Recite, Rewind, Repeat

by Barbara White

This piece is my entry for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium. The STSC is a diverse, online club consisting of writers, philosophers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, etc. Each month STSC members create something around a set theme. The theme for the June 2023 issue is “Romance.”

Stick a Pin in It

“When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.”

With these words, Lester declares his feelings for Myra. He continues on, rhapsodizing: she is the air, the sky, the earth, Music, beauty, and sunlight all remind him of her. She infuses every moment, everywhere.

To Lester, Myra is all women:

“You are the sister I never had, the mother I have almost forgotten, the wife I have always dreamed of. There isn’t a relationship you can name which exists between a man and a woman of which I wouldn’t say, let it be you.”

“Oh, let it be you.”

By now the music has begun. Lester approaches Myra and places his arms on her shoulders. He says again, “Oh, let it be you,” and leans in for their first kiss. But something seems off: as the lovers’ lips meet, Lester continues to talk. That is because his voice is coming not from his body but from a recording device stationed across the room. His mouth does not speak. Even stranger, the words are not Lester’s; he is reciting lines from Myra’s play. Lester romances Myra with words she herself has scripted. These are words designed for presentation on stage, not for her own life. Through Lester’s delivery of Myra’s lines, Myra’s life imitates her art.

The 1952 film Sudden Fear, directed by David Miller, presents this declaration of love three times. Let’s rewind to the first iteration. The opening scene of the film depicts a rehearsal of Myra Hudson’s play, Halfway to Heaven. The actor named Lester (Jack Palance) stands on stage wooing his leading lady: “When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.” And so on: he recites his lines and takes his actress colleague in his arms. The playwright, Myra (Joan Crawford), observes from the house, assessing Lester’s appearance as well as his acting. Sitting with Myra, the producer and director are delighted with Lester’s performance, and Myra’s assistant Ann marvels,“What a lovely speaking voice.” 

But Myra is unconvinced: “He sounds romantic enough—just doesn’t look romantic.” She goes on to say, “We’ve got to convince the audience that this character could recite ‘Three Blind Mice’ to [the character] Laura, and she’d think it was the most romantic poem in the world.” After some discussion, Lester is dismissed from the play. Before leaving, he barges back onto the stage and gives Myra another speech, this one in his own words: Casanova had “big ears, a scar over one eye, a broken nose, and a wart on his chin.”1 In other words, romantic appeal is about more than physical appearance.

From the start, Sudden Fear enforces a split between hearing and seeing: while Lester’s voice, delivering Myra’s words, meets with the author’s approval, the body the voice issues from doesn’t make the grade. This severance of senses remains important throughout Sudden Fear.

Lester and Myra, however, do not stay severed for long: after the play has opened on Broadway, Myra boards the cross-country train for San Francisco. En route, she runs into Lester. What a coincidence—or so it seems. As they travel across the country, Myra and Lester become close, and when they reach San Francisco, their courtship intensifies. After a night out, in the wee hours of the morning, they find themselves in Myra’s study.

In Myra’s study, the milk toast.

Over a nightcap (a glass of milk for each), Lester notices a machine across the room and asks, “What is that? A guided missile?” Myra explains that it is a dictating machine, which she uses to compose her plays. There are five microphones “hidden around the room,” which enable Myra to “wander around” while she composes her plays. She invites Lester to give it a try: “Walk around the room. . . . Say something.” He begins to stroll, and Myra prods, “Well?” Lester begins to speak: “When I wake in the morning, when I go to sleep at night, I think of you.” Lester recites Myra’s lines to her—the very same lines she heard him deliver earlier in the theater. 

The “Guided Missile” (Myra’s Dictating Machine)

This is a curious moment: when invited to speak, the would-be actor chooses to perform, to repeat the words conceived by his love interestor, as Myra will learn, his target. More, Lester does “wander around” as he recites the lines, never once looking at Myra. Whereas the words were delivered with expression in the earlier rehearsal, here the delivery is hesitant, pensive, even perfunctory. And if the artifice of Lester’s recitation is not enough, if the viewer is not unsettled at the sight of the rejected actor declaring his love for the playwright with the very words she found him inadequate to deliver on stage, there is also the specter of the machine across the room, witnessing the mechanistic spectacle along with Myra. 

And now comes the third, most eerie, iteration of the declaration: Myra plays the recording, and Lester’s disembodied voice resounds through the study. Thus Lester’s voice is dissociated from his body, and the presentation moves from artificial to uncanny. The speech is not only pre-fabricated; it has been “fixed,” inscribed onto the record. The recording cannot change or be changed, which emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the words. The separation of voice and body, and of words and movement, engenders a marked awkwardness. What’s a middle-aged heiress playwright to do when she hears her sacked employee and soon-to-be lover romancing her from within a machine as he himself listens to himself quoting her? And what is he to do with his material body as his words repeat themselves without his physical involvement? 

Lester and Myra gaze at one another, unspeaking, as the recording plays back. At last the speech comes to its end, and Lester leans in for that kiss. Just before the final word “you” issues from the recording, Lester’s lips meet Myra’s. One might say he is talking out of one mouth and kissing with the other. The disconcerting sight of the suitor kissing and talking at the same time undermines the plausibility of the romance. The man who was not a convincing lover on stage has become all too convincing in Myra’s home, but one might think Myra would suspect, along with the viewer of the film, that something is awry in Lester’s choice of words, and in the way they can be relayed not only by a man but also by a machine. 

The fixity of the recording emphasizes the potentially pre-meditated nature of any words, rendered through the necessary artifice that characterizes any script. (It is, of course, a script within a script). Even Bill, the director of Halfway to Heaven, seeks a form of “live recording”: in the opening scene of the film, when Lester first recites these lines, and before Myra expresses her reservations about the casting, the director comments that Lester has found the definitive interpretation of Myra’s text. Bill says, “I like that tempo, Lester. Keep it that way. Stick a pin in it.” This is an embodied form of fixity: the director’s line reveals the potential of live performance to approach the nature of an unchanging “recording.” 

Let’s rewind again. How many times had Lester already delivered this line in rehearsal, or practiced on his own, with the printed script in hand? And what preceded the words being inscribed on the page? How many hours did Myra spend pacing around her studio, recording drafts into the dictating machine? One might imagine that Myra’s script springs fully formed out of her imagination and only later becomes ossified, perhaps through rehearsals, and certainly—irreversibly—through the recording mechanism. But how spontaneous is Myra’s invention? How individual? And why is she susceptible to Lester’s canned recitation?

The Book in the Machine

Lester’s words are literally scripted. Through repeated performances, and then recording and playback, they become mechanical and inhuman, undermining any sense of romance. Rewind after rewind, he repeatedly “wakes up in the morning,” but every day turns out to be the same. It’s always sunny, and anyone and everyone within earshot might be his dream woman.

Who learns how to love from a script? And who falls in love upon hearing one?

All of us, perhaps. In his commentary on Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, John Freccero observes that the lovers Paolo and Francesca, while apparently seized by spontaneous and irresistible passion, are actually taught how to experience (or conjure) such passion as they read about Lancelot and Guinevere: “What appeared to have been love at first sight was in fact love by the book. Book and author seduced the lovers. . . .”2

Barbara White and Terry Araujo, Black Air (2005);
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres,
Paolo et Francesca (1819).3

Romance, then, relies on mediation between pre-existing narrative and current experience: life imitates art through models and imitation—even calculation. One’s romantic exploits may not be as individual as one thinks. Freccero’s depiction of Francesca’s surrender could almost apply to that of Myra more than six centuries later: “What she imagined to be a unique and spontaneous passion turns out to have begun as the mimicry of someone else’s story. Reading about Lancelot and Guinevere was the first root of their love and their kiss was its first incarnation.”4

In Hell, Dante’s Francesca curses the book that taught her to imitate and perform passion. But Myra seems to have missed this lecture, for she swoons at Lester’s perfectly packaged delivery of a pre-existing script. A crucial difference between Myra and Francesca, though, is that Myra is corrupted not by a fictional precursor but by a fiction she invented herself. So where Francesca mimics Guinevere, Myra mimics . . . the character from her own play, Laura.

Rather than a model, the script serves as a mirror, and however sympathetic one finds the character of Myra (very much so, in my case), the near-fatal narcissism of her response to Lester is undeniable. Lester acts for her consumption, ingratiating himself by repeating her words even after she has canceled his performance in Halfway to Heaven. Having “stuck a pin in it,” he takes the convo offstage, and this time she buys it. Lester tells Myra, “You are . . . the wife I have always dreamed of,” but it is Myra who has dreamt up this dream. She has heard these words before—many times—and knows that they are invented, but she is blinded by her own reflection. Her catastrophic error is believing that Lester’s parroting of her words is heartfelt. 

Acting the Part

As if to emphasize the ubiquity of mimicry and the importance of influential models, the narrative of Sudden Fear seems to have bled off stage and crept into the actors’ and filmmakers’ lives. Joan Crawford, who plays Myra, initially objected to director David Miller’s choice of Jack Palance to play Lester. According to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, Crawford became physically aggressive with Miller when he expressed his intention to cast Palance. She later phoned Miller, exclaiming, “You don’t love me. You don’t respect me. How could you ever suggest that I accept such a leading man?”5

But rejection gave way to infatuation. Lawrence J.Quirk and William Schoell report that the love triangle between Myra, Lester, and his lover Irene also played out offstage among the actors:

“In another case of life imitating art, Joan fell for Palance the way her character fell for his in the movie. Palance’s machismo and confidence intrigued her, and she was anxious to find out what he was like in bed. Unfortunately, Palance had already zeroed in on supporting player Gloria Grahame, who played Irene, his character’s lover. When Joan found out, she was even angrier than when Miller had suggested Palance be her leading man.”6

More, Crawford clearly believed that actors should follow a script in their interactions off screen, for she expected the supporting actress, Grahame, to defer to the leading lady: “Didn’t she know that the star always had dibs on the leading man?”7

Just as Myra’s script for Halfway to Heaven proliferates within the film, the plot breaks the boundaries of the set and plays itself out after working hours. Amplifying the hall of mirrors effect of life imitating art portraying imitation, Crawford’s professional status was also an issue for her co-star: “Palance’s main problem toward Joan was that she was a much bigger name than he was and he thought he was much more talented. A lot of Joan’s male costars and supporting players simply didn’t like strong women.”8 This too, reflects the narrative of the film, for Myra is a successful playwright—and heiress, which the press will not let her forget—while Lester is a struggling actor, or acts as one. It is also significant that she is considerably older than her impecunious husband. Lester and his lover Irene, who is closer to his age and socioeconomic status, plot to kill Myra. As it turns out, on all those mornings waking up, he was thinking, not of Myra, but of her money.

Fast Forward

Myra, terrorized by the audio recording.

In the end, it is the recording device that allows Myra to recognize “the juxtaposition of the illusion of love with the stark reality of its consequences.”9 Back in her study later on, Myra “overhears” Lester and Irene: Myra has left the machine running, and it has captured a conversation in which Lester and Irene plot to kill her. Here the “guided missile”—the term seems more apt now—transforms into a tormentor. The representation of playback is no longer realistic. After she has heard Lester and Irene plotting on the recording, Myra begins to hear her betrayers’ voices in her head, and she covers her ears as if they are actually in the room, even looking toward the machine in terror as if the animate object is a threat. The act of recording, previously revealed as uncanny, has become sinister, and yet the revelation of Myra’s true status vis-à-vis her young, conniving husband is what allows her to foil the would-be murderers, Lester and Irene.10

Myra hears something unexpected.

While the act of recording fixes the present and renders it as past, Sudden Fear simultaneously seems to anticipate the future—specifically, Crawford’s later career. Distinct but interrelated tropes appear, reappear, and mutate: woman in peril, wealthy woman exploited or victimized for her money, older woman who desperately clings to youth—and, of course, the crazy older woman, as portrayed in “hagsploitation” films such as Berserk and Strait-Jacket. Sudden Fear, though, presents  a mature, professionally accomplished woman who saves herself by flipping the script on her murderous husband and the cheap, crass tramp he really wants.

Pepsi: “more bounce to the ounce.”

What comes to mind when one hears the name “Joan Crawford”? For many, it would be Mildred Pierce (1945) or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Some may be familiar with her earlier films, even the silents, and may be aware of how much her appearance changed in those formative years. Some may picture her in a fabulous hat drinking a Pepsi.11 And some—particularly those of my generation, I suspect—will picture not Joan but another actress imitating her, screaming abusively at her children. (Might a particular word or household implement come to mind even before her own films do?)

There are many re-presentations of Joan Crawford in the canon. As long ago as 1976, on the occasion of her parody Mildred Fierce, Carol Burnett referred to Mildred Pierce as an “old movie.”12 That film had just turned 21, but Sudden Fear is now 71 years old. Like the dictaphone portrayed in the film, the film itself—thanks to the medium of recording—is fixed, dead, imprisoned in 1952. Or is it?

In the 1930s, around the same time that Joan Crawford starred in The Gorgeous Hussy, Walter Benjamin famously considered the “aura” of the work of art, which is lost in the face of “mechanical reproduction” or “technological reproducibility”:

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership.”13

The artwork reproduces and proliferates, but it seems to cultivate its own sort of aura—not only in the sense of Hollywood stardom, history, and gossip, but also in that recording has become ubiquitous and expected. It is no longer marked as an unchanging recording of something but as a something that can be manipulated. Indeed, film has long been mutable. At the same time that Benjamin considered the loss of the aura through recording, Joseph Cornell was already treating film as raw material, as he dismantled and reshaped East of Borneo (1931) into Rose Hobart (1936). More recently–but still decades ago—we have Douglas Gordon’s reworking of Hitchcock into 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and of Preminger’s Whirlpool into left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right (1999). There are many more examples.

In recent years, technological developments have made it increasingly feasible for non-specialists to appropriate and rework filmic material. Sudden Fear, like Joan Crawford, may be dead, but we now have tools to kill the film again.

Joan, terrorized by—something.

I see a GIF of Joan Crawford, taken from Sudden Fear, and it seems to suck the life out of the artwork—even though the artwork itself highlights that very deadening.  This is doubly uncanny: in the film, listening to the recording of the plot to kill her, Myra covers her ears. In the GIF taken from the film, there is no sound: Myra gets her wish to silence the reverberating voices. However, this fragment is no longer Myra; it is Joan, and chances are that many or most who see or disseminate the GIF are unaware of the context of the clip. Instead of having to go to a theater to view a film, or wait for it to be broadcast on television—I know, that’s the distant past, but instead of seeing the film as a whole, or at least as fairly incorruptible, we can now enter it, access a couple of seconds of isolated footage, and make them repeat over and over, just as the sound did in Sudden Fear when the record skipped. We needn’t know where the clip comes from to pass it on as a reaction to a text message or social media post. (I myself can identify very few sources of GIFs.)

Joan is imprisoned in Fear, but not only there. In a modern-day form of “reproduction,” she proliferates, and the spectator can access any number of Joans in any given minute. Joan raising an ax; Joan in a hat tossing a lamp and slapping a woman;  Joan wrestling in a strait-jacket. As if really in the strait-jacket, Joan is held captive by these clips. While Lester acted to manipulate Myra, we manipulate Joan, making her a symbol, a caricature, a punchline. With GIFs we kill films, but how do we kill the GIFs?

As much as I enjoy Crawford’s pulpy late-career roles, for now I’ll picture her at the end of Sudden Fear. Having saved herself from the culprits, she walks alone, in an infinite loop, into a future that we will never see, for this is where the film ends.

Myra, alone at the end of Sudden Fear



1. The script recited in rehearsal includes two lines that Lester omits in the study; the rest is identical. The score was composed by Elmer Bernstein. The role of Ann Taylor, Myra’s assistant, is played by Virginia Huston. The roles of the producer and director are uncredited in the film, but notes that Bill, the director, is played by Lewis Martin and the producer Scott Martindale by Taylor Holmes.

2. John Freccero, Notes to The Inferno of Dante, tr. Robert Pinsky (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), p. 385.

3. Black Air (2005) is a “choreography for camera” based on the story of Paolo and Francesca as portrayed by Dante and others, and responding to numerous commentaries on the story, including Freccero’s. Music and direction by Barbara White; choreography by Terry Araujo. An excerpt can be found here: Password: guinevere.

4. John Freccero, “The Portrait of Francesca. Inferno V.” MLN 124: 5 Supplement (Dec. 2009), p. S11.

5. Bob Thomas, Joan Crawford (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 178. Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell concur: “She was used to handsome, sexy leading men, and in a real-life turn that mirrored the plot of Sudden Fear, she thought Palance was simply too ugly” (Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography [University Press of Kentucky, 2002], 162).

6. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

7. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

8. Quirk and Schoell, Joan Crawford, 162.

9. Freccero, “Portrait of Francesca,” S9.

10. A future, expanded, version of this study will provide more analysis of this later scene.

11. Alfred Steele, Crawford’s fourth husband, was the CEO of Pepsi when they married in 1955.

12. “Mildred Fierce,” The Carol Burnett Show, Season 10/Episode 9; aired Nov. 20, 1976.

13. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (Third Version). Gesammelte Schriften, I, 471–508. Translated by Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott. Included in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 437. 



This essay was written for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium. Each month STSC members create something around a set theme. This cycle, the theme was “Trains.” 


Brief Encounter With a Concerto

Alec, a doctor, describes the symptoms of his specialty, pneumoconiosis. Across the table, his new acquaintance Laura observes, “Suddenly you look much younger. Almost like a little boy.” As the solo piano begins to play, she asks what other diseases interest him, and he recites a list: “Anthracosis. Chalicosis. Silicosis.” The camera moves in slowly. Laura is smitten. The strings join the piano, and the music blooms, stretching toward a moment of arrival—but a bell rings at the most inconvenient moment, reminding us that we are in the refreshment room at Milford Station, and it is time for Alec to depart. The music continues but is soon overshadowed by the sound of the approaching train.

David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, with a screenplay by Noël Coward, may be the only film to date in which a mention of “the slow process of fibrosis of the lung due to the inhalation of particles of dust” inspires romantic longing. Laura sighs, “Yes, of course, steel works,” mirroring Alec’s identification of where the dangerous dust comes from. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto streams through the film, doing its part to signal the acquaintances’ growing attraction. But the relationship between these moving images and this lush music is not easy. Rachmaninoff’s work is dense and intricate, Romantic and rhapsodic, and the film alternately capitalizes on it and tells it to quiet down. In Milford, the trains run on time, impatient with this concerto, turning it on and off as if it were a radio. Even as Alec asks to see Laura again, the train passes over the tracks one by one, with a rhythmic sound, insisting that this blossoming affection will soon lead to separation.

Endings, Interrupted

The filmmakers treat Rachmaninoff’s music with devotion, positioning it sensitively and crafting its entrances and exits with care. Among the many musical features that may serve as inspiration—melody, rhythm, instrumentation, or a more general sense of style or affect—they pay particular attention to moments of closure. These are points where music comes to rest, at least temporarily. 

Only nine minutes into the film, we witness the lovers’ final farewell, with its suggestion of other endings. Having left the train station refreshment room where she first met Alec, and having seen him for the last time, Laura rides the train toward home and imagines how her sorrow will continue to play out in the future. We hear her thoughts in voiceover as she tries to convince herself that her mourning will end, as most things do. Observing that “not even life lasts very long,” she envisions a time in the future when her feelings will subside. But the music, however gentle, refuses to console.  It sways back and forth, moving from instability to repose and back, refusing to commit. As if hearing this indecisiveness, Laura counters herself, realizing she does not want to recover: “No, no – I don’t want that time to come ever – I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.” The music is preparing to come to rest one more time, but suddenly, as Laura realizes that she does not want her despair to end, the cadence is interrupted by the sound of the train arriving and the conductor announcing, “Ketchworth.” There is no closure to be had.

“Steelworks,” Laura sighs. Alec tells her about the diseases he studies. The lovers drink their last cup of tea.

More than an hour later in the film, back in the refreshment room, we see the parting that occasioned this reverie. Here Laura and Alec discuss their imminent separation, weighed down by thoughts of time: the expected arrival of Alec’s train, the futures of their children, and the impossibility of seeing one another again. They speak of death and remembrance: 

Laura (without emotion): I want to die – if only I could die. 

Alec: If you died you’d forget me – I want to be remembered.

Laura: Yes, I know – I do too. 

Again the music rocks back and forth and moves toward repose. Alec glances at the clock and observes, “We’ve still got a few minutes.” But he is wrong. Just then Laura’s acquaintance Dolly barges in, exclaiming, “Laura! What a lovely surprise!” Like the train noises elsewhere in the film, Dolly interrupts and even drowns out the tender music, just as she intrudes on the lovers’ final moments together. The music is denied its completion, and so are Alec and Laura. That is, two completions: not only does their relationship have to die; even this tender act of separation is interrupted and thwarted.

Fragments and Repetitions

Brief Encounter emphasizes the rigidity of time: there are near-constant bells, boarding announcements, and sounds of trains approaching and departing. The express train rushes by; it doesn’t stop. “Time, tide, and train wait for no man,” one might say. The train whistle is a notice, a caution, even a scream. Yet the events are presented out of order. The beginning and end of the film take place in the present, and the past is presented in flashback inside this framing device. This is why we witness Laura’s misery before we see the farewell that precipitated it. More, the scene of parting appears twice in the film: here, near the start, and again toward the end. Twice we see the lovers dolefully preparing to say goodbye, and twice we hear Dolly’s abrupt cry of “Laura!”  Only at the end do we back up and hear what Alec and Laura say to one another before she intrudes.

Within the narrative itself, time moves forward as inexorably as an express train or the growth of a child, but the reordering of events and the repetition of the farewell scene create a non-linear and dreamlike presentation. Images, too, multiply and proliferate. A fantasy plays on a train window and a dissolve overlays two Lauras on screen; in each case, Laura observes herself as if in a movie. Laura’s interior narration, delivered in voiceover, is addressed to her husband, and she often utters his name, “Fred.” One hears and sees the juxtaposition of her feelings for the two men as she sits in the library with Fred and tells him the story of Alec—silently, within her mind. There is a sense of swimming in memories, shaped by Laura, as opposed to living the events alongside the characters.

Fred with his crossword puzzle in the library, Laura in foreground; across the room, Laura broods silently.

The music, too, manipulates time. The filmmakers’ unusual choice to enlist a pre-existing piece of music as underscore creates a complex relationship between moving image and music. The bells and whistles proceed as expected, but the music jumps through time. There are excerpts from all three movements of the Concerto, but the material is fragmented, reordered, and also repeated. Were there a score composed expressly for the film, one might expect the music to develop and repeat to complement the action, but this Concerto brings its own narrative with it. As above, cadences and resolutions are shaped by the conventions of musical syntax, and the film plays on these to reinforce moments of finality, continuation, delay, and interruption. Rachmaninoff’s syntax relies on musical conventions such as statement, development, and restatement. But in this context the music’s own forward movement—its plot, so to speak— is thwarted. Fragmentation and repetition subvert the music’s momentum, leaving hints and suggestions of what it might signify when performed continuously, as originally intended. Understanding this does not demand specialized knowledge from the viewer: one can hear the distortions without being familiar with the Concerto or immersing oneself in music theory.

On the train after parting: the French horn theme enters for the first time; Dolly chatters; Laura resolves, “I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.”

As Laura reminisces on the train, with Dolly seated across from her, we hear a poignant ascending melody from the French horn, accompanied by the orchestra. This will return three more times in the film, even though it appears only once in the Concerto. More, it is a brief fragment that starts and stops unpredictably. As Dolly nosily inquires about Alec, Laura disengages from her and retreats into her own thoughts. The French horn figure enters but lasts only twenty seconds before Dolly interrupts again. When Laura extricates herself from conversation and says she wants to rest, the music continues—or rather, it begins again from the same spot. It is the exact same music, and the repetition makes it seem as if Laura has pressed the rewind button to try again to begin her reverie. This sort of interruption and “reboot” is foreign to the formal conventions of classical music in general and the design of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto specifically. And even within a film, such direct repetition and interruption of such a brief segment gives a sense of restarting the clock.

This theme appears twice more, but with an important difference: the musical segments are longer. One cue lasts nearly a minute and the other closer to three minutes. In these instances, instead of starting on its own, the French horn theme is introduced by music that precedes it in the concerto. Now the horn theme is a continuation, not an abrupt beginning. It emerges from somewhere; it is an arrival, not a departure point. Alongside the progression of the film, this musical fragment starts and stops, then backtracks, then backtracks further, then moves forward a bit. Rather than proceeding in order from theme to theme, the music appears, imposes itself on the psyche, and then fades away, as if recollecting a previous time. Like the action of the film, the music takes place in the past.


While the appearance, disappearance, reemergence, and “cropping” of musical excerpts manipulate the sense of time (already distorted by the film’s use of flashback), the repetition of the same musical material, the French horn melody, inspires a different sensation, something like swimming in reminiscence or ruminating on the past. This is less a train route than a rummage through shards of memory. And the recurrence of the music and reverie suggest not forward motion but immobility. Again, the spectator need not know the Concerto to experience the feeling of rewinding and repeating. It is encoded into the film through the practice of repetition itself.

In his essay “Railway Navigation and Incarceration,” Michel de Certeau considers the constraints of the train compartment: 

The windowglass and the iron (rail) line divide, on the one hand, the traveller’s (the putative narrator’s) interiority and, on the other, the power of being, constituted as an object without discourse, the strength of an exterior silence. But paradoxically it is the silence of these things put at a distance, behind the windowpane, which, from a great distance, makes our memories speak or draws out of the shadows the dreams of our secrets.1

If one inventories the use of trains in film, the image of a railway car speeding into a tunnel is likely to come to mind. This image is often eroticized, as in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where the union of the lovers is mirrored by the vision of the transportational phallus entering a dark, enclosed space. But de Certeau reminds us that that phallus is hollow, that it carries people within it. It serves as a prison or a tomb, at least temporarily. Michel Chion also writes of the sonic and visual sensations of being on a train: the train sounds “are associated with not only visual sensations but also phoric sensations (the feeling of being carried and jostled, which goes back to life in the womb).”2

Laura sits in the travelling womb, imprisoned in her memories of her time with Alec and observing in voiceover that she longs to be free of the chatty Dolly. The cycling and recycling of musical excerpts reinforces this sensation, as does the flashback structure of the film as a whole, which presents her sifting through memories, hesitating to move on from the end of the love affair. The regularity of the train’s construction and its unrelenting forward motion underscore the sense of incarceration and isolation. She is stuck in the train compartment, but she is also confined by her own mind.

The train runs according to its schedule, and on a grid. Each tie is laid after another.  The film also proceeds by increments, as each frame succeeds another to create a “moving picture.” Both the train and the film use stationary mechanisms to create movement—the uniformity and repetition of the train tracks is reflected in the identically shaped frames of the film that course through a projector. 

What of the music, then? On what track does it run? To be sure, it is part of a sound-track, but this is a bit deceiving. Although recorded music, with or without an accompanying film, is ubiquitous today, it was somewhat less so seventy-five years ago when the film was made. The LP had yet to be introduced, and classical works had to be engraved in sections on multiple discs. (Interestingly, this bears a slight relationship to filmmakers’ disruption of the music’s structure.)  Brief Encounter’s credits, complemented by the opening of the Concerto, announce not only the musical work but also the performers: Eileen Joyce is the soloist, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Matheson. Brief Encounter was made during a period when piano concertos proliferated through films such as Dangerous Moonlight and The Seventh Veil. However, it differs from these precursors in that it does not include a pianist. As a result, there is no performance of the Concerto within the action. Rachmaninoff’s music serves as underscore—mostly. About fourteen minutes into the film, Laura is at home with her husband in their library. (Another prison?) She turns on the radio and settles on a station playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto. This grounds the music in the present, mediated through broadcast. In this sense, the music is “played live.”

More, the proliferation of disembodied music through recordings and broadcasts obscures the possibility and significance of live musical realization of a composer’s work. This will be true for any conventional film, for as the moving images are imprinted on celluloid, so must the music be fixed in an unchanging form. So while the train moves along its track, and the images unfurl frame after frame, the music proceeds by—well, what is the unit of measurement? Does one conceive of a musical frame as with images? The pulse of the musical material (which often shifts)? Clock time? It is not evident what the units are. A train can come to a halt, and it is still visible. A film can be paused, landing on a still image. But, as Chion observes, “You cannot stop on a sound.”3

The Concerto has more in common with Noël Coward’s play, Still Life, on which Brief Encounter is based, than with the screenplay. While it can be fixed into a recorded format, it is not for this purpose that it was designed. When sutured to the film, Eileen Joyce’s performance no longer breathes. It no longer ebbs and flows. There are no surprises. All has been decided, and the Concerto has ended. One does not hear how Joyce might choose to vary her phrasing or tempi. This is most striking in the incorporation of two piano cadenzas into the soundtrack: as the spot of maximum harmonic instability in a concerto, descended from a tradition in which the soloist would improvise original material, the cadenzas are domesticated by the act of fixing a single performance in time. This music, like Laura on the train, is imprisoned in an enclosed space. 

Rachmaninoff at the piano; Benno Moiseiwitsch’s 1938 Recording of the Concerto, on 78s.

Even casual listeners recognize a notated musical work as a phantom that shifts its shape under the influence of performers. Fans of the Concerto debate Rachmaninoff’s own speedy tempi in his 1929 recording (five discs, ten sides) and argue over the relative merits and deficiencies of Benno Moiseiwitsch (four discs, eight sides, 1938), Evgeny Kissin (1988), and Krystian Zimerman (2003). One critic, presumably familiar with dozens of recordings of this piece, disparages Lang Lang’s recording (2005) as “a disaster” in both performance and production.4 Michael Beek praises Rachmaninoff’s own “pearl-like luminescence” and goes on to say, “Rachmaninov brings a sleight-of-hand deftness and tantalising restraint to a score that in less subtle and supple hands is often pulverised into submission.” Regarding the same recording, with the composer at the piano, an online commentator named Motrax advises that Rachmaninoff’s playing “can have a certain sarcastic bite to it at times which may bother some, but his sense of rubato is unrivaled.”5

The Ab in measure 84, realized by Benno Moiseiwitsch (1943) and Evgeny Kissin (2014), respectively.

Depending on what performance or recording is available—or in the event that one participates in a performance—the heart-rending French horn solo that accompanies Laura’s reveries may be delivered in a restrained, understated manner, or it may announce its arrival like a bold fanfare. Fortunately, the hornist in the Joyce/Matheson recording chooses the former route. For my part, I never tire of the way Walter Gieseking (1940) articulates the sixth note of the second theme of the first movement. (It’s the A-flat in measure 84.) Even better, at one spot Gieseking plays an incorrect note, and the real clashes with the ideal. (It is not even at a virtuosic spot!) I almost wish that the vulnerability of the character Laura could be accompanied by such musical fragility on the soundtrack.

At one spot in the film, Laura, yet again in voiceover, remembers, “The first awful feeling of danger swept over me.” As she says this, the express train rushes by and silences the music. The music, however, is recorded, fixed—dead. It presents no danger.

Chion has insisted, “there is no soundtrack,” claiming that once film sound is recorded it is forever fused to the moving image. “The sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track.”6 There is also no breath, no rubato–and no imperfection.

Too Much, And Not Enough

Within its narrative, Brief Encounter expresses some ambivalence toward music. Laura enjoys hearing the barrel organ on the street, but the sound that receives the most appreciation is the quack of Donald Duck that the lovers hear in the theater as part of a cartoon. Classical music, though, is viewed with skepticism, even hostility. As Laura and Alec eat lunch together at the Kardomah, they laugh at a “women’s orchestra,” and Laura remarks that she had not previously noticed “how funny [the cellist] looked.” They later reencounter the same woman playing organ at the movie theater and enjoy another chuckle at her expense.

Laura turns on the radio; Fred turns it down.

The Rachmaninoff Concerto is also suspect, disrupting Fred’s work on his crossword puzzle. When the scene returns to the library, where Laura previously tuned the radio to the Concerto, Fred exclaims that the sound has become “deafening,” and asks to turn it down. It seems that he is quieting not only the radio but Laura’s silent memories. Cannily, this moment comes at the loudest moment of the entire Concerto, and it is indeed deafening. The volume decreases as Fred turns the radio down, and it decreases even further as the music moves on to a quieter passage. Is Fred lowering Laura’s volume with the dial, or is the ghost of Rachmaninoff, channeled through Eileen Joyce and Co., subduing the forbidden love affair, reducing it from a shout to a whisper?

As insightful and effective as the use of the Concerto is, there is a feeling of overwhelm. This rambunctious, meandering, hyperexpressive, overstuffed, virtuosic, loud music is just too much for the film. (It is even too much on its own, for some.)

Almost any passage used as a music cue is crowded with musical information and implications. But at the same time, the fragmentation divorces the music from itself. It is too much information with too little continuity. The music repeats, but not in a musical way. This is not to say that the Concerto is a poor choice–not at all. Rather, the enlistment of an independent, self-sufficient musical work to serve as background—and the act of manipulating it to serve the narrative and images—demands that the viewer make sense of the “deafening” Concerto.

The Brief Encounter Concerto (that’s my own designation) denies musical resolutions; rewinds and fast-forwards discontinuously; and constructs the prison of memory. Throughout the journey, the music emphasizes the importance of time. Although Brief Encounter is set in 1939, it was made toward the end of World War II, during a time of blackouts and rationing. The specter of war, introduced not within the narrative but externally, by the circumstances of production and release, reinforces the sense of being haunted by past suffering, whether experienced in love or war. 

Early on in their relationship, Laura and Alec acknowledge their feelings for one another, yet they know that those feelings cannot be sustained. In a matter of weeks, they arrive at the end of the line. Alec observes, “There is no time.” But as the prison of memory shows, sometimes it is more painful when there is. 


This essay is a work in progress that will be developed into a more scholarly form in the future. There is much written on Brief Encounter already. Contributions that inform my thinking here include Richard Dyer’s Brief Encounter, part of the BFI Film Classics series. The monograph was first published in 1993 (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2015). Kent Puckett’s book chapter “Celia Johnson’s Face: Before and After Brief Encounter” offers an extensive and expansive analysis of the film in relationship to World War II, which was nearing its end when the film was produced, although the film is set in 1939 (Chapter 3 of War Pictures: Cinema, History, and Violence in Britain, 1939-1945 [Fordham University Press, 2017], 136–89). Ivan Raykoff’s online article “Concerto Con Amore” has the most to say about music, considering how the music cues map onto aspects of the film and how the “concerto agents” play out in the film-music relationship. Raykoff also discusses the prominence of the piano concerto in midcentury films (ECHO, Volume 2.1 [Spring 2000]).

  1. Michel de Certeau, “Railway Navigation and Incarceration.” Chapter 8 of The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press, 1984), 112.
  2. Michel Chion, Sound; An Acoulogical Treatise, tr. James a Steintrager (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 3150.
  3. Chion, Sound, Kindle Edition, Location 1143.
  4. David Hurwitz’s review of Lang Lang’s Deutsche Grammophon recording (Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra) observes, “That opening [of the Concerto] is, alas, a portent of dreadful things to come. The first movement recapitulation has seldom sounded so heavy and lacking in thrust, and Gergiev certainly doesn’t help, getting into the act with plenty of mannered ritards and strange underlinings of his own. The adagio might have been attractive, had it not been for excruciating playing from the orchestra’s flute and clarinet soloists, but the finale is all but unendurable. Not only is it possibly the slowest on disc, the ‘big tune’ has seldom been phrased so flatly, with so little sense of rapture, while the central fugato is a mess, the balances between soloist and orchestra positively inimical to the sense of the music. With an overall duration of more than 36 minutes in a work usually considerably fleeter, comparison with Richter (also on DG) is instructive. He’s also quite deliberate (though not to this degree), particularly in the first movement, but the proportions are invariably correct, the long line preserved, and he knows when to take the spotlight and when to yield to his colleagues. In short, Lang Lang’s performance is a disaster” (Classics Today, no date). In a 2007 inventory of recordings of the Concerto, Peter Gutmann writes, “I can’t recall a recent major-league recording that was so consistently savaged by critics” (Classical Notes).
  5. Michael Beek’s article “The Best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2” (2022) appears in the BBC-produced Motrax’s 2006 comment on Piano Street’s Piano Forum post, “Best interpreter for Rach 2?” evaluates seven recordings and includes brief mentions of several others.
  6. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and tr. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 40.