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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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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Submitted by Freddy

Peter Ustinov remembers OOOAIM

Extract from his autobiography "Dear Me"

The third was a really serious film called One of our Aircraft is Missing, directed by Michael Powell, and boasting some of the most distinguished of British actors, such as Godfrey Tearle and Eric Portman. I was selected, probably because of my un-English look, to play a Dutch priest. The fact that I look un-Dutch didn't seem to matter a great deal, especially in time of war. Much of the little I had to say was in Latin, a little less in Dutch, and there were a few words in English.

I had so often been warned by well-meaning elderly actors of the dangers of overacting, most especially on the screen, that I approached this important first serious venture into film acting with enormous circumspection. Britain had already supplied Hollywood with a whole battalion of elegant under-staters, immaculate actors of the Du Maurier school, who, as I have already intimated, were able to play anything from cuckolded husbands to dainty blackmailers, and from chiefs of Scotland Yard to masterminds of underworld gangs without their assumed characters in any way being allowed to affect their performances. One such paragon was the late Hugh Williams, at once heroic yet vulnerable, but at all events perfectly groomed and impeccably mannered. He watched me rehearse my Dutch priest with an acuity which made me singularly uncomfortable. Eventually he came up to me, and asked, with commendable politeness, 'Excuse me, young man, what exactly are you going to do in this scene?'

I struggled to find words to adequately express my devotion to this school of acting.

'I don't really know, Mr Williams,' I replied, and added, hopefully, 'I thought I'd do nothing.'

A trace of hardness entered his eyes and voice. 'Oh no you don't,' he said, 'I'm doing nothing.'

I reminded him of this incident many years later, and he laughed in merry disbelief. We had all changed with the times.

Still, that did not solve my problem then. Discovered in my evil act of poaching nothing, I had to find something to do. In desperation I clung to the one element which separated me from the others, and became almost unbearably Dutch, seeming to understand little that was said to me, yet attempting to exude a vocational glow of compassion which the lower orders of the priesthood are encouraged to wear as an integral part of the uniform. The film company had in addition engaged two technical advisers, both priests and both Dutch, who happened to be in temporary exile in London. Both of these fathers were no doubt excellent, as a couple of fine Swiss wrist-watches may be excellent, even if to consult them both may be unwise. Since the two fathers outshone me in radiance, it was quite a relief that they had not much time for each other, never being present on the set at the same moment. When one was there, the other was in the canteen, and vice versa. They also were in utter disagreement about whether I should wear a cross or not, although the conflict never came into the open, but was conducted in ferocious whispers with the director. The result of this painful schism was that every scene involving me was shot both ways, with cross and without. Thanks to them, I worked twice as many days as I had been engaged for, with the consequent economic advantage. Amen.

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