The film had an unexpected, profound impact on a young 21-year old Robert Altman. Kathryn Altman, wife of the famed director, said, "One day, years and years ago, just after the war, [Altman] had nothing to do and he went to a theater in the middle of the afternoon to see a movie. Not a Hollywood movie: a British movie. He said the main character was not glamorous, not a babe. And at first he wondered why he was even watching it. But twenty minutes later he was in tears, and had fallen in love with her. And it made him feel that it wasn't just a movie." The film was "Brief Encounter".
Carnforth Station was chosen partly because it was so far from the southeast of England that it would receive sufficient warning of an air-raid attack that there would be time to turn out the filming lights to comply with wartime blackout restrictions.
Celia Johnson was not looking forward to the four-week location shoot at the railway station, but her opinion changed when they got there and the cast and crew developed a spirit of camaraderie. Between scenes she usually played poker with the crew or worked a crossword puzzle. She also was impressed with the hospitality shown by the station master, who let them warm up in his office during the cold winter nights.
The screenplay was adapted and based on Noël Coward's 1935 short one-act (half-hour) stage play "Still Life". It was expanded from five short scenes in a train station (the refreshment tea room of Milford Junction Station) to include action in other settings (Laura's house, the apartment of the Dr.Harvey's friend, restaurants, parks, train compartments, shops, a car, a boating lake and at the cinema),
Cast in his first major film role, Trevor Howard had a hard time adapting to acting for the camera. For the scene in which he had to rattle off a list of diseases while both he and Celia Johnson are really fighting their feelings for each other, it took him so many takes to capture both the script and what was beneath it, that Johnson began having problems maintaining spontaneity.
Trevor Howard had trouble understanding the character's delicacy in dealing with the woman he loved. For the scene in the flat, he couldn't see why the man didn't just make love to her as soon as she showed up. When David Lean tried to explain that the sudden intimacy and the unprecedented opportunity to consummate their love had suddenly made the characters shy, Howard could only respond with, "I must say, you are a funny chap."
The film opened at the Little Carnegie, an art house in New York, to respectable business and good reviews. Positive word of mouth, however, drove up attendance records. By its fifth week there, when most films would have been fading fast, it broke the house record. It ended up running a total of eight months.
When David Lean tried to get shots of express trains speeding through the station, he ran into a problem. The engineers, not used to the camera lights being used during the location shoot, had slowed down to a crawl as they approached, fearing there was some problem. He had to get a railway traffic officer to send word to other stations assuring the drivers there was nothing wrong, and they could maintain speed.
The cast and most of the crew were given May 8, 1945. off work--not so much because it was Victory In Europe Day but because the cameras at Denham Studios were needed to cover the celebrations in London.
Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The lending libraries were started in 1898.
At the film's press screening, David Lean sat next to drama critic James Agate, who delivered a stinging commentary on everything he considered wrong with the film, at full voice, throughout the presentation.
The production drew extras from the area around Carnforth. Those involved were particularly pleased to enjoy the dinner provided each night, which included sweets and other items restricted by wartime rationing.
Because David Lean and producer Ronald Neame were busy filming Great Expectations (1946) on location, the film had its first preview in front of a working-class audience in Rochester. The results were disastrous, with the audience laughing through the most romantic scenes.
Noël Coward chose Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto as the film's background music. It was his favorite musical piece. The film's composer, Muir Mathieson, objected, wanting to compose the entire score himself. When Coward insisted that the piece was part of the character's life, Mathieson gave in--on condition that Celia Johnson be shown turning on the radio to listen to the piece and that the music not be re-arranged for the film .
Anthony Havelock-Allan was convinced the only place the film would do well was France, but the major French distributor, Gaumont, turned it down. It only changed its mind when the film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It turned out to be a big hit in France.
Although there was no mention of it in the script, David Lean was so intrigued with the station's clock that he made frequent use of it in the film. This actually required making a dummy face for it so that the times would be appropriate and could be read more easily in long shots.
Originally the train station scenes were set for London, but with the threat of German rocket attacks during the last days of the war, the company was evacuated outside the city. The producers chose Carnforth Station in northwest England because it was one of the largest provincial stations and far enough from the coast that they would have time to turn off the lights in the event of an air raid and blackout warning.
Carnforth Station had a ramp leading up to the train platform. David Lean thought it would be more effective for the actors to be running up the ramp to catch their trains and that running up steps might have made them look ridiculous.
Unhappy with the location of the station's refreshment room, David Lean had a different one built in another part of the station for exterior shots. For interiors, he shot in a film studio in Denham, although the set was closely modeled on the real room.
The poem that Fred asks Laura's assistance with is by John Keats, "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be", the actual quote being 'When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high Romance . . . ".
After the success of the film, David Lean was accosted by an angry man in a train station, who told him how much he hated the film. "Do you realize, Sir, that if Celia Johnson could contemplate being unfaithful to her husband, my wife could contemplate being unfaithful to me?" he stammered.
On her first trip to Milford after meeting Dr. Harvey, Laura walks past a bookstore window. On display are a range of books published in 1944/45, including "Something in my Heart" by Walter Greenwood, "A Showman Goes East" by Carroll Levis, "The End of the Mildew Gang" by S. Fowler Wright, "Capri Moon" by Kelman Dalgety Frost, "Winter's Tales" by Karen Blixen, "Triple Mirror" by Kathleen Wallace, "Once a Jolly Swagman" by Montagu Slater, and "Grand Barrage" by Gun Buster (aka John Charles Austin).
When Laura comes to see Alec at his friend's flat, there is a Middle Eastern rug hung on the wall. The style of the rug itself confirms that it is Persian, but the beautiful calligraphy is Arabic. It is from a ninth-century love poem by the Arab poet Ali Bin Salwa Al-qusari. it reads, from the right-hand corner of the rug and going anti-clockwise: "The Utterance of Passion - In My Eye - Speaks To You".
The original Broadway production was presented as the one-act play "Still Life" as part of the repertory presentation "Tonight at 8:30" that opened at the National Theatre on November 24, 1936, and ran for 118 performances with a cast that included Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.
During the post-flat scene where Laura is "wandering about" alone, the music playing is the segment of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto which, ironically, was used many years later by singer/composer Eric Carmen for his pop classic 'All By Myself'.
Trevor Howard eventually came to view the film's success as a hindrance to his career, blinding people to his other achievements. When one too many interviewers asked about the film, he slammed down the phone after yelling, "Anyone would think I made nothing else."
The film's international success has made Carnforth Station a Mecca for romantic film fans. The clock was reconstructed from original pieces found in a shop in Twickenham. The tea-room where Alec and Laura met is now a visitor's center.
Trevor Howard almost lost the role before he had it. The actor rarely paid attention to his mail, and the script and job offer sent by his agent lay on a table unopened for weeks. When Anthony Havelock-Allan called the actor in for a costume fitting, Howard said he couldn't come because he had promised to take his wife to the movies.
The bad film Alec and Laura walk out on is titled Flames of Passion, an in-joke reference to the British silent film Flames of Passion (1922). The title re-surfaced years later on a gay porn film modeled on Brief Encounter.
The film is said to be set in 1938, and there is on-screen proof of this date. The copyright of the fictional film "Flames of Passion" viewed by Alec and Laura, which is placed on the film's opening title, reads MCMXXXVIII (1938).