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By Phil Hall | November 7, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 258 “Brief Encounter” (1974 TV movie with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the film’s last public exhibition.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Twice on U.S. VHS, in 1980 and 1998.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable in the U.S. for many years, with little demand for its reissue.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE : It is possible, but not likely at the moment.

Have you ever been in a situation where you come across a film that has been completely eviscerated by the critics…yet you consider the film to be wonderful? That happened to me recently, and I can thank my late grandmother for that.

I was recently speaking with my mother, who mentioned that my grandmother was fond of the 1974 made-for-television film “Brief Encounter.” I was somewhat surprised to hear that, since my grandmother (as I recalled her) had very good taste and “Brief Encounter” was widely considered to be an atrocious movie. Why, in the world, would she like that film?

I tracked down a copy of “Brief Encounter” and, knowing the critical brickbats it received in its time, watched the film expecting the worst. Much to my surprise (and, perhaps, shock), I didn’t discover a bad film. In fact, I was genuinely floored at what a wonderful little film it was. This clearly did not look like the allegedly notorious dud that the critics loathed.

So how can I explain this seeming disconnect? For starters, we need to go back to 1945, to David Lean’s original film version of “Brief Encounter,” which was based on the Noel Coward play “Still Life.” This film – a simple story of a would-be affair between a general practitioner and a housewife – was hailed an instant classic in its day, and is still considered to be a pinnacle achievement in British cinema. In 1999, the British Film Institute named it the #2 in its listing of the Top 100 British films of all time (“The Third Man” came in first).

Remaking “Brief Encounter” was an extraordinary challenge – how do you top a film that is considered a masterpiece? Well, quite frankly, you cannot. In all fairness, the 1974 version is not superior in any way, shape or form to the 1945 original. The critics considered the audacity of remaking the property to be artistic sacrilege.

But on its own terms, absent of a comparison to the golden original, the 1974 film is perfectly fine. Of course, no one ever bothered to judge the film on its own merits. Unable to compete with its predecessor, it was permanently considered second rate. But viewed separate and apart from the original, I believe it stands up on its own.

This “Brief Encounter” updates the storyline from postwar England to 1970s England. It also brings in an extraordinary presence as its leading lady: Sophia Loren. Quite frankly, I don’t think there has ever been a more stunning woman in movies than Sophia Loren – the woman goes beyond gorgeous into a completely unique class of distinction. Admittedly, having this incredible creature playing a mere housewife is quite a stretch. In this version, she works in a “Citizen’s Advice Bureau” as a social worker (it is still a stretch…but, hell, it is Sophia Loren, so who needs reality?).

As for the general practitioner she becomes attracted to without actually consummating the relationship, he’s played by Richard Burton. Obviously, the average doctor doesn’t look or sound anything like Richard Burton…but, hell, this is a movie (besides, reality sucks!).

And it is a genuinely touching movie. In “Brief Encounter,” Loren plays a transplanted Italian living in suburban England. Despite claiming to have her roots in England, she is clearly a proverbial fish out of water – her attitude, demeanor and even her accent set her apart from everyone. Her marriage and the raising of her two young sons appears to have grown stale and monotonous – and her work is unrewarding. She is almost an invisible woman, summoned whenever someone requires something but never noticed for just being herself.

The arrival of Burton’s character sets off a spark that has been absent for too long. He listens to her and is clearly interested in who she is, what she thinks, and how she reacts. He prods her to be a bit daring, first in small efforts (playing hooky from work) and then in potentially dangerous waters (meeting at a borrowed apartment for a rendezvous). She is both unnerved and excited by this – yet her guilt in cheating on her family overpowers her attraction to this potential new lover.

“Brief Encounter,” I believe, delivers with two beautifully understated performances. Burton, whose career at this time was derailed by excess hamminess, gives a remarkably restrained performance. He is not given to great dramatic moments or momentous monologues. Instead, he uses body language (hunched shoulders, pensive gazes) to reflect his character’s mix of inner angst. When he sits besides Loren, one gets the impression of a man who is fighting his inner limitations to express his emotion. It is a beautiful performance, and one that is so subtle that it could be easily overlooked.

As for Loren, her beauty makes it too easy to forget her ability as an actress. As with Burton, she underplays her role with sensitivity. There is a remarkable moment at the film’s conclusion, when it becomes obvious that the characters will never be able to truly become lovers. Loren and Burton are walking across a country field. She gently takes her hand, puts it across the middle of his back in consolation, and then links arms with Burton. It is a very simple gesture, yet it quietly speaks volumes on the fondness, regret and undying affection the two have shared.

“Brief Encounter” debuted on British television and was brought to the U.S. for presentation on NBC as part of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” series. Reviews were overwhelmingly negative, although the Loren-Burton star power helped elevate the presentation’s ratings. In some countries, the film received a theatrical release.

“Brief Encounter” was released in the U.S. on VHS in 1980 by the Magnetic Video label and in 1998 on the Avid Home Entertainment label. There has not been a U.S. DVD release yet, although the film is available on U.K. DVD. Bootleg copies can be located without much difficulty – though, sadly, the film’s poor reputation has diminished the demand for the title.

And, yet, my grandmother loved the film. Quite frankly, I share her feelings. This “Brief Encounter” has been unfairly maligned for too long. I genuinely believe it deserves to be re-examined on its own strength and not as a weak carbon copy of the glorious 1945 classic. All told, I think Grandma was right on this one and the critics were wrong.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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