I recently bought a DVD player that can convert PAL to NTSC, thereby allowing me to watch European DVDs. I've found that this simple purchase now threatens to overwhelm my credit card, since an enormous number of interesting, even famous, films are available overseas but are not yet available here in the United States. Case in point: the early films of David Lean.
Most moviegoers are not aware of Lean's films prior to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the first of the epics with which he tends to be identified these days. This is a shame, since (if you ask me) his smaller films are his better efforts.
I mention all of this because I've recently noticed in the British arts press that the British Film Institute is holding a retrospective of Lean's films. (Take a look at these articles by David Thomson and Geoffrey Macnab for more information.) If you aren't lucky enough to be in the U.K. to take advantage of this opportunity, what, then, can you do?
Well, your best option is to buy an ITV DVD release entitled The David Lean Collection. This amazing collection contains nine films: The Sound Barrier, Hobson's Choice, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Madeleine, The Passionate Friends, and This Happy Breed. Only In Which We Serve and Summertime, the two remaining pre-Kwai films, are not contained in this set.
Since the set is a British release, you'll need a DVD player that can handle PAL 2 discs. It's well worth your while, and for a set of nine films isn't too terribly expensive. As far as I can tell, only three of the nine films in this set are available on DVD here in the U.S., and I suspect that several of the other six never even appeared on VHS. The Criterion Collection has released Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist in very nice but expensive editions.
Summertime, which, as I said, isn't in the nine-disc set, is also available through Criterion. I can't find an American DVD release of In Which We Serve. There seem to be several British releases. I don't have any of them, unfortunately, so I can't say anything about them. I still watch my old VHS tape.
Anyway, nine out of eleven in one fell swoop isn't bad. The picture quality is quite good, except for the two Technicolor films, Blithe Spirit and This Happy Breed, which looked washed-out to me. Perhaps that's because of the PAL-to-NTSC conversion, but I really don't know. Such technical matters are beyond me. The recent BFI restoration might solve this problem. But since Technicolor wasn't always used well, this might be a problem inherent to these two films. I can't say for sure. Otherwise, the picture quality is quite good throughout the set.
Over the years I had managed to see several of these nine films. Of the few that were new to me, Madeleine struck me as the standout effort. It's based on the Madeleine Smith murder trial and is told in such a way that you can't conclusively decide whether or not Madeleine is guilty of murder. This is in keeping with the "not proven" verdict of her trial.
I heartily recommend The David Lean Collection. If you purchase it, you'll be getting a set of films of high quality, some of which you might never be able to see otherwise.