Madeleine (1950)

David Lean's 1950 film Madeleine is based on a true story, a notorious murder trial from 19th Century Scotland. Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd) is a young woman living with her well-to-do family, including her stern father (Leslie Banks), in Victorian Glasgow in the 1850s. Her family has hopes for her to marry soon and one suitor, William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), seems ideal. There's only one problem; unbeknown to her family, Madeleine is already carrying out an illicit affair with a down-at-heel Frenchman, Emile (Ivan Desny).

The two lovers have to meet in secret, but Emile wants their relationship to become formal, and for Madeleine to tell her parents that they are to be married. Emile, in fact, already considers them to be informally engaged. But Madeleine, knowing that her father will disapprove of the match, can't bring herself to tell her parents. Instead she suggests that she and Emile elope together. Emile refuses, knowing that he does not have the means to support Madeleine without the approval of her family. They break off the engagement and Madeleine turns to Minnoch instead, knowing that this is a match her family will approve.

But Emile still has Madeleine's letters to him confirming the nature of their relationship, and he threatens to go to her family to force her hand. Madeleine is later seen buying arsenic, which she claims is to kill a rat, although she confides to her friend that it is really for use on her skin as a beauty treatment. She invites Emile to a secret meeting at her house while her family are away and some time afterwards Emile is taken ill, apparently a suicide. But the police are not convinced and Madeleine is arrested and tried for murder. Was Emile's death a suicide or did Madeleine poison him?

Ann Todd standing in the dock in Madeleine 1950
Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd) on trial for murder

Madeleine sounds like a promising subject for a film. There is the central mystery about the death of Emile, and the true story aspect, the murder trial that became a public sensation. There are also the relationship elements, the doomed romance between the rejected Emile and the emotionally torn Madeleine, with the latter forced to abandon her lover for a more suitable match. And there is the scandalous story of a woman who transgresses the accepted public morality of a sexually repressive era.

The film sees David Lean return to the Victorian milieu of his Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), although this time the setting is mostly the more rarefied upper middle class environs of mid-19th Century Glasgow. The film also reunited Lean with some previous collaborators, including the designer John Bryan, cinematographer Guy Green and editor Geoffrey Foot. The film was made by Lean's company Cineguild and filmed at Pinewood Studios, with some location filming in Cornwall for the beach scene.

The film's leading actress, Ann Todd, was a significant British film star of the post-war years and, by 1950, David Lean's third wife. Their relationship had begun on the film The Passionate Friends, released in 1949, and Lean and Todd married the same year. It was Ann Todd who suggested the case of Madeleine Smith to her husband as the possible subject for a film. She had starred in Harold Purcell's play The Rest is Silence, a dramatised version of the case, in 1944. 

By all accounts, she took a great interest in the case, visited the house in Glasgow where Madeleine Smith had lived, and owned the ivory-handled parasol that she had held in court and some of her letters to Emile. Ivan Desny, who was cast as Emile, had come to Lean's attention after he dubbed Trevor Howard's dialogue for the French language version of Lean's earlier film Brief Encounter (1945).

Even by David Lean's standards, Madeleine is an impeccably crafted film. It boasts crisp black and white photography by Guy Green, Lean's regular cinematographer of the time, fine sets by John Bryan and detailed costumes by Margaret Furse. The film has a strong sense of period, there are some interesting directorial touches, and Lean frames his scenes with intelligence and imagination.

Ivan Desny as Emile L'Anglier
Ivan Desny as Madeleine's lover Emile L'Anglier

Madeleine is portrayed as a wilful young woman who is used to getting her own way. She plays the role of a dutiful daughter, while secretly carrying out an affair with a man she knows her father will not let her marry. Lean very successfully brings out the tension, not only in the relationship between Madeleine and her family, especially her father, but also in the relationship between Madeleine and Emile. There is a disconnect between the man Madeleine thinks Emile is and the man he reveals himself to be, just as there is a disconnect between the persona Madeleine presents to her family and the reality of her clandestine affair with Emile.

Ultimately, it's the disconnect between the two lovers that is the most problematic and dangerous. Madeleine has naive dreams of escaping the conformity of her upper middle class existence for a more simple and romantic life with Emile. But Emile's intentions are more pragmatic. His desire is to move in the opposite direction, to find a way into Madeleine's wealthier and altogether more agreeable world.

Emile never quite lives up to the romantic ideals that Madeleine has for him, and their awkward assignation on a hillside is pointedly contrasted with the enthusiastic revels of the villagers dancing at the ceilidh in the village hall below. Madeleine is tempted by the possibility of escape, into Emile's world and away from the conventions and expectations of her family. Emile, however, is more interested in escaping from his poverty and lack of prospects and moving into the prosperous and comfortable lifestyle of Madeleine and her family. In fact, marriage into Madeleine's family seems to be at least as attractive to Emile as marriage to Madeleine herself.

The film is also particularly interested in Madeleine's position in a society in which public life is run by men. Not only are the defence and prosecution lawyers men, but so too are the entire jury, as Lean pointedly shows us. Part of Madeleine's defence case rests on her claim that the real reason for her procuring the arsenic was to use it as a beauty treatment, something obviously unknown to the judge, who has to have it confirmed that women really do use arsenic in this way.

The film is sophisticated enough to be able to hold competing interpretations, not only in its surface narrative (is Madeleine guilty of murder?), but in its subtext. On the one hand, Madeleine can be seen as the victim of a repressive society, a woman the men in her life want to control, whether it's her father or her lover. Then again, it's possible that she is not a victim of her society, but an exploiter of it. In particular, an exploiter of its assumptions about women, especially women who come from wealthy and “respectable” backgrounds. Madeleine may be a woman who is ultimately judged by men, but the truth is that they are not very good at it, and even her own father is deceived about her true nature.

Ivan Desny looking through bars to Ann Todd
Both symbolism and foreshadowing: Madeleine is already behind bars in this early scene

The film contains some very carefully and adroitly composed shots, as in the scene depicting the clandestine meeting between Madeleine and Emile, where Lean focuses on the cup that she gives him, a cup that may or may not be poisoned. Also striking are the later shots of Madeleine peering up an ominous staircase to the courtroom and to the waiting jury above her.

The film's visuals are also loaded with symbolism and foreshadowing. It's easy to get carried away looking for symbolism in the movies but, in the case of Madeleine, it's so obviously there that I think it would be negligent not to mention it.

Lean frequently uses shots of bars, locks and other devices to suggest that Madeleine is trapped in an unsolvable conundrum, constrained by the expectations of her family and her misunderstanding of the nature of her relationship with Emile. When Madeleine and Emile secretly talk to each other, she is framed peering through the bars of her basement room to Emile on the street above. In one ominous scene, a gale sweeps through the area and Lean shows us a close up of the lock on the door rattling in the wind, as if someone is trying to enter, while Madeleine is comfortably tucked up in bed. The scene hints at the fact that the outside world is about to burst in on her comfortable life and points to her date with a jail cell and time behind locked doors. These symbolic elements serve to foreshadow Madeleine's legal reckoning and her trial for murder.

It may also be significant that, on first moving into her new home, it is the basement that Madeleine immediately seeks out. She recognises its window onto the streets as the perfect way to secretly communicate with Emile, but perhaps it also symbolises Madeleine's moral descent. Her life is increasingly divided between the public “upstairs” world where she plays the dutiful daughter, and the hidden “downstairs” world of the basement and the maid's room, where she covertly meets her secret lover.

Lean also shows great interest in the symbolic possibilities of canes and walking sticks, especially Emile's. Throughout the film canes are used to symbolise male power and authority or its loss. In one scene Emile's cane is self-consciously framed dropping to the floor during a sexual encounter between Emile and Madeleine. In another scene, when Madeleine and Emile are on the hilltop overlooking the ceilidh, Madeleine takes hold of Emile's cane and tosses it aside before she seduces him. This action suggests that it is Madeleine who is in control in this scene and not Emile. Both scenes imply that the use of female sexuality is one way in which men have traditionally lost their power or had it usurped

Ann Todd holding cane in Madeleine 1950
I'll let you work out the symbolism in this picture for yourselves

Although the film is carefully crafted and well acted, Madeleine's greatest flaw is a structural one. Both Madeleine's and Emile's motives are ambiguous to some extent, but Lean wants to maintain the ambiguity in Madeleine's case until the very end, never letting the audience know if she is innocent or guilty.

The trial scenes should be the dramatic highlight of the film, the real life case of a young woman on trial for her life, a woman who may be a cold and callous murderer, or who could just be the innocent victim of circumstance. But the courtroom scenes are underwhelming when they should be gripping, despite the use of the real trial transcripts and the efforts of two expert character actors, André Morell and Barry Jones, as the defence and prosecution lawyers. The courtroom scenes are awkwardly structured and the testimonies of key witnesses are inserted as flashbacks, instead of allowing the drama to unfold naturally. Something that should be dramatic and compelling is therefore turned into a bit of a damp squib.

The film is also a little too languidly developed, not getting to the scandalous alleged crime until more than halfway through. Lean shows little interest in the fact that the trial became a famous and sensational case. Beyond showing noisy crowds outside the courthouse, there's little sense of the impact the trial had in the media and in society more generally.

At 41, Ann Todd was clearly too old for the role of Madeleine Smith, who was twenty years younger at the time of the trial. But it's also a very difficult part to successfully play. Since we're not allowed to know Madeleine's true actions or motivations, the film requires the role to be played as both innocent and guilty simultaneously. The film is unsure if Madeleine is at the mercy of Victorian attitudes or an exploiter of them, an unfortunate victim of circumstance or a cruel and calculating murderer. As a result, Ann Todd has to present Madeleine as largely impassive and inscrutable.

Ann Todd standing by courtroom staircase
Madeleine awaits the jury's verdict

Inevitably, with so much ambiguity about Madeleine's character, motivations and actions, the film is dramatically unsatisfying. The nature of the story, and Lean's treatment of it, means that the audience is always kept at a distance from the characters and events. This, together with the maintenance of ambiguity throughout, is probably why many critics and viewers have called it a cold or impersonal film.

Madeleine was not a particularly successful film, either critically or commercially. In the US, where it was released by Universal, it was retitled The Strange Case of Madeleine. Lean himself was unhappy with the subject matter and the finished film, telling Kevin Brownlow for his book David Lean

“I had just married Ann Todd and she begged me to direct it. It was a miserable film, one of the most difficult I've ever made. Something didn't fit. I don't know what.”

Of the three films that David Lean made with Ann Todd, only The Sound Barrier was a contemporary success. The Passionate Friends and Madeleine were not much liked by critics or audiences at the time and they probably remain Lean's two most obscure feature films. The Sound Barrier was Lean and Todd's last film together and they divorced in 1957.

Madeleine was also the last of seven films that Lean made for Cineguild, the company he formed with the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and the cinematographer Ronald Neame. He would make his next two films, The Sound Barrier (1952) and Hobson's Choice (1954) for Alexander Korda's London Films.

Although not one of Lean's masterpieces, Madeleine is under-seen and underrated and is not even available on video or DVD in many markets, including the US. Critics have tended to be dismissive and often described the film as an outright failure. 

While it's not wholly successful and it is dramatically unsatisfying, it's an extremely well made film that is more thoughtful and intelligent than its critics have allowed. It's also a subtle, nuanced and ambiguous film but one that, in the end, is probably just a little bit too nuanced and ambiguous for its own good.


Year: 1950
Genre: Historical / Courtroom Drama
Country: UK
Director: David Lean

Cast Ann Todd (Madeleine Smith), Ivan Desny (Emile L'Anglier), Leslie Banks (James Smith), Norman Wooland (William Minnoch), Barbara Everest (Mrs Smith), Elizabeth Sellars (Christina Hackett), Patricia Raine (Bessie Smith), Eugene Deckers (Thuau), Andre Morell (Defending Counsel), Barry Jones (Prosecuting Counsel), Susan Stranks (Janet Smith), Edward Chapman (Dr. Thompson), Jean Cadell (Mrs Jenkins)

Screenplay Stanley Haynes, Nicholas Phipps, dialogue Nicholas Phipps  Producer Stanley Haynes Cinematography Guy Green  Art director John Bryan  Editors Clive Donner, Geoffrey Foot  Music William Alwyn  Costume designer Margaret Furse

Running time 115 mins (black & white)  

Production company Cineguild, Pinewood Films  Distributor General Film Distributors (UK), Universal Pictures (US)

See also: The Films of David Lean


  1. This is an excellent review, Jay! There are many points you brought up that I found quite fascinating, especially when it came to the film's symbolism. I also reviewed this movie, so check it out if you get the chance! I also nominated you for the Liebster Award, so that link will also be listed below!

    1. Hello Sally. Thank you, I'm glad you found it interesting.

      Thanks also for your award nomination. Unfortunately, I don't know enough bloggers to be able to pay it forward and I'd be rubbish at thinking up questions! But thanks for thinking of me, I'm touched and flattered.


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