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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 (& written by) Chris Fujiwara
Original at

Blimp and collaboration
By Chris Fujiwara

.... Perhaps Leigh's sympathy for Gilbert and Sullivan's predicament is made possible by his own, unusually collaborative, filmmaking practice. (Leigh's films are developed through extensive improvisations, during which he and his actors discover the characters, their relationships, and their world. To some extent, even Topsy Turvy was prepared in this way, although the historical record limited the leeway for improvisation.) A sustained body of work signed by two directors constitutes a no less impressive exception to the rule of the film director as demiurge, and the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who together wrote, produced, and directed 15 films during as many years, is all the more interesting since their films themselves focus on collaborative situations. These situations include artistic creation by a group (The Red Shoes), non-artistic group efforts (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus), and corporate decision-making (the heavenly tribunal in A Matter of Life and Death). But it's their 1943 masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that perhaps comes closest to capturing the spirit of their partnership.

The film's two central characters are British career officer Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and his best friend, the German officer Theo (Anton Walbrook). Powell and Pressburger put a lot of themselves into Theo and Candy. Theo is, for much of the film, an exile in England, as Pressburger was; in the memorable scene in which Theo pleads to immigration officials to be allowed to stay in England, Pressburger uses the character to express the refugee's ambivalent relationship to language: "In earlier years the most important principle of my life was: 'Never lie, always tell the truth.' ... I have not told a lie, but I also have not told the truth. A refugee soon learns that there's a big difference between the two." Candy, on the other hand, has the same eternal immaturity Powell, in his autobiography, ascribed to himself. Candy's brashness leads him to fight a duel with Theo, in which each leaves a "mark" on the other. These incisions, which unite them for life, suggest the mutual cutting Powell and Pressburger practiced on each other: Powell slashed scenes and lines of dialogue from Pressburger's scripts ("Do we really need that?") and Pressburger exacted his revenge in the cutting room over the footage Powell had shot. The symbol of their collective identity is, in fact, a puncture: their production company is called The Archers, and its legendary trademark shows an arrow hitting a bullseye.

The bullseye also suggests vision, and reminds us that collaborative creation is a kind of stereoscopy, aligning multiple viewpoints on a work or a theme. In Blimp, Candy's feminine ideal, encountered in three different incarnations (all played by Deborah Kerr), becomes the theme for the differing viewpoints of Candy and Theo. Theo gets the girl the first time; later, Candy marries her double. Candy's wife never meets Theo, but she knows him, in a way, better than he does (intuiting, in closeup, that Theo fails to share Candy's optimism about the post-World War I chances of defeated Germany), and she dies without her husband's ever seeming to know her.

When Candy shows Theo the portrait of his wife, it's as if Theo's look is needed to certify Candy's vision: Candy's experiences remain incomplete, unreal, until Theo sets the seal of his gaze on them. With his intuitive understanding, his quietness, and his closeness to femininity, Theo is closer to the women in the film than Candy, and he stays close to the sad, steady heart of the film, while Candy's life goes by in a blur of action, marked by the mounted animal heads that fill up the wall of his den. It's Theo, not Candy, who is able to express most movingly a love of England and affirm the necessity of fighting for it. But Powell occasionally puts a cynical spin on Pressburger's romanticism: told by the third Kerr that her name is Angela, Theo remarks: "Lovely name. It comes from 'angel,' doesn't it?" Powell added Angela's reply: "I think it stinks. My friends call me Johnny."

Powell and Pressburger completed each other, as Theo and Candy do: Pressburger needed a collaborator with Powell's willingness to experiment and his knowledge of English, and Powell needed "a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist." The force of Blimp comes from our awareness of the multiple sensibilities at work in it, whose mutual exteriority is preserved, not resolved, in the film's ever-deepening ambiguities ....

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