Can the dead come back to watch over the living? This contemplation is at the crux of David Lean's Blithe Spirit (1945); an ethereally genuine - if slightly morbid - romp through the occult and spiritualism. Based on Noel Coward's whimsical drawing room comedy, the film's screenplay by Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan sticks remarkably close to Coward's original. Reportedly, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit from start to finish in five days at a seaside hotel while on holiday, with only two lines of dialogue changed before its premiere. Coward, who pilfered his title from Percy Shelley's poem 'To A Skylark' - and would later refer to it as 'superficial', was slightly unprepared for the controversy that arose amongst critics; most of whom thought that a play poking fun at death at the height of WWII was, quite simply, in bad taste. Critics aside, the public loved it and Blithe Spirit became a smash hit, running 1,997 performances.
Hollywood put in their bids to produce it. But Coward had been entirely unimpressed by previous translations of his work on the big screen in America and instead chose to sell the rights to Blithe Spirit to General Films - a British production company. As a film, Blithe Spirit has everything going for it; an exemplary cast, glowing Technicolor, Coward's acerbic wit, and masterful director David Lean at its helm. Curiously enough, neither Lean nor star Rex Harrison wanted any part of it. Lean did not feel that comedy - dark or otherwise - was his forte, while Harrison took his cue from the London stage adaptation and was therefore afraid playing a middle aged man would harm his 'sexy Rexy' bachelor's reputation. As such the part was tailored to suit him as a 'younger' man.
Kay Hammond made the transition from stage to film as the rather randy 'blithe spirit'. But the only other West End alumni to make it to the screen is Margaret Rutherford - who had at first balked at playing the part. She was, in fact, a devote spiritualist herself and one who took umbrage to Coward's representation of the spiritualist in the piece as a dotty, cotton-headed, flighty fool. It was only after the playwright convinced the actress that his take was meant to delineate the true believer from the hapless charlatans, who report to dabble in the occult merely to make a quick buck that Rutherford agreed to be in the production.
As a film, Blithe Spirit is rather unnerving, perhaps because it never takes the supernatural seriously. Without its ghostly trappings, the play is just like any other Coward stage vehicle from this vintage, with its long suffering, harridan-ridden protagonist longing to be free of his apathetic existence. Coward always saw the piece as a tragedy, rather than an outright comedy. And true enough, David Lean's film is neither as spooky as anticipated, nor quite so out and out funny as one might expect. What it remains is engrossing and inquisitive - both pluses for audiences to enjoy.
We open on the loveless, but pastoral life of a narcissistic writer, Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings). Charles' first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond) died prematurely of pneumonia and has been buried some seven years. In that interim it seems Charles and Ruth have lived an exemplary life together, waited on hand and foot by their frenzied maid, Edith (Jacqueline Clarke). Yet, Elvira's memory is still very much alive in Charles, perhaps as a perfunctory escape. For Ruth, despite all her culture and more obvious physical charms remains as waxen and emotionally frigid as a sculpture. One evening, the couple decides to entertain old friends, Dr. George Bradman (Hugh Wakefield) and his wife, Violet (Joyce Carey). The only other guest is Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford); a spiritualist who has agreed to perform a séance after dinner. Charles has invited Madame Arcati strictly as part of the research he is conducting for his latest murder mystery novel.
And although everyone is amused by Madame Arcati's didactic behavior and peculiar recitations during the séance, no one - least of all Charles - is laughing when the evening's 'harmless' entertainment conjures up his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond) back from the dead. At first, no one except Charles can see her. This predictably leads to all sorts of marital misunderstandings, with Ruth becoming increasingly incensed by the way her husband is behaving. It is only after Charles begs Elvira to levitate several objects about the room that Ruth suddenly realizes he has been telling her the truth.
In life, Elvira was something of a trophy wife, indulging infidelities to occupy while Charles wrote his novels. In death however, she is something more of a devilish prankster who wants Charles for her own once again. Ruth goes to Madame Arcati to demand she reverse 'the spell' put on their home and send Elvira back into the great beyond. As Madame Arcati is quite unable to do this, Ruth becomes increasingly cold and aloof toward Charles. Now it is Elvira who comes up with a plan. She fixes the brakes on Charles car and then asks him to take her for a ride. The inevitable fatal crash that is sure to follow will bring Charles' spirit to her side. Unfortunately, Ruth takes the car out for a spin instead. She is thrown and killed, her invisible, though very angry poltergeist returning home a few hours later to assault Elvira. Unable to rid himself of either his first or second wife's ghosts, Charles goes to Madame Arcati to beg for her help. She regales him with a previous case that inspires her to dive head strong into various incantations.
Nothing seems to work until Madame Arcati discovers that Edith is also a medium. She can see Ruth and Elvira as plainly as Charles can. Including Edith as part of her final exorcism, Madame Arcati drives Ruth and Elvira's spirits back towards the abyss of time. Unfortunately, even this attempt is not entirely successful. True enough, Ruth and Elvira's ectoplasmic manifestations are no more. But Madame Arcati continues to sense their presence in the house. Nervously, she encourages Charles to leave his home at once, preferably for a trip abroad. Charles agrees. His bags levitate toward him. The front door opens and the convertible top to his automobile is brought down.
What Charles is quite unable to fathom is that Ruth and Elvira are up to no good, reasoning that if they must spend their eternity together then Charles is going to join them with all speed. Sure enough, Charles loses control of his car and is killed off the same bridge where Ruth died, his spirit landing with a thud between his first and second wife - the three spirits doomed to spend what can only be anticipated as a highly charged and mildly toxic eternity together. This ending was changed from the play to comply with censorship. In the play, Charles casually strolled out of his home while Elvira and Ruth hurled furniture and flatware at one another, declaring his great relief at being rid of them both. The Production Code absolutely forbade this conclusion, stating that, in resurrecting Elvira, who inadvertently kills Ruth, Charles also has become a co-conspirator in her murder and must therefore ultimately not go unpunished.
The film's revised ending does more than satisfy the code. It draws out the audience's sympathy for these blithe spirits and forces our egotistical hero to face a most justly deserved fate. Arguably, Charles has never been in love with anyone but himself. But in death, he will be forced to confront and surrender this vanity or face a most unflatteringly complicated and utterly restless eternity. If Blithe Spirit sounds like an odd duck, it is. There has never been a film before or since to challenge its unflappable wickedness or giddy ferocity. Curiously, such deftly calculated resentment and despair never unhinges the entertainment value of the piece, perhaps because so much of Noel Coward's own adroit humor is peppered throughout. Despite Coward's claim that the play is more tragic than anything else, the film trips along effortlessly with tongue firmly in cheek; its resilient approach to death and the un-dead refreshingly light without becoming silly.
Much has been made of the fact that Kay Hammond - alive or dead - was much too old to ever be married to Rex Harrison's Charles. And truth be told, in her garish green makeup and scarlet glowing lips and fingernails, she is something of an uncompromising fright. Nevertheless, one can infer that in the seven years since her expiration, an inevitable decay has further aged her into the present. And Hammond is a droll comedian besides - most readily amused by contributing to the deconstruction of Charles' current marriage to Ruth. Rex Harrison's performance - one of stoic cynicism overturned into utter disbelief - is pitch perfect. Yet, despite his obvious charisma and comedic charm, the actor never quite takes center stage, leaving Margaret Rutherford's daft spiritualist as the cornerstone of the film's enduring success. Reportedly, David Lean thought Rutherford's performance wholly unfunny.
Yet, it became the only part in the film to garner universally good reviews from the critics. Viewed today, we can see better still, just how masterful Rutherford's performance is; proud underpinnings of a real spiritualist at work, lending credence to her monumentally clever turn. She is at once brilliantly feather-headed, yet firmly a believer in her craft and that makes her performance all the more engrossing and genuine. In the final analysis, Blithe Spirit is unsettling and supernatural. David Lean preserves the play in a fairly straight forward adaptation. The film is moody - and at times, quite disturbing, and will undeniably continue to 'haunt' audiences for many good years yet to come.
Criterion's Blu-ray, in conjunction with a considerable restoration effort put forth by the BFI in 2008, yields a razor sharp 1080p presentation that will surely not disappoint. Still, the transfer is at the mercy of the original 3-strip elements and certain scenes continue to exhibit 'breathing' of the image and slight 'flicker' likely due to mold damage. Nevertheless, the Technicolor has been perfectly aligned to produce a gorgeously varied and textured visual presentation. Colors glow off the screen. Fine detail is evident throughout and age related artifacts have been greatly tempered. The audio is mono and well preserved, with minimal hiss and pop.
Extras include Barry Day's comments on the film and on Lean and Coward, an interview with Coward from the mid-1960s and the film's original theatrical trailer. I have one pet peeve. Criterion has woefully undernourished this disc with chapter stops. We get nine - count them - 'nine!' chapters for a two hour movie (ten, only if you count 'color bars' as a necessary chapter stop). Frankly, this is pathetic and I cannot understand why Criterion continues to be so skinflint on this basic necessity in the digital format. Otherwise, Blithe Spirit on Blu-ray comes highly recommended. At present, it is only available as part of the David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set that also includes This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)