Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Typed by Linda Cupples
From: Film Comment May-June 1990
- David Thomson -
1905 - 1990
This was sometime in the fall of 1979, when it seemed possible that the film studies program at Dartmouth College might be able to have Michael as artist-in-residence for a term. Peter Smith, then director of the Hopkins Center, found some money, and there were other small pieces from here and there. The sum total remained meagre, and Michael tended not to notice it. What he had always done had nothing to do with money. But would he come winter or spring term? He was then in his seventy-fifth year and living in England. I explained the great snows of the New Hampshire winter and the muddy release of spring. "Oh winter!" he said, without a moment's doubt, and his glorious cheeks took on a cricket-ball hue to confront the cold. For Michael, red was always such an answer that questions crept away in shame.
He would teach some students - "whatever that means .. but let's make a movie, don't you think?" Michael wanted his mornings left free, he said. "I'll be in residence then." He was going to begin his autobiography. So it turned out. He arrived on December 28 and he was writing by January 1, 1980. One evening shortly thereafter he called with a query about some detail of movie history. I offered him my library if he ever needed to check his facts. "Oh no," he assured me, "I won't bother with that. I'll write as I remember it." That emotional confidence was exactly like his use of red: it was serene and personal, yet it was the cry "On guard!", absolutely certain that the imagination trounced reality in the way the Pimpernel teased Chauvelin.
The first volume of that work-in-progress was published in 1987 as A Life in Movies, at over 700 pages. The second volume was done before the end, and I would guess that somehow Michael's need and faith - his arrogance - tamed the beast that killed him, told it to be patient. But he could not have done it without Thelma, his third wife. Thelma Schoonmaker was referred to in the obituaries as Martin Scorsese's editor - which is the truth. But for several years she was also the person who helped Michael do his book as his sight failed.
The degree of failure was not easy to assess, for Michael ignored it and his unique vision had always had so much to do with the mind' eye. Thelma took the tapes he dictated and transcribed them. She was the book's companion and Michael's steady encouragement, even when she was working long hours on Marty's current picture, I do not want to say she "looked after" Michael. This was not a man susceptible to that kind of duty or pity. Michael could be fierce, difficult and remote; and he seldom recognized the effect on others. He was also bristling with independence, automatically fearless, unburdened by any tactual consideration, and immaculate. He was a genius, and always will be.
In that last decade so many good things happened to Michael. Thelma was the essential. But there was the comradeship with Scorsese, and the bizarre times at Coppola's Zoetrope when Michael solved the riddle of what a "director emeritus" did by sitting through a rough-cut of Hammett and then saying that it was "all very well, but quite impossible of course". With Wim Wenders at the screening. There was the book, and in the second volume - I hope and trust - Michael will talk of Gone to Earth, the opera films, Australia, of all that America came to mean to him, and of Peeping Tom.
Few directors ever had a milestone like that film, and I am still not quite sure whether to believe the standard explanation of how it stopped his career. After all, failures do not deter lesser directors, and Michael was only 55 when Tom opened. There had always been a feeling in Britain that he was dangerous or unsound; it was all the stranger in that Michael's genius went straight back to Chaucer, Hogarth, the Celtic Revival, Dickens, fairy stories and gallows humour. But he was un-English, too: he accepted the passion of story without demur; he thought excess was fundamental and he disdained the forms of politeness. He knew that everything valuable was fatal. He took it for granted that there was beauty and monstrousness in all of us.
Still, Peeping Tom has always seemed to me to have something of finality to it. It is not just that the film was so unwholesome as to be an unlikely commercial venture - today it would be a hit. Rather, it was that the movie was fascinated with its own dread and wonder at looking - at only looking. The personal touches in Peeping Tom are still disconcerting: the presence of Michael and one of his own sons, to say nothing of the feeling of some dire but necessary ritual in photography. We should relate Peeping Tom to The Red Shoes, for in both we see a showman who destroys others for the show and who looks self-loathing in the face.
Michael was reclaimed by Britain in the 1980s, when it seemed safe; and he went back there from New York to die in Gloucestershire. The National Film Archive made the greatest amends by restoring so many of his pictures. When he died, Sir Richard Attenborough (is he really not Lord Attenborough yet?) announced, "Of his generation, he was unquestionably the most innovative and most creatively brilliant filmmaker this country ever boasted." As if for the first time, it became received wisdom that Michael was more than Alfred Hitchcock. There is time to measure how much more.
There was a generation who were children with the movies: it included Renoir, Bunuel, Mizoguchi, Lang, Hawks, Ophuls, Ozu, von Sternberg, Dreyer and maybe a few others. Michael Powell was the last one left alive. As time goes by, I think the associations of period and nationality may fall away. Blimp and The Small Back Room will have less to do with the Second World War; I Know Where I'm Going will fall in place as a rapture and Peeping Tom as an exultant curse. He was a wizard, and he dealt in magic. To think what Michael might have made of The Tempest!
I would like to hope that Michael is in heaven - yet we know his dismay at the décor there from A Matter of Life and Death. If he is there, count on it he will sell them on Technicolor. And if he is anywhere else where red is appreciated know that nothing will be redder than his cheeks or the flaming vision behind his impudent eyes.
- RAYMOND DURGNAT -
THE PREWAR Bs: REWARDS AND FAIRIES
1. THE ELECTRICAL EVERYDAY
An out-of-work car salesman sets about cutting his landlady's tablecloth into a boiler-suit for a ragged Cockney urchin. Standing the little boy on the table, he drapes the rough-cut around his shoulders. Gracefully flowing, it leaves one shoulder, and a patch of bottom, bare. The boy has "become" a Diaghilev faun. (Something Always Happens, (1934).
Misled by The Phantom Light (1935), a ship heads for hidden rocks. In slow-cranked shots, strenuously rowed lifeboats lunge towards it. Meanwhile, the ship's "sparks" hands a message to the cabin-boy, who strolls with it to the captain, who takes it, opens it, and reads it, and silently ponders the choice: between the officially sanctioned light, or the mysterious wireless warning. Powell's style emphasizes, enjoys, the measured masculine movements, the boy cheeking the sparks but waiting on the awesome, kindly, preoccupied skipper. Enclosed in wet black oilskins in night space, the men's faces beam. It's pure Kipling: hierarchy, duty, decision, inner light.
Such "transfigurations" of workaday worlds into inner romanticism key my fascination with Powell's prewar Bs. The faun stance (an auteurial "quote", presumably unrecognized by the characters) emblemizes free spirit coexisting with commerce. The ship's crew glow with nonalienated, though strictly captalist-hierarchial, relations. Diaghilev, Kipling: same difference - aft and navigation, equal enterprises of the spirit ...
Because Powell's Romanticism is adventurous, it's not subversive. Because it's versatile, it's not escapist. He relished headline realities. Red Ensign (1934) discusses undercapitalization in family firms, recommends quasi-Keynesian investment plus Imperial Preference (protectionist quotas), to kick-start Britain out of slump into competitiveness, and champions financial dealings so shady our hero gets six months' jail. The motor-car salesman is bored with mere capitalism ("selling things I haven't got to people who don't want them") but he keeps his hawkish wits sharp by charming and tricking everyone, from waiters to widows. What finally fires his enthusiasm is the sighting of the roadhouses along the new "arterial roads": i.e. the new consumerism. In a boardroom coup he unseats his father-in-law-to-be - who takes it with a businessman's tolerance.
Powell's romanticism invokes Apollo, not Dionysius; it's passion, but une passion disciplinée, practical, icily resolute. The salesman's jack-of-all-trades tailoring job conjures forth the faun. Respect, not emotion, rules the cargo ship.
Kipling and Diaghilev were spiritual godfathers to many of Powell's generation and background (Georgian gentleman-farmer/country-town lesser-Establishment/Empire-building stock). The B films brood, by plot or by eye, on changing roles of that class ethos, as "the vortex of commerce" engulfs the declining gentry, shakes up business/family/money relations, spreads U.S. ideas. Powell's gentleman-farmer - and military-eye for the human, especially male, figure, and its stances in spaces, is the kernel, or constant, of his kaleidoscope of styles.
2. EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
My second interest in the prewar Bs may, alas, be limited to a highly exclusive, and steadily shrinking, club: Englishmen of a certain age, whose memories of the Thirties these flicks refresh. But it's not just nostalgia, for they're witness, to "The Way We Live Now" as it then was. Powell's gimlet eye, tight rhythms, and delight in digression inspire vignettes, temps-morts, and trivia to speak volumes in a flash. The era's accepted classics (Hitchcock, documentary ...) tend to moralism, social or ethical, of which Powell's "goldsmith-chain" of cameos are bracingly free.
Crown vs. Stevens (1936), a Simenon-type murder tale, dwells on the servitudes and grandeurs of the shopkeeping trade. Cockney warehouse-men switch between informal discipline ("Oi oi oi, less lip and more work from you, young lamp-post!") and jokey salutations imputing hierarchy to mates ("appy days to Your Worship!"). Our hero's girlfriend opens her own dress shop (conspicuous Thirties things, often woman-owned); at closing time she's keen to get away, and coax some self confidence into her painfully shy young man; but a rich, fussy old lady pins her down to selling. The sharp clash of mental rhythms stresses impatience disciplined vs. touchy insensitivity, independence offering servile attention. Two squanderbug wives have a nice cozy chat about extracting money from their mere hubbies, and needle each other in sugary tones; their Marcel-waved hair and artificial silk blouses and ornaments glisten and ripple with delectable energy. In a chemist's shop, a lady customer whispers her order in the assistant's ear - a risqué, though censorproof, touch.
The Stevens' maid is a grotesque: humpbacked with undernourished humility, lanky lips all over the place, nerves furiously a-twitch with inhibited initiative and defensive stupidity. Thirties Bs made domestic servants comic; Powell's acid and patrician eye broods over a half-stunted, half-defiant class. Her Last Affaire (1935) features a sharply observant maid (Googie Withers, the Boadicea of British film, and a fit sparring-partner for Joan Crawford). What the nob 'tecs need to know, she doesn't say, till asked; the effect is of fine, proud, devastating indifference.
Our ambitious young hero, to clear his father's name and so unblock his own career, blackmails a Cabinet Minister's faithless wife; the shock gives her a fatal heart attack. Finally, her stern but long-suffering husband persuades the young man to let the whole sordid story stay hushed up. Which brings out - and unsentimentally - the logic, forbearance, and humility in old fashioned, upperclass, "patriarchal" codes of honor. It's more understanding, therefore interesting, than retro-exposes of "Establishment hypocrisy" like White Mischief. For "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." Most retro radical denunciations of WASP "roots" are as grossly moralistic as missionary denunciations of twisted heathen ways. This film says it for today's students' great-grandparents. The Thirties "classic", i.e. "advanced," plays don't (why not is another essay); so this stagey old fossil, complete with creaky melodrama, cheapo sets, and odd bursts of Powell style, has its place in art as witness.
3. THE ONCE AND FUTURE POWELL
It's 1935, and His lazy young Lordship can't think of a reason to get up in the mornings. But an American heiress, with democratic pep and business brain, gets him going. They open a clinic where the idle class can come and get work-cures. The erstwhile slugabed tears into a dozy old buffer - not only a Colonel Blimp lookalike but also, like Blimp, humiliated by a young toughie, Lazybones gives its post-1943 spectator an uncanny shock, of déjà vu-cum-flashforward. Even the family crest behind the credits says "Looking Backward Looking Forward" ...
Similarly, the tailor-made faun of 1934 "pre-echoes" the nude goatherd (on an English beach!!??) in A Matter of Life and Death. Many such auteurial motifs are made strange by the diversity of Powell's styles and genres, by his constant sense of changing times. His Romanticism stems from that paradoxical thing, a tradition of change, some deep abiding spirit mutating through different zeitgeists, ideologies, mental sets.
If Powell's "rise and fall" is a three-act drama, the prewar Bs are Act 1 ("The Vortex"). Act 2 is war/postwar team unity. Act 3 is retreat, or advance, into Private worlds (a dream-delirium ballet, a lonely cameraman renting out his father's house ...) In four of these films, the merits relished above occur cheek-by-jowl with:
4. "A LOAD OF BRITISH RUBBISH"
This nigh-proverbial phrase was inspired by bottom-drawer British B films 1928-1938. So my fourth pleasure risks being mistaken for Camp, or that perverse principle, "It's so bad that it's good." It's neither of those, but it is "For Connoisseurs Only" - which should cover most readers of Film Comment.
Of Powell's surviving Bs (all mentioned here), Red Ensign (Strike! in the U.S.) and The Phantom Light (Celtic fringe detective-Gothic with a comical Cockney and Murnau atmospherics) were top-notch Bs. The rest were "Quota Quickies." QQs arose thanks to legislation supporting British movie production from Hollywood dumping and restrictive practices. It spawned sub cheapo flicks, some screened only to cinemas' morning cleaners, no paying customers expected. British Warners made the best QQs, but for more than three takes on any shot Powell needed the studio head's exceptional permission.
Whereas Hollywood Bs involved conveyer-belt efficiency, formula series, and solid consistency with proven markets, British QQs were wildly inconsistent in every way. Normally limited to a market one-fifth U.S. size, they were more like one-offs handcobbled in fly-by-night sweatshops. But: their stories might come from middle-class plays, or crime novels, and involve, or inspire, much sharper truths than Hollywood stereo pulp. But: this wider material further pixilated their minuscule budgets. So flimsy sets and flat lighting commonly give everything, even faces and bodies, a cornflake-packet-cut-out look. The shots resemble outline diagrams more than illusions in spring the suspension of disbelief. They live up, or down, to Godard's allusion-without-illusion and Coppola's video-storyboards. Which is already interesting.
Hasty blocking-out and no rehearsals entailed the utmost roughness. Lazybones - runt of the litter, shot in 13 nights - abounds in continuity bloopers, as Powell tries nevertheless for the latest "syntax" (fewer establishing shots), or chances a daring line-cross. In one shot a player set to exit left wheels right and crosses camera so close and out-of-focus her form dissolves into dandelion-puff spreading on the breeze. Eyeboggling deficiencies sit cheek-by-jowl with opportunistic virtuosities, e.g. a calligraphic "travelling" following Sara Allgood through a courtyard and two rooms.
With that semi-illusion, like a continuous alienation-effect, upfronting form and craft tel quel, these cocktail salads of clumsiness, solid craft, and sudden brilliance goad close and recherche analysis. They're first-rate discussion-pieces for film theory. And they challenge one academic assumption after another: that film pace can be split into syntagmas (doesn't that travelling makes three separate spaces one?); that taboos existed on looks into camera; that narrative entails structural rules of point-of-view; that something called "classic Hollywood syntax" flows from something called "bourgeois ideology" and lacks any basis but convention ....
ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT
- 1 9 4 2 -
by Peter Hogue
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing is an uncommonly sophisticated genre film - one of the best war pictures made during World War II, a stirring resistance drama that consistently views the war in larger terms than those of the combat itself. Michael Powell and his writing partner Emeric Pressburger aimed for a documentary air and a patriotic directness, and yet - perhaps especially from the vantage of 1990 - the movie also seems remarkable for its playful form and its rich mixture of distancing and earnestness.
The film takes its title and premise from a topical phrase oft-repeated in BBC broadcasts of the day. It begins with the crash of an unmanned British bomber - "B for Berty" - then movies back 15 hours to show how the mission began and how the crew came to bail out over the Netherlands. The main action involves the crew on the ground in Holland, looking for friendly locals and a way back to the North Sea. Their perilous situation provides the basic suspense, but much of the narrative interest resides in scenes of the various Dutch resistance people who hide and disguise the crewmen and transport them, by bicycle and truck, to a place where the men can make a break to a friendly fishing boat.
There's a playful symmetry to the film's juggling of its own shape. The crash of the bomber precedes the opening credits; the final event of the film - the crew starting a subsequent mission is an epilogue, or more properly a coda, that comes after the end credits and is prefaced by title cards telling us that the cast and technicians wanted to know what happened to the "B for Berty" crew after the rescue. The actors are introduced in character, with shot of each crewman at his post in the bomber; Powell himself plays the dispatch officer who sends the plane on its way at the outset and reports its failure to return.
Early on, OOOAIM is preoccupied with predictable behaviour and events. After the crew parachutes into Holland, the film zeroes in on the ambiguities of people's roles and identities - not only the tension between what people seem to be and what they are, but the tension between what they might be and what their actions seem to reveal them as. The navigator (Hugh Williams) is an actor in peacetime, and his presence elicits remarks about acting that carry over into deadly-serious role playing when the group is disguised as Dutch farm folk. At one point the actor/navigator recalls a spy melodrama in which "we were all killed in the end"; he is brusquely told, "That could happen here too." In a reverse twist of these Pirandellan ironies, the men listen to a live BBC musical performance by the actor's wife; as a couple of the men quietly note, she had had to carry off the performance at a time when she must surely have been told her husband is missing in action.
Although the airmen's peril serves as the sustaining narrative thread, Powell's mise-en-scene in the Holland sequences is focused less on the ingredients of suspense than it is directed toward a singular lyricism - a quality startlingly apt to the point of view of people stranded in a situation that confers strangeness and new importance on everyday details. The first Holland scenes are lyrical morning views of Dutch farmlands. The freshness of the moment carries over into the first encounter with living creatures - friendly farm children, bustling after sheep, who first see the airmen as uniformed men smiling down from the trees they've climbed for a better view.
Individual episodes push the crew's narrative along and dramatize the Hollanders' grassroots resistance to the German occupation (this British film will end with the declaration "The Netherlands Will Rise Again!"). Defiance of the Nazis ranges from the symbolic - small displays of traditional colors, for example - to the lethal, but the sources of all such acts are pointedly domestic: children, peasants, a country schoolyard, the congregation of a Catholic church, the unseen operator of a fishing boat, and two particularly noteworthy women - a sharpwitted schoolmistress (Pamela Brown) and a "widow" (Googie Withers) who uses an anti-British pose to cover for her activities.
A church organist toodles a bit of the Dutch national anthem while a Nazi officer glares at the congregation; a supposedly ill-behaved boy slips recordings of the anthem into a stack of records delivered to Nazi headquarters; the crowd at a football game uses the pretence of herdlike obedience to frustrate German orderliness. Through all this, the schoolmistress and the "anti-British" entrepreneur loom especially large. Both have moments in which they gaze at the airmen as if the mere sight of the British were a source of mysterious sustenance. But the two of them are also the most memorable and genuinely heroic characters in the film.
One of Our Aircraft makes its explicit anti-Nazi statements emerge in simple form from the exigencies of particular moments: "We did not invite the Germans into our country, but we know how to take care of them now that they are here" - this after a late-night skirmish during the journey to escape; "I would rather be a Dutchman now than any German soldier" - as half dressed Nazi soldiers scramble at the sound of British bombers overhead. The film's German soldiers are mostly glimpsed, anonymous figures - a doorway silhouette, a strutting officer framed in miniature in a church organ's mirror, a sentry whistling contentedly from a low bridge. The most telling portraits of Nazism are drawn by a kind of indirection - a tank with siren braying as it barrels past some bicyclists in flat, sunny countryside; a Dutch quisling (played, and therefore caricatured by Robert Helpmann) getting trapped in his own arrogant complicity.
Yet there are shrewdly "incongruous" elements, uncharacteristic of WW2 films if scarcely of Powell-Pressburger. The in-flight sequence aboard the bomber has an almost dreamlike wistfulness about it. The veteran crew deflects the tensions of approaching combat with snippets of conversation over the plane's intercom, with a prime subject being memories of Germany and German women. Such moments evoke both the crew's unity and their separate personalities (pilot/diplomat, co-pilot/Yorkshireman in textiles, radioman/football star), and also make poetic capital of such naturalistic circumstances as the physical isolation of the nose-gunner (who runs a garage in peacetime) and the tail-gunner. This last (played by Godfrey Tearle) is the oldest of the group, a stolid, titled gentleman and the butt of some mildly joking irreverence. Yet it is to him that Powell gives an eerie closeup and point-of-view shot at the moment when the plane passes beyond England's shores.
When the men are first downed in Holland, it's suggested - by the old gentleman - that the pilot command the group on the ground as well. The "skipper"/diplomat demurs, and wonders aloud why anyone should command. The actor/navigator tries on the role for size, but his futile attempts at saying something useful quickly reveal that he lacks the substance even though he looks the part. The nobleman/tail-gunner slides into the role repeatedly thereafter, largely because he is the only one who is truly adept at gauging the practical urgencies of the immediate situation. But he isn't really acknowledged as leader until late in the film, when the diplomat singles him out to make a speech to the last (and most eloquent) of their hideout hostesses.
The Tearle character - who, according to Powell, helped inspire Colonel Blimp - has volunteered for this particular mission, and he is the only crewman to be wounded in the course of their trek. He never entirely stops being the fuddy-duddy the younger men think he is, but his stoically heroic way of being more than equal to various risky tasks is made more interesting by a streak of fatalistic desperation he can't quite conceal.
One of Our Aircraft is a companion piece to 49th Parallel, its immediate predecessor in the Powell-Pressburger oeuvre. The earlier film is better known in the U.S., owing in part to such stellar presences as Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard, and Raymond Massey. It also has the benefit of a similar, but more exotic, premise: Germans from a Nazi submarine, stranded in Canada, encounter trappers, Eskimos, bush pilots, Huttrites, an outdoorsy aesthete, and an AWOL soldier - all while trying to reach neutral ground in ... The United States! Having the German crew at the center of the story provides a number of occasions for reflection on Germany and Nazism, and the film uses Canadians' physical isolation from the actual fighting as a conceit by which it can dramatize widespread, multileveled repugnance for what the Nazis represent.
But while 49th Parallel is the bolder and larger-seeming of the two films, there is also a sense in which it is a series of set-pieces designed to showcase passionate outbursts of anti-Nazi speechifying. One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, in its quieter way, is the more resonant and more fully consummated invention. But finally these films probably ought to be seen together - especially when we are addressing an audience born in the second half of the century. They complement each other, and their success in evoking an extra-national civilization as a contest for the contorted dramatics of war makes them enduring in part because of their topicality, rather than in spite of it.
THE LIFE AND DEATH
OF COLONEL BLIMP
- 1 9 4 3 -
by Andrew Sarris
When I first saw Colonel Blimp - the American release title for a badly butchered print of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - more than 40 years ago, I never imagined I'd live to see the day when I would have the effrontery to write that I preferred this Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger production to Citizen Kane. A matter of opinion or a matter of taste, to be sure. It may be that my radically revisionist turnabout reflects nothing more than my lifelong critical inclination toward the redemptively romantic and away from the derisively despairing. Forty years ago, however, I had much less confidence in my convictions than I do today. Also, I may now be unduly influenced by my sadly brief acquaintance with the late Michael Powell. Yet long before I knew very much about film history or had any inkling of the flesh-and-blood artists hiding behind the target-hitting logos of The Archers, I sensed that Colonel Blimp had something. I wasn't sure what, but after these many decades I think I can take a stab at describing my changing impressions of this very strange work.
Many great foreign films have been mutilated for their American release by distributors who fancied themselves as "creative" when they snipped footage to make the movie conform to the "rhythm" and "pace" expected by U.S. moviegoers in their screen entertainment. It never seemed to occur to these destructive "artists" that domestic arthouse audiences were motivated at least in part by a desire to escape Hollywood's "rhythm" and "pace."
In any event, the first Colonel Blimp I saw was released in New York in 1947, four years after its British release. Hence, a wartime film in Britain was first viewed in America in a postwar context. I was somewhat familiar with David Low's Colonel Blimp cartoons, but I had no inkling of Winston Churchill's deep hostility to the project undertaken by Powell and Pressburger during England's darkest hours. The American print was about 40 minutes shorter than the British print, but what was worse was the complete dismantling of the flashback framing, almost comparable to the atrocious Sins of Lola Montes, released in truncated, falsely linear form, as a betrayal of Max Ophuls' intricate multiple-flashback narrative strategy in his original Lola Montes.
I must confess at this point that I have always been addicted to flashbacks in movies. And narration. It is something I have carried over from my own radio days. "I shall never forget the weekend Laura died." "I dreamt last night I went back to Manderley." "Though I never admired Edith more than when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella more than when I was with Edith." "I can never remember the Spanish word for Cinderella." The Proustian resonance of "Rosebud," "Eve," "the Barefoot Contessa," the 78rpm records in Penny Serenade. Emotion recollected in tranquility and in turbulence. Knowing the end before one understands the beginning and middle.
Anyway, by taking away the flashback framing of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the American distributor thrust me into a past (the Boer War and all that) more stylized and unreal and inadequately introduced than this same past would have seemed in its proper context as the memory of an old man in the present.
Quite properly, the picture begins with the jarringly jazzy images of wartime England in the process of becoming Americanized. Some young British officers decide to disrupt home-defense war games by pulling a Pearl Harbor on the retired Blimpish Army officers conducting the exercise. We first see and hear Roger Livesey's Blimp - Clive Candy, to be precise - as an aged, portly, bald sleeper under a towel in a Turkish bath. A uniformed Deborah Kerr plays his driver. She has inadvertently betrayed her kindly employer and superior by telling her young Army boyfriend of Candy's schedule.
The film is unpleasantly noisy at this point, and the plot zips along without establishing any of the characters. Suddenly we are back in Candy's young manhood in the service, and the movie takes a different turn with a mystical reincarnation-before-the-fact of Deborah Kerr as a British patriot in Germany during the Edwardian period. For an American, the painstaking detail of historical reconstruction was at times allegorical in a prophetically cautionary manner, and at other times unashamedly nostalgic, and at still others, slyly satiric.
Here Anton Walbrook makes his entrance as Theo the "Good German," a character that seemed audacious in the context of the London blitz. Little did I know that the archetypal characters incarnated in Livesey and Walbrook had their origination in the dynamic Anglo-European collaboration of Powell and Pressburger themselves. Powell was in love with Deborah Kerr - as was I, though much more vicariously. And as the film progressed through a man's life and a nation's history, the love of a woman, an angelic constant of romantic illusion, became the ideology of the film. It was not something I fully appreciated then, but I could sense the power of the feelings expressed. I was aware also of a mysterious subtlety in the proceedings, something intelligently conceived and completely original.
Powell and Pressburger combined a British doggedness with a Continental sophistication. Powell was an eccentric explorer in the Grand Victorian tradition, but he journeyed inward to what Akira Kurosawa described at this year's Oscar ceremony as the "essence of cinema." And in the way the camera gazed at Deborah Kerr with a sigh of recognition and remembrance, I felt I was present at a privileged moment it was in the power of only the cinema to bestow. The signs of greatness were already evident. All that remained was the later discovery of formal coherence and subtextual stirrings of meaning. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp has been enriched for me immeasurably by the life and death of Michael Powell, a gifted romantic artist in the heroic old, at the very end no less than a Chateaubriand of cinema.
I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING
- 1 9 4 5 -
by Greg Olson
The films of Michael Powell are romantic, passionate, poetic, sensuous, pictorially ravishing, disturbing, and above all magical. For me, the most enchanting is I Know Where I'm Going (1945), the tale of a headstrong young woman's journey to the remote Western Isles of Scotland. I first saw the film 14 years ago when I showed it at the Seattle Art Museum. Being a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, with its looming stormclouds, windblown sunshine, and alluring islands, I was instinctively struck by the prominence of IKWIG's weathers and landscapes: the film moved in places that looked like my home country. Still, it takes more than accidental familiarity to create magic, to move my inner voice to declare, "I want to live in this movie!"
Many elements of this grownup fairy tale fit within the traditional circle of myth and magic. Waves and winds shape the course of lives, animals are the intimate familiars of human beings, fateful silhouettes and threshold-crossings abound, spirals both life-affirming (dancers) and deadly (a fabled whirlpool) gyrate, and the transformation of a woman's deepest sense of self parallels an ancient Norse legend and a Highland curse.
It is Powell's genius - and that of his screenwriter Emeric Pressburger - not only to beguile us with a concrete, workaday world of brine and heather swayed by forces mysterious and not visible, but to suggest the ineffable with a matter-of-fact, often light touch.
Powell's technical and storytelling mastery are evident in his opening conjuring act, the credit sequence: Joan Webster metamorphoses from briskly crawling infant to opportunistic schoolgirl to purposefully striding adult factory worker (at last, Wendy Hiller), all in the swift turning of a minute.
Joan's always known where she's going. Now, in the midst of wartime austerity, she's to take the ultimate step up, into marriage with her aging, multimillionaire boss Sir Robert Bellenger - Consolidated Chemical Industries, CCI - with whom she will rendezvous on his Isle of Kiloran. Full of high spirits, she meets her conservative banker father at a nightclub, exhibits some haughty manners, and blurts out her announcement of marriage. Powell adds a disquieting component: daughter and disapproving father are overlooked by a decorative Eve-and-the Serpent tableau.
As Joan begins her northern journey by night train, Powell gently mocks her in a bravura passage that shows his love of surrealism. On the soundtrack the Glasgow Orpheus Choir sings an old folksong: "I Know where I'm Going/And I know who's going with me/I know who I love/But the dear knows who I'll marry." - Joan acknowledges her own self-contended face in a mirror as her wedding dress sways in its shimmering plastic sheath at her shoulder. She lies down, closes her eyes: and as the camera approaches the sheath, her dress vanishes, leaving a glistening portal through which we see her marrying not a man but CCI itself (the train whistle answers "I do" for the conglomerate). Fluttering ground notes fill the air, voices chant "Everything's arranged; charge it, charge it" - and abruptly stop as the screen is given over to a confectioner's vision of a miniature train winding through tartan-clad hills. This sweet image harshly cuts to a grainy public loudspeaker blaring "Glasgow Station!" A rude awakening for our dreamer, but it's time to set foot in Scotland.
Powell's sly sorcery comes into its own as Joan crosses from her pre-planned world into the seductively wayward Celtic twilight. On the Isle of Mull she's let off at the abandoned tower of Moy Castle, and is told of "the terrible strong curse" it holds for the Laird of Kiloran. Expecting to cross to the nearby island, she joins the shadowy, Gaelic-speaking figures that stand against a portentous, perlescent plane of mist, sky, and water.
Joan and a Navy-uniformed man say good evening in unison, and she's informed that there'll be no crossing in this weather. She waits alone for a while anyway. Her elaborate itinerary sheet suddenly jumps from her hands and is lost in the sea. Unseen seals sing in the warm air, and a blooming lass leading shaggy Highland cattle tells her to "look for a wee gate, up the brae" for a stopover house.
Joan is anticipating a married life replete with castlelike accommodations; this house has a dark entry hall with free roaming chickens. In the cottage-style parlor she meets Torquil (Roger Livesey), the witty, husky-voiced Navy man home on leave; Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight), a blustery English falconer; and Catriona (Pamela Brown), the raven-maned lady of the house.
We glimpse Catriona outdoors in stunning silhouette with a pack of huge dogs; then she and her Irish wolfhounds stream into the room. Enthralled, Joan watches as this dishevelled aristocrat spots Torquil, throws down her fresh rabbit kill, and shouting Gaelic endearments, sweeps him into her arms. Barnstaple speaks softly to Joan, in perfect comic counterpoint to the ecstatic moment: "Rum stuff, this Gaelic."
There's a feeling of age-old connection joining Torquil and Catriona, but something unspoken is beginning to stir between him and Joan. Their mutual cigarette smoke blends with the fog; later that night, Joan prays for the wind to dispel the blanketing air so she can join Sir Robert. She prays to God, but a carved pagan deity looks down on her bed.
Thus far, Joan's pulse has beaten as her head has willed it, but now she is vulnerable to the earthy rhythms and ancient ways that surround her. Torquil, speaking with the gathered majesty of his forefathers, announces that he, not Joan's tenant fiancé, is the Laird of Kiloran. And since gale winds now prevent Joan from reaching her destination, the kilt-clad Torquil guides her through his charmed region.
The people here follow tradition, but far from being puritanical or hidebound, it is a tradition in tune with human nature. Eccentricity is appreciatively tolerated. Deadpan humor takes the edge off social friction. Torquil, laird that he is, is almost penniless. So are his friends, yet their hospitality is warmly offered. They're "not poor - they just don't have any money." Absorbed in their cultural heritage and the process of living from, and with, the land, they find happiness.
The community's true riches are celebrated at a diamond-wedding ceilidh for a gardener and his wife. Group singing, Highland reels, and bagpipes stop for a word from the man, but he's brimming with emotion and cannot speak. Torquil recites the words of a favorite son - "The Nut Brown Maiden" - to Joan, and snaps his eagle eyes onto hers as he comes to You're the maid for me! She instantly moves to shake off his influence.
Powell's enticing land has a rawness, a danger to it: A golden eagle - named after Torquil, the aquiline-nosed hunter of the heart - tears a dead rabbit's flesh. The sea can send you "from this world to the next" in a second. Joan's endearingly plucky resistance to Torquil is often shown in a dryly comic light, but her suffering is real: she's losing her grip on life as she knows it.
In desperation, Joan risks her own and others' lives in an attempt to reach Kiloran, but Powell's marvellously realized whirlpool turns her back. At last, with relief and joy, she stops struggling against the currents that have pulled her toward Torquil. With the magnanimous help of the prescient Catriona, the power of true love wins out. We knew somehow it would. For such is the way of this most special cinematic universe. But the puckish Powell, who can turn the brooding castle curse on Torquil the laird into a centuries-old certification of his future contentment, loves to surprise his characters - and us. He nearly convinces us that Joan will keep right on walking in the wrong direction.
When a film speaks so affectingly to our need for a mythically resonant reality, emotional adventure, and enduring personal and communal values, we wonder what it signified to it's makers. Did Michael Powell, who from early adulthood to old age followed his own island dreams into the wilds of Scotland, believe in magic? What did I Know Where I'm Going's compelling, nature rooted spirituality and web of subtle, half-hidden connections mean to him?
When Powell and his beloved wife Thelma Schoonmaker came to Seattle last spring, I took them to an exhibit of 19th-centurey Northwest Indian artifacts. Michael's eyesight being somewhat dimmed, Thelma read a text panel of Chief Seattle's words aloud: "Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living, and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them." Michael considered this for a moment, then looked at me with his intensely blue, far seeing eyes: "That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?"
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
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by Robert Horton
Pea soup. As the fog swirls over the Channel, voices from the wireless float past each other, until a connection is made: an American flight controller, June (Kim Hunter), has picked up the voice of RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), whose plane is going down. Their voices find each other in the haze, lock in, and Michael Powell is off and flying with the thrilling opening of A Matter of Life and Death.
Opening-proper, that is. The first image to glimmer onscreen was an establishing shot across the cosmos, which appeared as a misty blue abstraction - a sight that will be echoed later in the misty reddish abstraction that fills the screen after the famous point-of-view shot of Peter's eyelid closing over the camera lens. The universe in a man's mind: such an apt image for an artist, and so fitting for Powell, one of those great directors for whom movies were an abstract universe. Powell understood that a movie is a movie not in the way it tells a story, delivers a theme, houses fine performances, or records pleasing dialogue. Rather, movies live in the collision and collage of swaths of color, sudden changes in angle, degrees of sound and music, shapes of landscape and body, and movement, movement, movement.
All of that is in the first conversation between Peter and June. June sits in a stylized space with red lights flashing behind her; she spends most of the sequence in white-hot closeup. Red flames dance outside Peter's cockpit window, the twisted metal of the plane's interior framing him. He has no parachute, but he is about to jump anyway ("I'd rather jump than fry"). The Powell-Pressburger dialogue crackles with the immediacy of mortality, with the urge to get a few things said that need saying, before the end. Some of these words must appear as high corn, English-style, if read on paper; Peter dashes off some belated love to his mother, and observes that "it's funny, I've known dozens of girls. I've been in love with some of them, but an American girl whom I've never seen and whom I never shall see will hear my last words. That's funny." But Powell stages the action so enthrallingly and fast, and Niven is such an unsentimental hero (even while quoting Walter Ralegh), that the sequence comes off brilliantly. The flame, the engine roar, the glow over June's face, the matter-of-fact presence of the corpse of Peter's radioman ("They'll be sorry about Bob, we all liked him"), and the way Peter slips through an opening in the bottom of the plane, a hole shaped like a movie screen - these are the colors in Powell's paintbox; this is the matter of life and death.
The rest of the film is the flicker through Peter's mind as he hangs in the balance between existence and the end. Inexplicably surviving the fall, he washes ashore and falls in love with June, much to the consternation of the otherworldly conductor (Marius Goring) who was supposed to take him to heaven but missed him in that fog. When Peter appeals his case, a trial is held in the celestial (monochrome) world, with an Anglophobic American from Revolutionary days (Raymond Massey) arguing against Peter, and June's friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey) making the case in favor of an extension for the young poet-flyer.
Throughout, Powell maintains a sublime, utterly calm balance on this most enormous of issues. The desire for life remains hard and stubborn, but the prospect of death is met with implacable good nature, as exemplified by Peter's "dying" words. Even the conductor, who is constantly trying to track Peter pearly-gateward, is scarcely disappointed when his best efforts fail. Dr. Reeves, who fiddles with a camera obscura and takes an intense interest in Peter's point of view ("I know about your eyes"), would appear to be one of Powell's most complete self-portraits; one of the most civilized human beings in moviedom (especially in Roger Livesey's brandy-smooth performance), he still savors the pagan sensation of riding his motorcycle too fast - the habit that eventually costs him his life. When he reaches heaven he is barely perturbed by his own demise, and powerfully flattered and pleased that Peter has chosen him as his supernatural advocate. Death is taken by these characters as a fact of life; grace is something more meaningful, and perhaps just as permanent.
Death courses through Powell's autobiography like one of the rivers he describes following along to the sea - an avowed passion of his. By "autobiography" I mean not only Powell's lovely first volume of memoirs (a dreamy and genteel book, intriguingly shot through with cords of steel) but also his films; the name of the book, after all, is A Life in Movies. In this film, death even gets title billing (except in America, where the distributor imposed the alternative title Stairway to Heaven). A Matter of Life and Death stands as Powell's most playful and - despite his description of AMOLAD as "a joke about life and death" - serious rumination on the end of things. The last line of A Life in Movies is "And then there will be nothing left for me but the open sea." Peter Carter comes out of that sea after he has fallen to earth and thinks he is in heaven. It is a beautiful English morning on the coast. The tide has gone out, leaving streaks and pools of water across the sands. A hound sitting in the dunes spots Peter and howls at him. Peter calls him over. "Oh", he says, "I always hoped there would be dogs." There are dogs in Michael Powell's heaven.
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by Helen Sheehan
Michael Powell designed Black Narcissus to climax with a wordless, choreographed scene set to sound the music in which emotion, undeterred by dialogue, would take its rightful precedence over mere plot mechanics. That this operatic twist was set to vivify a sequence in which a nun, gone made with desire and costumed in dress and makeup, tries to kill her sister superior, herself trying to cope with a severe resurgence of previously repressed sexual memories, only hints at the level of Powellian fantasy afoot. Set in the northern Himalayan district of India, Black Narcissus was shot - in effulgent Technicolor that won Jack Cardiff the Oscar for cinematography - entirely on sound stages at Pinewood Studios, with some exteriors in the garden of an Anglo-Indian retiree in Sussex. Which is to say, the movie represents that kind of make believe fun Powell always resorted to when he was at his most serious.
In 1947, Powell had just completed two postwar films, I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death. Although different in tone and approach, both films concerned individual tussles with fate by obstinate protagonists who just absolutely knew what their self-made destinies should be and were not about to let details like love or death stand in their way. Just as lightly ironic romance in the first had given way to the optimistic supernatural caprice of the second, so now would Black Narcissus represent a third treatment of the theme - a ripe and brooding drama that would, paradoxically, end up confirming its heroine's determinedly endured, but haphazardly chosen, vocation.
While others about them were using Freud to make contemporary explications of fairy tales, Powell and Emeric Pressburger took the opposite track. The pair was not lured into the glib semantical sleights-of-hand that saw dragons as sublimated sexual desire; on the contrary they preferred to discover the dragon hiding behind the desire. Repression and thwarted ambition were the things of everyday life, but the symbols or fetishes that brought them out into the open, even if cheap or ersatz, were fine material for dramas of self-discovery. Thus, the pair's unconsummated flirtations with kitsch were hardly failures of taste, but self-conscious depictions of the reality that lurked imaginatively beneath analysis.
No greater measure of that creative chuckling can be found than the title Black Narcissus. This refers not to the darkening self-absorption of nuns perched on the brink of catharsis, but to the cheap cologne the local Indian prince orders from the London Army and Navy stores. As played by Sabu, the prince is a sprightly hedonist who wants to exercise his mind with the same feline sensuality as he does the rest of his burgeoning adulthood. The prince's late father had donated a former mountain top harem, the House of Women, to a five-member team from an order of missionary sisters; their leader, Sister Clodagh, played by an imperious Deborah Kerr, has renamed the place the House of Saint Faith.
The rational schemes of the sisters - and they are a rational order, dedicated to spreading health and education, and requiring an annual renewal of vows for continued service - cannot be sustained in the face of local custom. The old general who invited the nuns at first pays the population to avail themselves of the sister's facilities. However, the local white manager, a moody, hard-driving sensualist named Dean (David Farrar), cautions the sister never to intervene in a hopeless medical case, as the local superstitions and vengefulness will undoubtedly lead to a deadly payback. Of course, one of the sisters, a soft-hearted soul undeterred by rationality, cannot let a deathly-ill baby leave the dispensary without some sort of palliative, and when the baby inevitably dies, the rapid disappearance of students and patients, and the sound of drums in the village, portend a night of blood revenge.
Revenge does come, but not by way of the villagers. The sisters have fallen under the influence of the local atmosphere - whether the human sort, like the mute wiseman who meditates all day just inside the boundary of their land, or the climate and the clear, cold air that heightens the crystalline brilliance of the forested mountains. The nuns' practicality cannot cope with the resurgence of interior rebirth provoked by the change in weather. They begin to neglect their mission in answer to deeper, louder calls. Even ageing Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the gardener, has replaced her vegetables with rows of blossoming flowers.
Yet Powell-Pressburger refuse to paint such an aesthetic detour as mere neglect. The scene in which a reproving Sister Clodagh discovers the floral substitution starts with her sewing a small tapestry of St. Francis of Assisi. It is a typical Powel shot, an undramatic pan up and over, that starts with a simple fact, like Clodagh's dedication to the saint who talked to animals, and concludes with the increasingly uncomfortable complexity, like Clodagh's discomfited realization that someone else is actually working out that saintly dedication on a more instinctive level.
Clodagh herself is a victim of unrequited love, which the films recounts in lovely seasonal flashbacks. The only scenes in which the earth does not play a major role are the early ones in the sisters' closeted home convent when Clodagh receives her marching orders. Otherwise, the provocative winds of St. Faith House, that howl through the place day and night, billowing the sisters' recalcitrant habits, are matched by the sunny warmth of Clodagh's memories, tied inextricably to their settings, whether of a summer's fishing day or the chill of Christmas Eve. This earthy past if fixed in Clodagh's mind with a tinge of happiness, even though their summation was her rejection by a careless lover. Clearly, the memory of those days, when she strode headlong through a landscape where even the snow was burnished by human warmth, keeps her sensuous, instinctive, and even mystical side alive for her. In these flashbacks, Powell elevates the tawny tresses of Kerr's unbound hair to the status of a moral principle.
When vengeance does stalk the nunnery, it comes for Sister Clodagh and in the person of mad Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, in a continuous state of barely subdued hysteria that is close to the film's best performance). Ruth's sensual side dwells not in her past or in her garden, but in a ravenous hunger to possess Dean, and her jealously over an imagined rivalry with Clodagh for the bare chested plantation manager. Taking advantage of her yearly renewal date to leave the order, Ruth dons a dress and, in one of the most depraved scenes in a personal cinema chock full of them, tauntingly smears her pursed mouth with lipstick as a horrified Clodagh watches.
After Ruth's advances are abruptly rejected by a cranky Dean - who clearly has had it with the screwballs on the hill - she returns to obliterate her rival once and for all. This occasions the extended stalk-and-hunt scene that Powell directed with stopwatch and score in hand. The half-images that compose this sequence are almost a coda of the film, the shadowy presences and quick turns recapitulating the unseen ghosts of the long-vanished harem.
The final confrontation between Ruth and Clodagh takes place at the convent's bell, a pagan relic used for summoning to prayer, and planted right on the edge of the steep and deadly precipice. The sisters have come, in answer to the bell, to walk along the edge of the world - and to either pull back or throw themselves off. It is a clamor that all Powell heroines and heroes must answer at some point. No matter how close they come to falling off the edge, what grants them stature in Powell's eyes is that when they finally do come away, regardless of the humiliation undergone there, it is with a canter rather than a slink.
THE RED SHOES
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by Sheila Benson
"Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life". Those were Miss Jean Brodie's seductive words, but they apply just as snugly to The Red Shoes. Let The Red Shoes loose on any lover of the ballet - girl, boy, man, woman - and they, to, will belong to it for life.
It's hard, looking back from our ultra-realistic era of movies, to imagine the impact of that audacious, impressionistic film in 1948, but it increased roughly ten times if you were a ballet student, and I was. Remember, first of all, that ballet wasn't the darling of the arts that it has become, particularly ballet in America. It would come to be, soon enough, the seeds were already down, but The Red Shoes was most certainly the extraordinary advance guard. The movie would do for ballet what Oliver's Henry V and Hamlet did for Shakespeare.
First there was the film's color - heightened, almost surreal: the blood red of those infernal shoes, the Titian red of Moira Shearer's hair, the whiteness of her skin; the red horror of her last scene after her leap under the train in Monte Carlo.
There was the way color and costuming worked together subliminally. Consider that early, incomparable scene in which the well-born Victoria Page (Shearer) thinks the impresario Lermontov has summoned her to a seduction, and so dresses for the occasion in a Jacques Fath gown of airiest silk, with a tiny coronet on her flowing hair. She floats up the dozens of weed-choked steps to his villa, only to discover that it's an audition, with all the key company personnel present. Powell stages it like an ascension to stardom, and lets her retain her dignity by saying offhandedly that she was dressed for a dinner engagement when Lermontov's message came. Lovely.
There was the not-inconsiderable fact that Shearer was not only lovely but a not-half-bad dancer, certainly light years above anything we'd had in ballet movies so far. That included the French Ballerina, its tooth-rotting American remake The Unfinished Dance, and most especially Viola Essen in Spectre of the Rose - no matter how many times Lionel Stander's heart did "pirouettes in de ashcan".
Then there was the 14-minute Robert Helpmann-made ballet of "The Red Shoes," based on a slightly less bloody version of the Hans Christian Andersen story of a girl who is danced to death by a pair of enchanted shoes. Ballet-lovers might see its fleeting connections to "La Boutique Fantasque" or even "Giselle"; moviegoers would see it as ballet created especially for the camera, one that would be liberally quoted - to use the most polite term - in virtually every ballet movie from 1948 on.
The Powell-Pressburger film knew, too, about the dailiness of this "ethereal" art. Almost 30 years before The Turning Point, The Red Shoes made a quiet point of the fact that the morning after her triumph Vicky Page is quietly at class, working away.
Mostly, The Red Shoes seemed knowledgeable about the backstage family of the ballet. Not just its showy impresario Lermontov - in Powell's words, "based on Diaghilev, but more like Alex [Korda]" - but also the company's choreographer, scenic designer, composer, conductor, and principal dancers. Powell chose from the cream of dancers and actors to give a real feel to these people, respectively played by Leonide Massine, Albert Basserman, Marius Goring, Esmond Knight, Robert Helpmann, and Ludmilla Tcherina. And of curse Anton Walbrook as Lermontov. There isn't a Red Shoes fan worthy of the name who can't quote at least some of his final words in that stark white spotlight before a shocked audience: "I am sorry to tell you that Missss Page is unable to dannz tonight ... nor indeed any other night." Pure, deliberate over-the-top, done in an almost-scream that Powell compared to that of a trapped animal.
To a struggling dancer, The Red Shoes seemed to flow from the same source as ballet itself, with as much imagination, affection, and as much exquisite attention to detail.
Watch that first, tumultuous sequence as hordes of young students pour into "the gods," the upper reaches of Covent Garden, for the best seats at the Lermontov Ballet. In one stroke Powell and Pressburger draw us into their world. The students are from rival disciplines, dance and music, and in the three-quarters of an hour they have to kill before the curtain goes up, they bicker about which art is the more important. But the same passion energizes them both.
Yet all that Faustian melodrama, the girl caught between two men, Lermontov who demands her soul, her musician-husband Craster who wants her life - doesn't that seem, well, faintly ridiculous, in an age when dancers have husbands and even babies?
Let Michael Powell have the last word on his film's permanent hold on audiences: "I think the real reason why The Red Shoes was such as success," he wrote in his autobiography, "was that we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art."
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by Janice Findley
Last summer I spent a week reading Part One of Michael Powell's autobiography A Life in Movies - lazy afternoons immersed in a life "in movies" that in return gave tremendous life to cinema itself. Each night I would continue reading in bed, unsteadily clutching that huge tome, fighting sleep so that I could read one more page before slipping off. But when sleep finally came, Powell and Pressburger would waft through my dreamtime, seeming more real than they had on the page. In my dreams they were just Michael and Emeric. In one especially lucid instance the three of us sat in our respective sleeping bags engaged in what I believe to be a distinctively American juvenile activity known as the slumber party. We laughed, stayed up all night, and talked endlessly of film. This is definitely a favorite dream-memory of mine.
If I seem to be getting carried away, well I was carried away long ago by the films The Archers made - by their filmic romanticism, intrepid use of wild Technicolor, unforgettable and sometimes mythic movie characters, not to mention the spellbinding scenarios these characters inhabit. But the most riveting element for me is a quality found in many, if not all, of Powell's films. It's a quality many of his characters share: a quality of obsession.
An islander in The Edge of the World singlemindedly trying to hang on to his home against all odds; the young heroine of The Red Shoes consumed by her love for the dance; "Colonel Blimp" striving to retain the richness of tradition, order, and humanity in a changing world that is leaving his values behind - a character in a Powell film has drives, loves, convictions, compulsions that set him or her apart. Whether misguided or not, each of Powell's people has an integrity arising from the unswerving pursuit of dreams and obsessions.
After the dissolution of the Powell-Pressburger partnership, Powell created a much blacker, horrific variation on this theme in Peeping Tom (1960), the film be made with writer Leo Marks. Of all Powell's works, this one most fully embodies the portrayal of a character helplessly caught in a destructive obsession. It's doubtful whether any other director would have carried Marks' original story material as far. In Peeping Tom, Powell seems more than willing to pick up a large rock and not only peer unflinchingly at the creepy-crawly things lurking in the dark, but view them without judgement. British film journalists of the day apparently would have preferred him to have left the rock unturned: they crucified both him and the film, and essentially destroyed the rest of his career.
Truth to tell, Peeping Tom continues to shock decades later. Being a filmmaker myself (albeit on the fringe of the fringe), I became intrigued with it long before I'd ever seen it. When I did see it at last, I was shocked most of all that making such a great film had ruined the illustrious career of its creator, rather than enhancing it.
Perhaps one of the things that disturbed critics of the time was the very clear and direct manner in which Powell depicts Mark Lewis (Karl-Heinz Böhm), the title character. Powell creates a frightening and sad portrait of a quiet, methodical, psychotic killer who is obsessed with fear, and even more obsessed with the filming of fear - capturing its climax on the faces of his victims at the moment of death. In many ways, Peeping Tom is celebratedly similar to Hitchcock's Psycho (released the same year), except that Powell's film is so multidimensional in its depiction of a homicidal maniac. In Psycho we are left with the elaborately vague sense that Norman Bates' unhealthy relationship with his mother had something to do with his regrettably antisocial nature. He was a bad seed. This seems to be the common societal and movie-plot explanation of psychotic murderers: they just happen. Powell and Marks don't let us off the hook that easily. They give us a reason - and indirectly, a sense of responsibility. The real villain of Peeping Tom is revealed to be Mark's father (played by Powell himself). In fact, as soon as we are witness (via a home movie of Mark as a child) to the sadistic atrocities committed by Mark's parent to further his own scientific career, we are quick to empathize with Mark's sickness, even to like him. We wish he'd stop killing but we have decidedly mixed feelings about him being apprehended by the authorities. At the end of the film, when Mark is dead and the authorities have closed the case, we feel far from secure that all is resolved. The real villain, who has been dead for the duration of the film, suffers no retribution; even his reputation, as a brilliant scientist is intact. Only Mark's friend Helen (Anna Massey) - and the audience - knows better.
Psycho and Peeping Tom also share a fascination with voyeurism. Not only are their main characters voyeurs, they both draw us into their activities. Again, Peeping Tom takes this premise further. Powell implicates the audience as voyeurs, and also - in particular - himself as filmmaker. I believe most filmmakers can't help but identify, to an extent, with one of their number almost unwillingly propelled by obsession - be it strictly visual and formalist obsession, or one that explodes from neurotic drives that, like Mark's, inhere in emotional baggage carried from childhood. Powell had the courage to reveal his most personal obsessions and dreams - many of them luminously beautiful, a few darkly disturbing. I hope few of us are Mark Lewises. I shall always be grateful one of us was Michael Powell.