Classic Film Talk: ‘The Passionate Friends’ (1949)

Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk

Today we reminisce about David Lean’s

The Passionate Friends (1949)

Official French-release Poster

Directed by David Lean

Starring: Ann Todd, Claude Rains & Trevor Howard


Mary Justin (Todd) is taking a flight to Switzerland to meet her husband, Howard (Rains), for a romantic holiday. This trip has been a long time in the making not only because he has been busy with professional duties but mostly due to past events that strained the solidity of their marriage. She arrives at the holiday villa and finds out that Howard will be slightly delayed in joining her. Feeling alone and nostalgic, Mary reminisces back 9 years earlier to New Year’s Eve 1938.

(L-R): Mary, Howard, Steven and friend

Mary and Howard are at a costume party, sipping champagne in an expensive balcony box overlooking the evening’s festivities. The couple seems pleasant but with a reserved politeness towards one another. While admiring the crowd down below, Mary spots a familiar face: Steven Stratton (Howard), with whom she has had a prior close relationship. Seeing him brings her back to the times they shared together and it is revealed that they were once very in love with one another, with Steven even proposing marriage to Mary. She declines, however; declaring that she never wishes to belong to anyone but herself. They manage to see each other at the party and though happy to meet again, nothing more seems to come of it. This is until Mary receives a phone call from Steven some days later inviting her to dine at his residence. (Howard has, again, conveniently been called out of the country on business.) Steven and Mary’s love affair is once more reignited and they end up spending every weekend together until Howard comes back.

Upon Howard’s return, the two lovers plan on seeing a play that very evening. They masquerade going together ‘as friends’, to which Howard initially trusts them. His suspicions grow as the evening passes, particularly since Steven and Mary have failed to take their theatre tickets with them.

Will Steven and Mary be discovered cavorting and, if so, will they admit the truth of their feelings to Howard? Will Mary and Howard get divorced so that she can live happily ever after with Steven?


The Passionate Friends is the first of three back-to-back projects that David Lean would do with Ann Todd, whom he met on-set and later married after its release. Though the film is wonderfully acted and filmed, it performed quite poorly on the whole at the box-office. Many critics drew parallels to Lean’s earlier film Brief Encounter, largely considering this picture’s similarities as inferior. Even today, The Passionate Friends is a forgotten Lean feature although it has been beautifully re-mastered and was chosen to be included in his British film collections.

The story itself is rather interesting though it is sometimes hindered by the abundance of fantasy sequences. A good part of the film is actually a flashback and aside from its first moments, only the last 20 minutes or so depict ‘present day’. There are even times when flashbacks within a flashback occur! This can make following the storyline a tad tricky and having personally seen the film on many occasions, it makes me wonder if they would not have been better off re-thinking the time sequence entirely. Perhaps starting from the past and moving towards future events would have been wiser than starting from the present and making constant jumps to and within the past.

The cast is quite strong not so much as a group effort but individually. Ann Todd was quite cold in her role and remained expressionless throughout much of the film. It was honestly hard to see her appeal as an object of desire, wanted and loved by two intelligent, successful men. I may sound a bit harsh and admittedly I may be mixing Todd’s persona with that of her character, Mary. I suppose the most frustrating part about Mary is that we know nothing of her background yet she proclaims and/or hints to the fact that she is not a very good person. It would have been nice to have some small detail of her past or, at the very least, for her to explain why she felt the way she did. Instead, she just goes around changing her mind and hurting others. Trevor Howard brings forth a nice, solid performance but there is a definitive lack of passion between himself and Todd. I must give him credit, though, because he gave his all in his scenes with Rains, who stole every bit of the show. The name Claude Rains is synonymous with praise and his role as Howard Justin proves that entirely. His on-screen presence is massive and he is the one brightly shining star of this film.

Even if you never watch the film and only go so far as this review, please do yourself a favour and watch this clip of one of Rains’ most brilliant moments:

This is not one of Lean’s best films but it is an honest effort with plenty of good intentions and it also bears the marks of the director’s genius in terms of awe-inspiring cinematography. You get plenty of his trademark shadowy night shots as well as precise, well-timed close-ups. He went a step further this time in his location shoots in the French & Swiss Alps, giving a stunning result. It is for all these reasons that I recommend that you catch this great picture if you can, particularly if you like a good soap opera. 🙂


  • Based on the novel of the same name by author H.G. Wells.
  • The film’s title proved to be too racy for American audiences, thus it was re-titled One Woman’s Story for the U.S. theatrical release.
  • The film’s opening credits indicate it was made in 1948 but all other sources have it listed as a 1949 movie. I can only assume that since the film was released in January 1949, the credits were made sometime in late 1948.
  • Lean was originally going to produce the film and Ronald Neame was to direct but they were forced to switch positions when pre-production problems arose.

Behind-the-Scenes with (L-R): David Lean, Trevor Howard and Ann Todd

This is unfortunately not the original trailer and I find it a bit cheesy, not to mention overexaggerated, but at least it is something.