After making his two great Dickens adaptations - 1946's Great Expectations and 1948's Oliver Twist - David Lean returned to territory not unlike that of 1945's Brief Encounter with another tale of a passionate yet impossible love affair in contemporary Britain.
Like Brief Encounter, The Passionate Friends is a masterful study of repressed 1940s English emotion, but it's a more glamorous and cosmpolitan affair than Lean's tightly buttoned tearjerker.
It starts with Mary (Todd) arriving at a hotel on a Swiss lake for a summer holiday. Her husband, banker Howard Justin (Rains) is delayed by business and arrives separately. In voiceover Mary says she thought nothing of the fact that her own room had an adjoining room. By sheer coincidence, that suite is taken by Steven Stratton (Howard, in a role not entirely unlike that which he played in Brief Encounter).
Flashback to nine years earlier and a 1939 New Years party where Steven and Mary have run into each other, her accompanied by cold fish Howard, who is with girlfriend Pat (Dean). In further flashback, we learn that Mary and Steven were lovers at college. "I shall never love anyone as much as you," she told him back then. To which he replied "Then why won't you marry me?" This is the crux of the film - Mary insists her decisions are made by a determination to maintain independence. She refused Steven's offers, finding romantic love "too gripping".
In 1939, Mary and Steven have an affair while Howard is away on business. Their marriage might be a practical arrangement, but Howard has made an investment in Mary, so he's deeply aggrieved when he discovers the truth.
When Howard returns home, Mary says she's going to the theatre with Steven, but they blunder and Howard rumbles them. Rains, a major Hollywood star (Hitchcock's Notorious, Casablanca, Mr Smith Goes to Washington), is spot-on as the austere Howard, and when he offers a drink, he merely needs to say, "Ice?" to achieve a chilly potency in the scene where the lovers are busted.
Despite Steven saying, "Mary and I have always loved each other and we still do. A mistake was made years ago," she elects to stay with her husband - she's made a rational investment too, after all.
The film then flashes forward to Switzerland again. Mary and Steven meet at breakfast, and chastely enjoy a day together, him telling her about his wife and family. However, when Howard arrives, he sees the "passionate friends" together and draws his own conclusions.
Divorce proceedings ensue, driving Mary to feelings of suicide. There's no radical turnaround here, no sudden dedication to the feelings they felt as young people. Instead, The Passionate Friends, adapted from the novel by HG Wells, portrays the protagonists maturing, with even Howard's hard shell cracking. It's a fascinating portrait of the English emotional landscape in the 1940s, as the protagonists come into conflict over their notions of love and how it should be handled.
Ann Todd was among Britain's top leading ladies of the time. During the making of The Passionate Friends she and Lean became lovers and, after their respective divorces were finalised, the pair married. He would cast her again in 1950's Madeleine and 1952's The Sound Barrier.
She is impressive here as the elegant, self-possessed woman torn between two men, one offering "romantic love," the other "affection and security". The shooting of Todd by cinematographer Guy Green is also particularly striking - he was reportedly influenced by the work of American Lee Garmes, who shot Marlene Dietrich in three films for Joseph von Sternberg.