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 the set of articles in "Film Comment" magazine March-April 1995.
Written, Produced and Directed by
MICHAEL POWELL and EMERIC PRESSBURGER
But the true secret of Michael's and Emeric's collaboration is something which cannot be explained. It was the uncanny empathy they each had for the other's ideas: 'He knows what I am going to say even before I say it - maybe even before I have thought it - and that is very rare,' said Emeric. 'You are lucky if you meet someone like that once in your life.' It is impossible to say who contributed what to the films which they made together because, quite simply, they inspired each other. '...There was an inner response,' said Emeric, using a typical metaphor, 'like a violin that would respond to an outside sound if it is tuned in a similar way ....'
- Kevin Macdonald, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter
We saw their films - those of us born around the time The Archers set up their first targets - not in movie houses but on the livingroom TV, a decade or so after they had been made. And that meant we didn't even see them in the Technicolor that, later, we would come to feel had almost been invented for them, even if you had a color set, or knew somebody with one, it didn't matter because local stations weren't colorcasting in those days. We knew the films had been made in color, though, because it said so in the credits: "Colour In Technicolor."
Colour? Were these English movies? They didn't seem like English movies. English movies were dreary and dull and gray - everybody who had a TV knew that. But these movies were weird, original, uncategorizable, and somehow exotic in ways that even Hollywood - where exotica was a stock-in-trade never came near. This was true even when the subject was as mundane as a fubsy English military man's life and unremarkable career, with most of what would have passed for highlights left offscreen, lost in the decades-wide lacunae between chapters. What kind of storytelling was that? As fascinating kind; haunting and endearing, like gentle laughter in another room.
But really, the fascination set in with the credits, especially "Written, Produced, and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger." Who were these guys, the Cooper and Schoedsack of the Empire? (For of course we didn't know, then, that the top-of-the-world landscape of Black Narcissus, say, wasn't in the Himalayas, was nothing, in point of fact, but a shared hallucination.) Who were they to compel Colour by Technicolor, in England and in the Forties, yet? And how did they come by such esoteric information about the border between life and death, in a movie that we met as Stairway to Heaven: "One is starved for Technicolor up there!" Down here, too, mon ami.
We caught up with the Technicolor eventually, and with Powell and Pressburger. And we treasured them the more because (another lacuna, this one in film criticism) they became the Last Auteurs. Happily, both gentlemen - who rode so high in the Forties, increasingly lost clout and parted professional company in the Fifties, and all but dropped off the map in the Sixties - lived to enjoy several resurrections. And now another is about to get underway, with a wonderful biography of Emeric by his grandson, Kevin Macdonald, already out from Faber & Faber; Million-Dollar Movie, Volume Two of Michael's A Life in Movies, at last about to see US publication, in April, from Random House; and a touring, 14-film retrospective of all the major P&Ps (the centrepiece is the restored A Matter of Life and Death) and a rara avis or two (Oh ...Rosalinda!) set to launch from New York's Film Forum, March 17-April 21. And oh yes, The Red Shoes, the team's most popular work, should glow on a new, extras-laden Criterion Collection laserdisc, due about the same time as this issue.
Film Comment saluted Michael Powell and seven of his (six of his and Mr Pressburger's) best films in Mach-April 1990. Four more are showcased in the following pages. And for key illustrations to complete that showcase, we are indebted to the generosity of Thelma Schoonmaker Powell and Martin Scorsese.
(Richard T. Jameson, Editor)
Battle of the River Plate
By Richard Coombs
What is it about Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? How did they come by the remarkable trick of being the most frequently "discovered" of British filmmakers? The constant making and remaking of their reputation is not their doing, of course. But they seem to have contrived, like the genie in the lamp in The Thief of Bagdad - worked on by Powell without Pressburger - to hide themselves away until, every few years, someone comes along, rubs the lamp, and hey presto!, they're rediscovered all over again.
It's a phenomenon unique to the country where their films were made. Every issue of a new print or season of their films is greeted with more than just enthusiasm. There's a strange simulation of surprise, the pretence that they've not been here before, that we've never truly seen them before. At least, it seems to be a regular event with the British film press. The latest Powell-Pressburger season, fourteen new prints soon to be sent round the U.S. in a travelling repertory, was unveiled at London's Barbican Centre in September 1994. The film editor of the capital's best-known listings magazine welcomed it with this confession: "When I first came to live in London in the mid Seventies, I hadn't heard of Michael Powell, let along Emeric Pressburger!" Could this be true? Are English critics that forgetful, or is there some hole, destined never to be filled, in their consciousness of their own cinema?
It would be easy to put this sort of thing down to cynical journalism, to the weary repetition of an In Praise of Neglected Filmmakers piece without even bothering to update it. But something more is involved here, something like a self-willed amnesia, a need to remain in a state of innocence and ignorance, with a constant renewal of hope and expectation, about these two filmmakers. They shimmer in the consciousness of many English critics like a dream of another, better cinema, a national cinema to look up to.
Some rescuing has been necessary. They have suffered neglect and misunderstanding, even if they haven't been blotted out of the historical record by unsympathetic audiences or hostile critics. Their partnership began in 1938 and lasted substantially until the mid Fifties, with a late accentual birth in 1972 when they made a 55-minute children's film, The Boy Who Turned Yellow. In their heyday they were known for extravagant, playful, unclassifiable works like A Canterbury Tale ('44). A Matter of Life and Death ('46) and The Red Shoes ('48). Contemporary reviewers were often exasperated by their excessiveness and apparent lack of discipline, though it was exasperation with what were seen as shortcomings in obviously major talents.
Aesthetic impatience turned to moral outrage when Powell, on his own, made Peeping Tom in 1960. Reviewers' disgust at this tale of a camera buff who is also a sadistic sex murderer did threaten to end his career. But Peeping Tom shortly became a cause célèbre with a new generation of critics: to the everlasting glory of his name, if not the immediate benefit of his working life, Powell had made one of the first films to tackle the dangerous sport of moviemaking itself, at a time when notions of "taste" in cinema were about to take some stretching anyway. A few months later, reviewers also had Psycho to gag on.
In the sixties, Pressburger turned himself into a novelist, but Powell actually had quite a varied and interesting career in an industry not known for generosity towards it s senior practitioners. For a while after the Peeping Tom furor, he became a television director (including an episode of the U.S. series "The Defenders"), before making two films in Australia in the late Sixties. There were two Powell-Pressburger retrospectives at London's National Film Theatre in the Seventies, while Powell himself was installed as guiding light/consultant to the Movie Brats. His cinema of romantic excess appealed to Martin Scorsese, and his technocratic, special-effects whiz-bangery to Francis Coppola.
Many movie careers, it has to be said, have suffered worse turbulence, neglect, or even eclipse. Revivals - much rarer - of, say, British Hitchcock or David Lean don't have the same sense of a heroic cause, a perpetual ride to the rescue, about them (though the latter is arguably more in need of it than P&P). No, the Powell and Pressburger Rescue Mission has become an event in itself, and by now probably has as much significance in British cinema as the films they made.
What are the qualities that made them so endlessly discoverable? One negative reason is that there may not be many other British filmmakers who are that tempting to discover even for the first time. But behind this is the tantalising ideal quality of Powell and Pressburger - the promise they hold out of a grander, more expressive, more sublime cinema, one that carelessly expands beyond the habits of realism that circumscribe national consciousness, and particularly thinking about movies. There may be something about their film making that is so quintessentially of the cinema, and so distinctly un-English, that it is hard to pin them down in an English context. It's difficult to make their reputation stick - which is why we have to keep restating it - and even to define exactly what they did.
The Rescue Mission has created its own explanation of Powell and Pressburger which has inevitably become rather cut and dried, and unsatisfying. It's their subversive quality, we're often told, that makes their films valuable; it's why they were put down in their day and why they've so often needed rescuing. Powell and Pressburger were romantic visionaries who worked in genres (exotic melodrama like Black Narcissus) that didn't go down well with middlebrow critics, and whose discursive, heightened, at times expressionist storytelling style also didn't suit such tastes. But "subversive" is a loaded term, and can be taken too glibly to mean that Powell and Pressburger are some uncomplicated progressive force, in cinema and politics, who just weren't appreciated by their blinkered contemporaries.
They were fascinated by English history and literature, by mystical beliefs, traditional values, and strong caste systems - whether of the Himalayas or the British military. The political framework of even their most outlandish fantasies was inevitably conservative, sometimes in ways that would make a modern Conservative blush. What made this so strange on screen, strangely liberating if not liberal, was that it was the product of two very different perspectives: the native-born Powell and the émigré Hungarian Jew Pressburger. Their stories often have an English dottiness - the business of the "glueman" in A Canterbury Tale - or a boys'-adventure silliness when it comes to war, touched by an element of European surrealism.
The critics of their day weren't always wrong when they complained that Powell and Pressburger's films could be technically brilliant, full of special-effects, razzle-dazzle, and at the same time unfocused and messily told. When they attempted to adapt one of the dotty storylines, and the boys' adventure values, to an epic about national character and the nation at war in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ('43), the result was the most comprehensive mess they ever made. Colonel Blimp has lately been "rediscovered" as a Powell-Pressburger masterpiece, and is certainly seductive in its sweep and playfulness, the modernity of its storytelling, and its tackling of the moral and spiritual values of a nation in a way no modern film would dare. But the sentimental, 19th century view of soldiering offered as a way of understanding what happened in two 20th century world wars is dismaying verging on insulting.
If there is a trick to Powell and Pressburger, it's this strange double timewarp in which they worked. The mysteriousness, the seductiveness, the provocative quality of their films - the reason why we think we've never quite discovered them - may be that they're receding from us as fast as they've moved ahead. In their idiosyncratic devices for diving through a story, they were certainly ahead of their time. It's just that we're not bothered now by their discursiveness, by odd mixtures of realism, romanticism, and fantasy. On the other hand, some of their attitudes and heroic poses are as old-fashioned as silent cinema. On the way, it's on wonder that they anticipated the modern taste for melodrama, and even, in their Celtic mood (I Know Where I'm Going!), the politically correct treatment of other cultures and their mythology.
Is there anything left to be discovered? Well, consider The Battle of the River Plate (U.S.: Pursuit of the Graf Spee, '56), almost the last film they made together under the Archers banner. It's an entirely characteristic subject - about an early victory in World War II for Britain's Senior Service, her Navy - but it's never been elected to the P&P cannon; in fact, it's hardly ever mentioned. The problem, perhaps, is that it's too much Powell and Pressburger. This is naked Powell and Pressburger: an awkward, unsatisfying, intriguing thing that reveals very clearly what they could and couldn't do, and yet even in its weaknesses opens up odd avenues to the cinematic future.
Like A Canterbury Tale, it's a wartime saga that combines the ineffable, the documentary, and the stiff-upper-lip heroic, within a style discursive enough to contain all its narrative voices. It recounts the brief career of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, which in the first months of World War II roamed the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, sinking British merchants ships. In December 1939, it is surprised and attacked by three British cruisers, Ajax, Exeter, and Achilles, and forced to take shelter in the port of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. Given a deadline to carry out emergency repairs and leave, and with his three pursuers waiting at sea, the Graf Spee's Captain Langsdorff decides to scuttle his own ship. It expires in a fireball described by a watching diplomat as a "twilight of the gods."
Unlike A Canterbury Tale, however, The Battle of the River Plate is not addressed to a nation at war; its heroic, inspirational qualities have become conventions of that least inspirational genre, the Fifties British war film. This is one reason why it is politely passed over: actors like Anthony Quayle and John Gregson, jaws jutting on the bridges of warships (their cousin, Kenneth More, does his bit a few years later in another successful sea hunt, Sink the Bismarck!), don't appeal to the devotees of romantic-mystical-transcendental Powell and Pressburger. And they undoubtedly make stiff, conventional work of the battle scenes here: smoke-blackened sailors toughing it out on burning decks, or Quayle glowering after his prey with the occasional curse, "Take that, you beast!"
But, discursive slice of history that it is, The Battle of the River Plate doesn't begin in this mode, nor does it end there. One of its little oddities, in fact, is that the self-destruction of the Graf Spee leaves the war film without a climax. There's a strange sense of emptiness, of frustration, about the final shots of the three British ships resuming their watch at sea. Is Quayle more relieved or disappointed when he announces, after the enemy's vanishing act, that "many a life has been spared today"?
The war film is dissolved, anyway, from the moment the Graf Spee arrives in Montevideo. It's dissolved in a Mardi Gras-style montage of the city's nightlife - the frenzies of a Latin nightclub owner (a cameo from Christopher Lee) - and the playing-off of the machinations of the various diplomats, the brash intervention of an American newscaster, the canny evenhandedness of the Uruguayan premier (are his protestations about little Uruguay - "Every time we have been threatened, my whole country has taken a step forward" - meant to remind us of Britain?) There's more fun here, in the play of national stereotypes and competing voices, than in the ponderous allegory of A Matter of Life and Death. But if this is a frustrated war film, and a bit of a cut-up, a cross-sectioned allegory-cum-comedy, then where it its center? What is it really about?
The answer is that it is, or should be, about Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch) and the Graf Spee - a fittingly dark romantic subject for Powell and Pressburger. Their partnership began, after all, with The Spy in Black ('39) made on the eve of World War II, with Conrad Veidt as a heroic German spy penetrating Britain's defences in the previous war. And The Battle of the River Plate begins, in quasi-documentary mode, with Langsdorff explaining to a captured British captain how he maintains himself at sea for months on end, how he plots his "kills," and how he keeps switching disguises (the Graf Spee is then being dressed as an American cruiser).
But the film never gets any closer to Langsdorff, either: the psychological portrait that seems to be promised is never delivered. Partly he falls victim to Powell and Pressburger's schoolboy soldiering cliché's that would embarrass Kipling. As a captain, he never does more than puff on a big cigar and move wooden blocks, representing his victims, round his charts. And in Montevideo he disappears along with everything else, his motives for scuttling his ship never hinted at. In his place, the Graf Spee, as all eyes turn on it, acquires a life force of its own, truly a mysterious and powerful beast - what will it do? where will it go? - a White Whale in wartime gray.
At which point, the hesitations and insufficiencies of The Battle of the River Plate, its indecisiveness about its true subject, begin to look like something else. It becomes a modern narrative with a hole in its center - a lease about the teasing business of cinema. The Graf Spee is not just a beast. "I'm like a pretty girl. I change my frock, I change my hat," says Langsdorff, about disguising his ship to fool the enemy but also to "keep your navy interested." This is the pocket battleship as sex object, as screen goddess. And is Peter Finch, with his leather jacket and his conspicuous binoculars, such a romantic blank because he really is no one, Captain Nemo, a character whose place is behind the action rather than in it, our master of ceremonies?
Could a Fifties British war film be as self-conscious, as tauntingly self-reflexive, as this would suggest? It's interesting to consider that Powell was only a couple of films away from Peeping Tom, and that something cumulative might be working its way to the surface here, some admission that all the romantic obsessives, all the exotic spectacles, of his lifetime in cinema are just forms of the romantic obsession of cinema. They can be summed up seductively in a figure like Langsdorff (the spy/eye/I in black), just as they will be neurotically in the boy with a movie camera in Peeping Tom.
Arguably, no scene in Peeping Tom is as sexually charged, as convulsively self-reflexive, as the end of the Graf Spee. The sex object blows itself (herself?) up in an orgy of self-destruction as the populace of Montevideo looks on. A privileged few see it - as we do - through telescope or binoculars, and the American newscaster excitedly reports the event as "a staggering spectacle ... it's like a thriller that you can't put down."
The photographer-killer of Peeping Tom, to distract one of his subject-victims, tells her to "look at the sea." In an early defence of P&P and Peeping Tom, Raymond Durgnat turned this into a pun about the meaning of the film: "look at the see". Look, now, at The Battle of the River Plate. It has enough sea and see to fuel the next stage of the Powell-Pressburger rediscovery programme.
Richard Coomb's film commentary appears in The Guardian (Manchester).
Tales of Hoffmann
By Amy Greenfield
The only time my mother took me to he movies as a small child was to see a double bill: The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Afterward, I wanted to see The Red Shoes over and over, and so I also saw The Tales of Hoffmann repeatedly. All that stayed with me of the latter film was a feeling of chaos, darkness, mystery, in an unreal world I wished was real. And I remembered one specific image: a woman, with a man, somehow controlled by him, in the midst of a world of water and gauze, sling in a long open boat at night, along dark water that seemed to stretch on and on, until they rounded a curve and disappeared.
In 1989, when I was trying to finish my first feature film, Antigone, Rites of Passion, I saw Michael Powell on TV's South Bank Show say, "Art is worth dying for." Those words inspired me, and helped me to complete my film. Then I wrote a poem to him that started, "A great filmmaker says: Art Is Worth Dying For," and sent it to him via Professor Bill Everson. A few weeks later I received a letter from Michael on the Archers stationery thanking me for the poem and saying that he would be most pleased to see my "Classical film." So I had the great privilege of screening Antigone for Michael. I dared to tell him (though my memory was so vague) that I thought The Tales of Hoffmann is as important for dance on film as The Red Shoes. He replied, "You must mean the Dragonfly Dance."
Finally in 1991, with Hoffmann out on video, I could see it as an adult. I found not only Moira Shearer dancing the Dragonfly Dance, but also that I was compelled to see the film over and over - at first looking at it, then into it, each time seeing it differently, drawn deeper and deeper into its mysterious depths. I was mesmerized by a world of enchantment where marionettes become dancers, a pimp is a magician with the power to turn was dandled into jewels, and a prostitute has the power to erase a man's reflection, in which, by the trompe-l'oeil of an overhead angle, a rug painted like a staircase is an endless staircase. Powell sets up a controlled world within the film frame and then moves outside it to find another world of unknown expectations, behind what we thought we were seeing. The screen is turned into a magical, irrational visual feast that moves according to its own laws.
I know see The Tales of Hoffmann as an elaborate palimpsest, meaning encased in or layered over meaning, the deepest of them "erased". Powell, in his desire to bring all the arts together into a new cinematic whole (what he called "the composed film") and at the same time be free of the laws of realistic narrative sound cinema - free to reinvent cinema at its pre-Griffith magical roots - created a film that operates according to laws of cinematic layering. Its surface and depths are indistinguishable.
On first viewing, we respond mainly to the level of the cinematic opera - and Hoffmann was the first cinematic opera. Yet while on one level "the music is the master" (Powell, Million-Dollar Movie), on another, Offenbach's music is like the wax that Helpmann's pimp/magician Dapertutto turns into diamonds, or the gauze curtains of Hein Heckroth's sets: a malleable and transparent medium, the means for resurrecting the lost magic of cinema at its origins in the 19th century - when Offenbach composed the opera. Powell transforms the opera's libretto into cinema through a language of dance, what Martin Scorsese on the Criterion laserdisc of Hoffmann calls "dance as narrative," so that character is defined not by dialogue but through a sweeping choreography of gesture and dance steps in a fluid continuity within the frame.
When Hoffmann puts on the inventor Copellius's magic glasses, their magical transformation of the world around him contains the entire visual theme of the film's first act. Through the glasses, reality becomes illusion and all manner of objects come alive, culminating with the doll Olympia herself. Copellius's ability to hook the idealistic and innocent Hoffmann into believing these illusions suggests late-19th century audiences' first experiences of magic lanterns and then cinema, and Powell calls Copellius a "maker of magical shows." Later, Giulietta's stealing of Hoffmann's reflection/soul through witchcraft evokes the fear among primitive tribes of the soul-stealing powers of photography. An at the climax of the Antonia (Act III) section, the layering of sets and optics that transforms a simple domestic scene into an inner world of ecstatic hell resembles the magic-lantern layering of one slide upon another to transform realistic daytime landscapes into magical nighttime ones. The allusions to silent cinema in Hoffmann - Powell's own silent films, German Expressionism, Disney, Méliès - suggest Powell was investigating the sources of his own creative urges.
But I believe that the enduring power of the film lies in the fact that within the seduction of this Technicolor magic show and febrile dance narrative are secrets of the heart, both mythic and personal to Powell. And I believe that the clue to the most "erased" and personal meaning is found in Million-Dollar Movie. Powell talks of a series of images intended to come right before the last shot of The Tales of Hoffmann, but which was, cinematically speaking, "erased." Actress Pamela Brown, as Nicklaus, Hoffmann's faithful-male-companion (always sung by a woman in the opera), was to suddenly appear before the drunken Hoffmann after he had lost all his earthly loves, revealed as a woman naked from the waist up, her body painted with gold leaf: "My idea had been to turn the faithful Nicklaus into a golden Muse, who had accompanied him on all his adventures, without Hoffmann ever guessing who she was.... It was to be an apotheosis of Nicklaus and to explain his/her presence." The footage was shot, but Pressburger didn't like the idea and Korda felt the film was too long, and these final shots never made it into the film.
The transformation of Nicklaus and the revelation of Brown's body as art, a sensual yet otherworldly revelation of the power of art to transcend loss and death, is central to the meaning of the film. (The image is presaged in the film's first shot, a nighttime pan across city rooftops that passes a spire in the conspicuous form of a gold-painted statue of a woman). The power of the film for me is found not in Hoffmann's story but between the four Helpmann personas and the women. In each tale Powell reenacts what Jung calls "the dark man" or "the psychic predator," a figure who brings a woman to life, to own or control her, allowing her to put into power her expression, only to possess or destroy her. The theme starts artfully and playfully in the prologue, where dancer-actor Robert Helpmann (looking like a character from a German Expressionist silent film) watches his Red Shoes co-star Moira Shearer dance as if possessed, a shivering dance of triumphant ecstasy at the moment of consummation: The Dragonfly Dance. The film cuts to a tavern, and Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) begins singing. We shift from the choreographic intensity of silent film to an opera set in the 19th century. Hoffmann recalls the three loves of his life: Olympia, a life-sized doll; Giulietta, a Venetian prostitute; and Antonia, a singer. Each story becomes an act of the film - and as the Helpmann figure becomes more powerful in each tale, so the expression of the female becomes more powerfully mythic.
Act I opens with Coppelius's familiar, Spalanzano (dancer-actor Leonid Massine), entering with Olympia (Shearer) slung over his shoulder. The entrance is startling. The joyful pomp of the music, the light quicksilver of the choreography, and the frothy-happy glowing yellow of the production design are subtly undermined by the fact that Shearer is carried on, rigid, passive, immobile. In the opera, Olympia is a singing, not dancing, doll. Powell's desire to dramatise the story choreographically and to star Shearer osentsibly led to this innovation. But in doing so, he also activates a drama centred upon the female body, Powell's Olympia is animated by Coppelius to dance for Hoffmann, but has to be wound up to continue. Repeatedly the immobilised female form erupts into hyperactive performance only to collapse. During this scene we go from identifying with the character (doll) to participating in Shearer's aliveness as dancer (human). Powell shoots her always in longshot, that is, whole, so when she is suddenly torn limb from limb and decapitated by Coppelius, the effect is shocking. Except that Powell doesn't let her "die." One exquisite leg keeps moving, and as her eyes blink shut a dissolve from the broken spring popping from her head to an image of water cinematically brings her alive again - as Giulietta, the Venetian prostitute of Act II.
Giulietta, a dark, sensuous witch, is hypnotised by her pimp, Dapertutto (Helpmann again), who becomes Protean in power, transformed into a black magician. He brings forth her own witchlike powers in order to steal Hoffmann's reflection. After a fatal duel between Hoffmann and Schlemil (Massine again) for the key to Giulietta's chambers, Giulietta undergoes a startling transformation - sudden, inexplicable, not within the ostensible narrative of the opera, but too visually specific and powerful to be a whim.
We see her alone in longshot, the black leotards she has worn throughout suddenly replaced by a white sari. Cut to: an extended, travelling closeup of her bare feet with bejewelled toes. She steps over a sculpted, rocklike mass - the frozen bodies of the men she has enchanted. Powell has transformed Giulietta into the Indian goddess of dance and destruction, Kali, whose destructive powers lead to further creation. Accordingly, the final closeup of Giulietta's face superimposed over water is both a deathlike and a sensually life-giving image. She joins Dapertutto in a gondola: he a figure of death, she his bride (her white sari suggests a wedding gown). The canal becomes the river Styx leading to Hades - the unknown darkness just outside the film frame. (Now I realize that my childhood memory is a condensation of all the shots of Dapertutto and Giulietta riding in the gondola).
Hoffmann goes to Giulietta's room, finds her gone, and in a haunting closeup smashes the mirror with her key. By that act he regains his stolen reflection - his soul - and returns to the land of the living. At that moment Powell reveals behind him... Pamela Brown/Nicklaus, her eyes luminous, almost dominating the shot. Her face blurs, then disappears behind Hoffmann, merging with him, as if she were the soul he has regained.
Act III, the Antonia section, is set on a Greek island and begins in the house of Antonia's father with the romance between Hoffmann and the singer, Antonia. Domestic harmony reigns. Except that Antonia is cursed: if she exercises her greatness, if she sings, she will die.
Helpmann, this time as Dr. Miracle, "visits" Antonia in her bedroom. She lies on her bed awake, but as if having a nightmare. The curtain above her parts to reveal Dr. Miracle standing over her. She runs in terror out of the door on the right of the screen, but then the camera swish-pans left and ... there she is, running back into a door on the left part of the screen - a trick shot conveying that she is controlled by supernatural forces. This sequence most clearly embodies Jung's dark-predator dream, in which the female dreamer awakens in her dream to find a dangerous man touching her. As Clarissa Pikola Estes says in her book on fairy tale, myth, and women, Women Who Run With the Wolves, "If she doesn't break away, the dark man becomes her keeper, and she his slave. If she does break away, he pursues her relentlessly." But what if the predator is Death himself? When Dr. Miracle reappears, he is dressed as the Grim Reaper.
What follows is Powell's ultimate Magic Lantern show, both ecstatic and horrific, heavenly and hellish. In a twisted yet beautiful version of the Demeter-Persephone myth, Dr. Miracle creates the illusion of bringing Antonia's dead mother back to life, luring her from the house into a visionary world of shifting, layered images that represents both Antonia's liberation and inner journey to ecstatic ruin. The house drops away to become a garden with stone steps, which in turns drops away to become an endless staircase in boundless space, then the stairs turn into an endless forest.
Dr. Miracle - or her own unconscious desire - takes her where she in her soul wants to go: onto a stage as a great signer. Miracle, a hollow-cheeked gothic horror god of Hades, wields the violin, his demonic weapon, as Antonia spins, arms up, singing gloriously, surrounded by light, by a cheering audience, literally conducted to her final notes, and to death. Hoffmann returns to find her body. Cut to: closeup of Pamela Brown/Nicklaus, the sad witness who sees the reality but can do nothing. When Powell speaks of this moment in his autobiography, he says, "I have waited until now to speak of Pamela Brown."
Pamela Brown was a great love of Powell's life in the Forties and Fifties until her early death. Since 16 she had suffered from arthritis, and was dying because she took large doses of dangerous drugs to alleviate the constant pain. The condition all but immobilised her, but although she had to exert increasingly heroic effort to do the simplest tasks, she became a major British actress. Powell writes in his autobiography of her importance to him: "Every artist has a witch, disembodied or very much bodied. And mine was Pamela Brown ... She was a cripple ... The demon sprang upon her and twisted her legs, her toes, and her fingers. For the rest of her short life, she had only two toes on her right foot to walk on ... She suffered agonies but she fought back ... at the height of her career ... every performance was a struggle with death and disaster ... Only her dresser knew how thin the line was between triumph and physical collapse." Contained in those words are the dynamics of Olympia's dance, the identity of Giulietta, and the apotheosis of Antonia's act of song at the point of death.
Allusions to Brown's situation and Powell's relationship with her are scattered throughout the film; Olympia must be wound up over and over in order to perform; Giulietta's feet are endowed with powers of destruction; the deliriously delusional world Dr. Miracle conjures around Antonia calls to mind the drugs that allowed Brown to act, Powell and Brown met on the Isle of Mull, "where the waves crashed up until it seemed that the little fisherman's cottage, built on the very edge of the tide, would dissolve and break up like a house of cards ..." Antonia's father's house with walls of curtains on the edge of the Greek island, which (in cinematic terms) dissolves echoes this.
Could Powell have done what all great artists do when making myth?: unite a deep and intolerable personal meaning with the healing power of aesthetic form, to compose it, endow it with universality? The power for Powell of the theme of a woman dying while performing her art to perfection lay not in some dated, male-centred iconography, but in the all too real tragedy and bravery he saw in Pamela Brown. And here, in contrast to The Red Shoes, the female creative spirit triumphs: as if in a miracle play the tragedy of the female body destroyed becomes the spectacle of the feminine spirit's transcendence of death.
The incredible pull of the cinematic surface down into the mythic and the personal is universalised at the end by circling back to a cinematic language that operates simultaneously as transparent surface and hidden depth, to the palimpsest and transcending the personal myth with cinema of such beauty that I am invariably moved to tears.
After Antonia's death, Powell recalls all three past loves, each dead over Helpmann's arm. Then, in a series of closeups, Helpmann peels off mask after mask, one for each character. In revealing his "real" identity underneath, he relinquishes the power built up through the taking on of multiple identities, and his de-masking releases the women from death. They are now seen alive, dancing simultaneously in different parts of the screen, joined by a fourth figure: Moira Shearer as a white ballerina. Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia dance into the ballerina's body, dissolving into it, subsumed in white. The white ballerina in 19th century ballet was a sylph, a woman/spirit who was beyond the bounds of death. Powell then divides the frame and "splits" the white ballerina into four parts and has her dance a pas de deux with her partner from four different angles simultaneously, against the limitless black screen. The music is a recap of the gorgeous Barcarole, the musical theme of the Venetian section.
While Helpmann's de-masking is a demonstration of cinema "black magic" - the ambiguities of lie and truth, illusion and reality, cinema's demonic power (a vision fulfilled in Peeping Tom) - the white ballerina sequence is the purest expression of the "white magic" of cinema, its power to transform matter into spirit (a key theme, surely, of the Tempest Powell dreamt of making).
And in the end, I like to think that the "erased" shots of Nicklaus/Pamela Brown as Golden Muse act as a "spirit break." The spirit break is a tiny part of the design left out of Navajo rugs, to make an empty place where the spirit can enter and bring dead matter alive as art. The Tales of Hoffmann is more alive to me than ever.
Amy Greenfield is a writer-director and pioneer of video-dance, currently working on an erotic/psychological thriller and music based feature. She wishes to thank Thelma Schoonmaker Powell for her generous insights, Cappa Productions, and Billings Publicity.
A Canterbury Tale
By Graham Fuller
In the pluperfect English summer of 1943, while the Allies were relieving Sicily, Thomas Colpeper, gentleman farmer and magistrate of the East Kent village of Chillingbourne, was assaulting young women in the blackout. On the nights he was assigned air-warden duty, Colpeper would conceal himself in the shadows of the ancient streets and dart out incognito to dump glue on the hair of Fee Baker, Gwlays Swinton, Dorothy Bird, Polly Finn, and others. The sticky stuff was hard to get out. It served Colpeper's puritanical purposes well: the girls became too scared to date the sex-hungry soldiers encamped outside Chillingbourne and were less likely to cheat on their husbands and boyfriends overseas. And with females scarce and nothing much to do until the pubs opened, some soldiers were tempted to attend Colpeper's lectures about the Old Pilgrims' Road that wended its way past Chillingbourne to Canterbury Cathedral.
Colpeper, Colpeper - the name blows hot and cold at the same time and makes you think of a medieval herbalist. Presumably descended from the courtier (Robert Donat in The Private Life of Henry VIII) who unwisely slept with his king's fifth wife, this glue-pouring terrorist was dreamed up by Emeric Pressburger for his and Michael Powell's 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, the Archers' follow-up to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ('43). He was played by Eric Portman, not a "man of Kent" like Powell but a 41-year-old Yorkshireman who made Colpeper a supercilious home-counties crusader championing England's national heritage.
Three young conscripts, the English sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price), the American sergeant Bob Johnson (Sgt. John Sweet), and the landgirl Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), spend the weekend in Chillingbourne trying to nail the glueman after his Friday-night attack on Alison. Their sleuthing is an excuse for a series of rural epiphanies; by the end of the film, Colpeper has emerged as a beneficent magus, an agent of divine blessings. In the majestic last movement - cut to Allan Gray's zigzagging medley of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a military marching tune, "Onward Christian Soldiers," and a choral refrain - the grieving Alison learns that her lover, an RAF pilot supposedly killed by enemy action, has been found alive in Gibraltar; Peter, a cinema organist in peacetime, fulfils his wish to play a cathedral organ before being shipped to the front; and Bob is given a packet of letters from the girlfriend he's suspected of forsaking him.
The blessings complete these modern pilgrims' education in the pantheistic mysticism of the English countryside, of which Colpeper is also the instrument. Even before they leave Chillingbourne, they have come to feel a contagious sense of well-being, as would Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) on the Isle of Mull in the next Archers film, I Know Where I'm Going! ('45). Rhythm has everything to do with this contagion, and it's worth examining how Powell and Pressburger ease A Canterbury Tale from perverse comedy-thriller into perverse Romantic pastoral.
The film begins, of course, with the Archers logo, an arrow thudding into a bull's-eye, and sustains the medievalism with its depiction of the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, during which the Wife of Bath shoves one of her fellow travellers off his horse and the Knight unleashes his falcon. There follows a clunky 600-year jump cut as the soaring bird turns into a fighter plane. Suddenly, the Knight has become an English "Tommy," armoured cars are rolling along the Pilgrims' Way, and a Canterbury-bound passenger train is speeding through the Kent fields on a sunny day. (The ape-tossed bone that metamorphoses into a spacecraft in Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey possibly has its origins in this sequence).
Day fades into night and the train disgorges Bob, Peter, and Alison at Chillingbourne Station, where stationmaster Thomas Duckett (tartly played by Charles Hawtrey, later of Carry On... fame) rebukes the American, who thinks he's alighting in Canterbury, for jumping off a moving train. In the confusion, the glueman attacks Alison and runs up the lane toward the town hall with Peter and Bob in pursuit. They lose him: Peter catches a bus to the army camp, and Bob and Alison burst into the blazing light of the townhall, where the local officials are flummoxed by the news of the latest "incident." Upstairs, Bob and Alison are granted audiences with Colpeper, whose guilt as the nocturnal predator is quickly revealed, but only to us. Put up for the night at an inn, Bob and Alison determine to catch the glueman.
Breathlessly, at a gallop, Powell and Pressburger have presented medieval pilgrims, the British homefront during the Second World War, and a veiled sexual assault on a woman - all in 24 minutes. Now the Archers rein the movie in, slowing it down to ambling pace, lulling their young pilgrims into a contemplative two days that drive the imperatives of the war out of their minds. Bob wakes in a four-poster once slept in by Elizabeth I; finds a kindred spirit in the Chillingbourne wheelwright, Jim Horton (Edward Rigby); then bums a ride in Alison's cart - she's been hired to work at a hop farm - to the hill beside the Pilgrims' Road, where they compare notes about their lost loves. That Saturday evening, Colpeper gives one of his lantern-slide lectures, which fascinates the three visitors more than they'd anticipated. Its magicianliness is nostalgic for cinema's primitive prehistory, as is Dr. Reeve's "camera obscura" in A Matter of Life and Death. Both come from Powell, investing Colpeper and Reeves with his own sense of himself as an ardent but somewhat remote showman.
The next day, Sunday, Bob delightedly witnesses a river-and-land battle between two friendly gangs of boys whose generals he enlists to help snare the glueman. Up on the hill again, "hearing" the lutesong and laughter of Chaucer's pilgrims and the jingle and clop of their horses, Alison stumbles upon Colpeper straining to catch the same vibrations. She sits with him, and you get the feeling that this cold misogynist has fallen a little in love with the lovely, plain-speaking landgirl; the biter bit. At the approach of Peter and Bob, they duck down in the grass and overhear the two soldiers discussing Colpeper's motives. The spell of the country idyll is broken; on Monday morning it's off to Canterbury, ten minutes by train, via Thomas Duckett's station and his caustic comments.
Setting aside Colpeper's unconscious motives for a moment, his evident culpability in A Canterbury Tale makes it a "whydunit" rather than a "whodunit." The movie is a High Tory lesson in cultural conservationism - Colpeper was elected by the villagers to protect the bend in the Pilgrims' Road - that extends beyond the earthquake of war. "Who cares about these things in wartime?" Peter remonstrates to Colpeper at the lecture. "Who cares about them in peacetime?" Colpeper rejoins. The war, you could say, is his blessing, his opportunity to remind the soldiers in his audience of the values that were being threatened by Hitler, and the Archers' opportunity to get the same message across to their audience.
Powell recognised that the kinky premise of the film could facilitate this. "Emeric thought up the glueman," he told me in 1986. "We had some rather important things we wanted to say in A Canterbury Tale, so when he proposed this almost sexual idea of a man pursuing girls in the blackout and dropping glue on them, I thought, "Oh, Christ, this is going to stop the staid British in their tracks." I thought I'd better not tell Emeric, because he might abandon the idea. To try and put over these very serious ideas about England and America and the values we were fighting for might have turned the film into a self-praising documentary, so instead of that I let the glueman ride. I said to myself, 'I think I can get away with it.' But I couldn't."
For all the twists and turns of its conundrum plot, A Canterbury Tale is rigorously structured through a complex pattern of correspondences, serendiplities, and visual and verbal rhymes that echo the rhythmical qualities of English country life and invite Britain's younger ally across the pond into the pageant. The kindly, folksy G.I. Bob (soulfully played by the USO actor Sweet) is a moviegoer more than an intellectual, and no convert to English telephones or tea drinking habits; but he is an avid recipient of the bits of Chillingbourne civic history and folklore dispensed to him by Duckett and the women who work at the inn where he's staying.
As well as bonding with the wheelwright in their conversation about the seasoning of timber, Bob befriends a fellow pipe-smoking soldier (Esmond Knight) at Colpeper's lecture, and confides in Alison. A year and a half after Pearl Harbor, he is Powell and Pressburger's full-fledged symbol of anti-isolationism, and his crowning moment comes when he stands rapt in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral and welds Britain and America together with the awestruck reflection, "And my dad built the first Baptist church in Oregon ..." As seen through Bob's eyes, the film is a repository of Englishness - not just in artifacts like the four-poster, the ducking stool in Colpeper's office, or the plaque outside the Colpeper Institute, but in his understanding of the timeless throb of that culture, which makes him reflect on its American counterpart.
Alison, a shopgirl in a London department store before the war, is visiting Chillingbourne for the second time. Three years before, she stayed with her archaeologist boyfriend Geoffrey in a caravan on the bend on the Pilgrims' Road and (as Powell says in A Life in Movies) lost her virginity to him there. Though spurned by Colpeper as an employee during their first meeting, she offers to donate to his institute's museum the Roman coins that Geoffrey had found in a dig. Colpeper discovers to his embarrassment that it is one of his female victims who understands his mission best.
Peter, abrasive and cynical, the least persuadable of the three pilgrims, grows to admire Colpeper, although he still intends to denounce him. An urban materialist, he has easily become friends with the spiritual country boy Bob, and they toss a ball at each other as they stroll along a sunlit street and share blackberries by the Old Pilgrims' Road. (Bob and Alison share cigarettes, as if they ere in a Howard Hawks movie). Peter subsequently finds a kindred spirit in the cathedral organist, whose great rival, it transpires, was the younger man's professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The coincidence may seem arbitrary, throwaway, but, like Reg Horton (George Merrit) telling Alison that his own father was a blacksmith, it is another example of a traditional art being passed from one generation to the next.
Archers scholar Ian Christie argued in an essay on Pressburger's problematic status in their oeuvre ("Alienation Effects," BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1984) that the writer knew fully "that the narrative of A Canterbury Tale should be subservient to image and incident, that it should produce the poetic juxtaposition on which the film depends for its true meaning." Accordingly, the skein of newly formed friendships, cross-references, and arcane parallels background the narrative thrust - the investigation of the glueman - and provide the basis of the film's hypnotic beat, echoed by Gray's rhapsodic orchestration with its repeated lyrical themes, and such recurring motifs as the sounds of Chaucer's pilgrims. Not the least of the correlatives to the ebb and flow of history evinced in the progress of the three contemporary pilgrims is the film itself, with all its cuts, dissolves, and ellipses. *
Powell and Pressburger often traded in illusionism: the characters in their films contrive to see what they want to see. This "Indian Rope Trick" (as it's called by Clive Candy in Blimp when he sees Miss Hunter reincarnated in the nurse, Barbara, his future wife) is reiterated by several sleights-of-camera here. Rhetorically scorning the idea that a halo should ever appear above his head, Peter is immediately crowned by a burst of sunlight as the Monday morning train to Canterbury exits from a tunnel: a harbinger of Colpeper's unearthly powers. A few minutes later, Peter asks the cathedral organist if he's the cathedral organist and is admonished with the words, "Do I look like the charwoman?" - only for that lady to appear on her knees with bucket and sponge beside Bob in the nave.
What is more, she (or her Scottish equivalent) fetches up anecdotally - a typical Powellian private joke - with a bar of music from A Canterbury Tale in the hotel where Joan lunches with Torquil in I Know Where I'm Going! The fluttering hymn sheet that leads Peter up the steps to the organ also "returns" in IKWIG as the list of directions Joan drops on the quayside, hindering her journey to the island where the wrong suitor awaits her. In both films, magic forces are at work, disturbing order, causing chaos, making "strange," but leading Powell and Pressburger's unwitting pilgrims to a transcendent mystical union with their environs.
Most potent of all are the sudden Puckish materialisations of Colpeper in his garden when Alison and Bob ride by, sitting up in the grass on the hill to surprise Alison, outside the Canterbury garage when she is weeping over her decaying caravan. "Puckish" is the operative word, for Colpeper is an adult version of the Puck who spins a series of adventures - of a Roman centurion, a Norman knight, a Renaissance artisan, and English villages of the past - for two Edwardian children, in Puck of Pook Hill, Powell's favourite book as a child. Set in Sussex, adjacent to Kent, Rudyard Kipling's 1906 novel initiates these children into taking their "place/As men and women with our race" through the acquisition of knowledge about England as an eternal, unchanging land with psychically deep-rooted traditions. Initiation is precisely what Colpeper is about, too, and in Alison's case the pouring of glue on her hair is a kind of baptism.
Powell was not satisfied with the film. This is him writing in the second volume of his autobiography, Million-Dollar Movie: "Why is it that legend is more potent that reality at stirring the emotions? Why do the songs and tales of our fathers and mothers touch our imagination more than our own personal experience as children? When I agreed to make A Canterbury Tale I expected that it would be a far more personal film than it turned out to be. I was working, creating a story in the country I was born in, the 'garden of England', a chalky country of bare downs and shallow valleys, of chestnut woods and little chuckling steams, of slowly turning water and windmills, and white-capped oasthouses with the bittersweet smell of hops drying in the kiln. All this I knew from childhood, yet somehow I failed to get it on the screen."
He was right in this respect. The edenic Kent he remembered was - thankfully for us - transfigured in A Canterbury Tale into a place less easily encapsulated into the bucolic calendar photograph he describes. The immediacy of making the movie in wartime and Powell's virtuosity as a metteur-en-scene cut through his nostalgia, enabling him to create something far more interesting. For all its pastoralism, A Canterbury Tale is a film on the edge of noir that never quite takes the plunge. Stylistically, it is a long flirtation with Expressionism: Alison silhouetted at the station as she stubs her cigarette out; Colpeper silhouetted by his projector's beam at the lecture; tightly lit closeups on the main characters' eyes; a deep focus shot of the village idiot (Esmond Knight again) standing in mist at the end of a lane, Erwin Hillier's lambent cinematography is a virtual shadowplay.
And coursing through the film is a weird sexual energy. "I'm still a maid," Prudence Honeywood, Alison's fortyish employer, confesses to her within an hour or two of their meeting. Her sister tells Bob a ribald joke about the bed he just slept in at the inn. Colpeper's Freudian attacks on the girls may have a cultural rationale, but it is also the work of a troubled man; whether or not it's the girls he desires or their would-be soldier escorts is never made clear. There is a homosexual implication in the fact that he lives with his mother, but his attraction to Alison is palpable. "Life is full of disappointments," he tells her in the Canterbury garage a moment before she learns her lover is alive. Straight or gay, pansexual or asexual, the glueman is the archetypally repressed Archers hero.
The same summer Colpeper was on the rampage, my father, a 14-year old school leaver in 1943, was working as an apprentice wheelwright, making spokes from oak, ash, and elm for a blacksmith in the rural village of Yeoford in Devonshire. "Everything has its season" he said, echoing Jim Horton in A Canterbury Tale, when I told him about this article. Just such a boy as my father might have been at that time can be seen in the wheelwright sequence, along with the real Horton brothers, Benjamin and Neville, whom Powell had known since childhood. I allude to this not out of sentiment, but to confirm Powell's point that our parents' tales affect us far more than our own childhood experiences. And as with family yarns, so it is with the long-woven tapestry of national culture. If it errs on the side of Anglocentrism (understandable during wartime), A Canterbury Tale beautifully celebrates the notion that England's mythic past is just a jump-cut back in time.
* The meaning spoken of by Ian Christie was lost in the shorter version of the film that Powell reluctantly edited for U.S. release in 1949. It included a freshly shot framing device in which Bob, reunited with his girl (Kim Hunter) on top of a skyscraper in Manhatten's Rockefeller Plaza, tells her about his Chillingbourne adventure in flashback. The battle between the two gangs of boys was cut and the movie's rhythmic scheme destroyed. So was the continuity: Hunter is a redhead, but Bob mentions to Alison that his girl is a blonde. The original version was restored by the National Film Archive in 1971. - G.F.
Graham Fuller is executive editor of Interview.
Ill Met By Moonlight
By Peter Richards
For a decade and a half, the partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger illuminated the cinema with an array of extraordinary films. But the massive reputation the team garnered during and immediately after World War II-The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes in just five years! - went into steep decline in the Fifties. There were no Archers films at all between The Tales of Hoffmann ('51) and Oh, Rosalinda! ('55), and both of those were disastrous failures, critically and financially. Perhaps to cover themselves in the ultraconservative British film industry, Powell and Pressburger finished their partnership with two conventional war adventure movies-rattling good yarns that, alas, were widely perceived as rattling just a bit too much.
The Battle of the River Plate ('56) was a box-office success and had a royal première, but it now looks like the corniest of the Archers movies. An account of Britain's first major naval victory of WWII, it does have the great virtue of showing actual ships manoeuvring about in an actual ocean instead of models in a tank - Powell's main pleasure in directing the movie, one imagines. But this is exasperatingly offset by far too many shots of actors on studio bridgehead sets being doused with water as they strike poses in front of a cyclorama. The local color Powell provides is a bit sticky, too, given that Uruguay, where the German battleship Graf Spee was forced to seek shelter before being tricked into self-destructing, was and still is a nation notorious for its concealment of Nazis. Peter Finch, as the captain of the Graf Spee, manages an impressive performance, but none of the other actors in a lively cast-Anthony Quayle, John Gregson, Patrick Macnee, Anthony Newley, Christopher Lee, John Schlesinger in a bit as a German sailor-has much chance to create a real person. The Germans are all decent fellows, really, while the characterisation of the British is entirely on the level of good-show-chaps caricature.
Powell seemed rather attached to this movie in later years, but had no love at all for the very last Archers film, Ill Met By Moonlight ('57). "I felt imprisoned by the facts," he was wont to complain; and there were problems with the script Pressburger provided. Ian Christie's book about Powell, Arrows of Desire, goes so far as to refuse to list the film as a collaboration at all, his filmography (reproduced, incomplete and inaccurate as it is, in Powell's memoirs) giving Powell's name alone as writer, producer, and director. Dissension between Powell and Pressburger coincided with antagonism from the Rank Organisation, which refused them money for color. Once the film was finished, so were the Archers.
After Ill Met By Moonlight, then, the deluge. It would be foolish to suggest that the film - miserably renamed Night Ambush for U.S. Release and cut by 11 minutes - is anywhere near the level of the team's masterworks. Even so, it's more interesting than legend suggests. The (true) story, set in occupied Crete in 1943, concerns the kidnapping of a German general (Marius Goring) by Cretan partisans led by a British officer, Patrick Leigh-Fermor (Dirk Bogarde). Film buffs will recall that the real Leigh-Fermor was one of the scriptwriters of John Huston's The Roots of Heaven (also the author of some bestselling travel books). Then again, the film seems to ask, who exactly is the "real" Patrick Leigh-Fermor-or the real anyone? Taking its title from a play concerned with dreams and disguises, magic and power, Ill Met By Moonlight is all about questions of identity.
Under the credits, we see Dirk Bogarde in uniform; then, unexpectedly, we see him in the flamboyant outfit of a Cretan hill-bandit. A title informs us that Major Leigh-Fermor was also known by the Greek code-name "Philidem." In other words, there are two of him (at least), and on one level the adventure the film is about to unfold reflects a conflict in his personality. Its a conflict shared, unknowingly, by his Nazi opposite number, the fierce, arrogant General Kreipe (an unlikely "proud Titania," but it's true that he "with a monster is in love"-the monster of Nazism). Kreipe's human side is so rigorously repressed by the demands of war and "glory" that he is genuinely unaware of it; ironically, this humanness, which constitutes the true manhood of this Teuton warrior, is revealed by a boy (equivalent to Shakespeare's Indian Prince?)-who, in turn, is the most grownup person in the movie.
If "Philidem" appears under the credits, caped and open-shirted, a romantic dream-figure out of an operetta or a storybook, he is first seen in the film proper as a coarser, more down-to-earth version of the same thing-an ordinary Cretan peasant in a shabby suit, waiting for a bus. When he makes contact with the Resistance, his personality fragments further. To some, he is the mystical Philidem, Pimpernel of the Hellenes and righter of wrongs. To others he is "Major Paddy," the happy-go-lucky Englishman of popular movie myth conducting war as if it were a branch of amateur theatricals, a gentleman adventurer relying on breeding to get him through and making fun of the whole business. To Bill Moss (David Oxley), the newly arrived junior office sent to assist him, he is the cool, fast-thinking professional soldier. And to himself? In his quietly passionate defence of Cretan life and culture, he seems someone else again: a scholar and aesthete outraged by the barbarism and folly of war, and by the moronic arrogance shown by his captive toward the Cretan people.
Whatever his persona, Leigh-Fermor is a chameleon who never seems to change very radically in himself. Perhaps because he has this quality of seeming all things to all men-and being those things-he remains unfazed by the monolithic might of the German military machine. Fluent in Greek, he can also speak German like a German and is easily able to assume another disguise, that of a faceless Nazi officer. Although he and Moss make fun of themselves-"If only I had a monocle!" muses Moss when Leigh-Fermor tells him he "looks like an Englishman dressed like a German, leaning against the Ritz bar"- they are able to effect the kidnapping with an ease that seems appropriately Puckish. General Kreipe is ignominiously thrust onto the floor of his own limousine, gagged, and sat upon by a couple of the peasants he so despises. Kreipe's rage is compounded by his firm conviction that he has been snatched by "amateurs"-a belief Leigh-Fermor and Moss slyly make no objection to, knowing how it will gnaw at his already shaky Master Race self-confidence.
Soon, partisans and captive are up in the hills, where they stay for most of the movie (though the biggest of the film's mountaineering set-pieces, a nocturnal descent through fog, was filmed on elaborately stylised studio sets). Once there, Kreipe determines to leave a trail for following German troops to pick up on-his cap, buttons from his uniform, even a couple of medals from his impressive display of such baubles-never realising that each emblem of his authority is no sooner dropped than it is retrieved by the vigilant Moss.
Among Major Paddy's partisans is a young war orphan, Nico, who has, while shinning up and down the mountains, much occasion to complain of his need of a pair of boots. Nico knows that the cost of a new pair will always be far beyond him; Kreipe, who has been friendly enough toward him in a rather patronising way, seizes on this need by showing he boy his own impressive footwear and offering a gold coin with which to buy an identical pair. A German gold coin, he stresses, not one of the sovereigns Leigh-Fermor keeps a supply of; it is, in fact, a coin the General is known to keep as a good-luck charm. Nico is impressed by the General's largesse. But, of course, the Nazi requires a quid pro quo. All Nico has to do, when he goes down the mountain, is tell the searching German patrols where the General is, using the coin as a bona fides. But Kreipe has misjudged the boy (indeed, he can be said to have misjudged the whole of the human race): it never occurs to him that the boy will not do what he says. What Nico actually does is simply point the patrols in the wrong direction, leading them into an ambush; the magic gold coin is lucky for the Greeks, not the Germans. This makes the escape from Crete of the Britishers and their ill-met prisoner the easiest part of their long journey.
Once aboard a British ship, and naked of the symbols of military power, the General seem a new person-not such a bright man, not such a strong man, but also not such a bad man, either. He is visibly moved by the return of his possessions, especially the gold coin: despite his genuine pleasure in Nico's company, Kreipe had assumed that the boy, like every non-German, is someone who can be bought and sold, and that "friendship" had been merely his gift, and not a privilege from which he might derive spiritual benefit rather than tactical advantage. The very simplicity of Nico's ruse in deflecting rescue was the final humiliation, the last stage in General Kreipe's lengthy symbolic disrobing -which is precisely why his possessions can now be given back to him. If he started this modern midsummer night's dream as imperious as Oberon, he ends it as foolish as the donkey-headed Nick Bottom. But then, Bottom the simple weaver is always better-liked by everyone than the unearthly and tyrannical monarch of Shakespeare's enchanted forest.
And from his elaborate humiliation, the stiff-necked German learns a good deal about himself and about humanity. His curt acknowledgement at film's end that he has been kidnapped not by amateurs but by professionals is also his acknowledgement of his own fallibility and that of the creed he has so proudly espoused. And so he regains a measure of dignity, along with those tokens of an identity he no longer needs. Nico himself gets his new pair of boots after all (they belong to Leigh-Fermor, who is barefoot in his final exchange with his prisoner), but, by a sad irony, is about to change identity as well: he will wait out the rest of the war far away from Crete in the distant England of which he has heard much but knows nothing. But at least he has a friend-a real friend, now-in General Kreipe, who has leaned that the respect of an uneducated boy is worth more than a medal from the Fuhrer. "Gentles, do not reprehend/If you pardon, we shall mend."
And Patrick Leigh-Fermor, aka Major Paddy, aka Philidem-and, if you stretch your imagination just a smidge, aka Robin Goodfellow?-what of him? In the film's closing moments, he is far from being self-assured intellectual or dashing amateur adventurer or legendary outlaw of the hills. He's just a tired man who wants to go home and rest up. "How do you feel?" asks Moss. "Flat" is the reply. "You look flat!" says Moss. "I know how I'd like to look..," murmurs Leigh-Fermor wistfully. Moss knows what he's going to say, and joins in the litany: "Like an Englishman-dressed like an Englishman-and leaning against the Ritz bar!" It's easy to imagine them ordering drinks at that renowned watering-hole with all the suavity required by this little fantasy. Still, the film's last images of Crete receding in the distance, until all we can see is the sea, suggests that maybe Major Paddy's heart is really back in those hills in the "fair and fertile" land that has become as much a Powellian landscape of the mind for us as the studio-built Himalayan convent of Black Narcissus or the monochrome Heaven of A Matter of Life and Death. And, as we depart both Crete and this film, we may reflect that being "dressed like an Englishman and leaning against the Ritz bar" would, for Patrick Leigh-Fermor, constitute yet another disguise. After all, he was Irish.
Peter Richards has written for Movietone News and Take One.