This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
One of the great things about Charles Dickens is the way his people colonize your memory. I wonder if there's any writer except Shakespeare who has created more characters whose names we remember, and whose types seem so true to human nature. A director adapting a Dickens novel finds that much of his work has been done for him.
Certainly that's the case with David Lean's "Great Expectations” (1946), which has been called the greatest of all the Dickens films, and which does what few movies based on great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings Dickens' classic set-pieces to life as if he'd been reading over our shoulder: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the churchyard, Pip's first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost to the gallows.
British critic Adrian Turner has observed that "Great Expectations” resembles a horror film, and certainly there is horror and the macabre in the existence of Miss Havisham, who was jilted on her wedding day and has spent the rest of her life in bitter resentment--all of the clocks in her house stopped at the moment when she discovered that her fiance has betrayed her. Dickens (and Lean) have a chilling success with the early scene in which Pip, an orphan being raised in a blacksmith's house, is summoned to the gothic mansion of a rich local woman and finds old Miss Havisham, still in her wedding dress, occupying the room where the wedding feast was to be held. She points out the "bride cake,” nibbled by mice, festooned by cobwebs, and requires Pip to push her wheelchair around and around the long table where the wedding feast had been planned.
The atmosphere of the mansion and its deranged occupant no doubt inspired Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," made four years later, with its aging movie queen in gloomy exile inside her mansion in Beverly Hills. Turner, who has written books on both Lean and Wilder, makes the comparison, and also wonders if the early graveyard scene of Magwitch jumping at Pip from outside the screen didn't inspire countless imitations in horror films ever since.