Some performances are so good they’re nothing less than masterful. Claude Rains gives such a performance in this film. It’s something that works on more than one level– as an actor connecting with an audience; as an actor following through on what the director and screenwriter intends; and as an actor to be watched by other actors (to see how it can be done).
The film shares thematic similarities with David Lean’s earlier romance drama BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Both productions feature Trevor Howard as the “ideal” lover. Here he’s the heart’s desire of a woman played by Ann Todd (Lean’s real life wife), but she is married to Rains. It’s a triangle with all the usual complications, but it’s not one with a predetermined outcome. Nor is it one that automatically suggests Howard and Todd are the central focus, while Rains is made to play the jealous husband in the background. In fact, it is very much Rains’ picture, with the other two contemplating each other in ways that their fantasy may have a profound, real effect on Rains. Eric Ambler’s screenplay, based on a story by H.G. Wells, makes them all human and Rains just as much a part of the action and the outcome as he should be.
There are several flashbacks that recount the story of how Todd knows Howard, revealing why she may have loved Howard or thought she loved him, but really loves Rains more. Rains is put through torturous paces when finds himself turning to mush around his potentially adulterous wife– a kind of sentimentality and devotion he assumed he was beyond. But while things may seem to spin out of control, there is a smoothness and an assuredness that these are adults who can figure it all out in the end.
Though the film does lead to a sensible romantic conclusion, it keeps pulling us back into a fantasy world with Todd’s character. Her daydreams and her friendship with Howard always seem to signify more, as if she’s on the cusp of experiencing something greater and deeper. By the time she realizes what a mess she’s made of everything– how she’s put her marriage to Rains in jeopardy as well as Howard’s marriage to his wife– she tries to do what is right for each person concerned. In the process, she reaches a near-tragic point, where she is brought back to reality by what she really wanted and needed from the start.
THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS airs occasionally on TCM.