into the night, she takes refuge on a park bench, where she lights a post-non-coital cigarette and—thinking of her husband—feels ashamed even for doing that. (“There was nobody about… I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street… I do too really but I wanted to calm my nerves, and I thought it might help.”)
But her guilt is just getting started: “I sat there for ages, I don’t know how long. Then I noticed a policeman walking up and down a little way off. He was looking at me rather suspiciously…”
When he approaches, it’s clear he’s just concerned: “Feeling all right, Miss? Waiting for someone? Don’t go and catch cold now… it’s a damp night for sitting about on seats!”
She assures him she’s fine, and was just about to get up to catch a train.
“I walked away, trying to look casual, knowing that he was watching me.”
“I felt like a criminal.”
And in this grim, rainy scene, Robert Krasker shot her like one. The cinematographer (who also teamed with David Lean on Odd Man Out and won an Oscar for The Third Man) shadows Laura up and down the dark streets like her own accusing heart. And in the callbox, as she lies to her trusting husband, she’s set in stark, near-black relief against the bright lights of the cheery shop on the other side of the glass. Any shlub with a camera could conjure noir out of guiltless sex, but only a genius could find it in sexless guilt.
(P.S.: If you crave a bit of Noel Coward where the illicit lovers really let their id flags fly, here’s a streaming link to The Astonished Heart, also starring Celia Johnson, but this time as the betrayed wife. It’s enough to convince you that, however frustrated they might have ended up, Laura and Alec got it right.)