The movies of Powell and Pressburger

Foxbat

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I thought the recent thread on John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy provoked some interesting discussion and wondered if it was worthwhile trying to repeat the experience.

With all that in mind I thought I'd start a thread on the film making partnereship between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

They have several notable movies in their collected works. These are just a few: A Canterbury Tale, Battle Of The River Plate, Black Narcissus, 49th Parallel, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, A Matter Of Life And Death and The Red Shoes.

I think my personal favourite is A Matter Of Life And Death.

David Niven stars as a Lancaster pilot returning from a bombing raid over Germany. His plane is on fire and his surviving crew mmbers have bailed out. His radio operator lies dead at his side. He has no parachute and must make the choice to either burn in the plane or jump. He explains this over the radio to a young american woman who tries desperately to find a way to help him but is left distraught as he signs off and jumps from his burning bomber.

Much to his surprise, he awakens on a beach. He has been washed in by the tide and has, miraculously, survived the fall. Even more miraculously, he is on a beach not far from the home of the American girl. They meet and promptly fall in love.

But there has been an accounting error. Somewhere up above, the numbers just don't add up and an envoy is sent to right the wrong. What follows is a tale of neurological disorder in one world but simply a matter of balancing the books in the other. These questions are fought out to a conclusion that will ultimately decide the fate of these two lovers and it all becomes a matter of life and death.

I would describe this movie as a gentle romantic fantasy comedy but there's so much more to it than this. In amongst all that humour lie the age old questions of life, love and existence. The methods of shooting this movie were not unique but are very effective in enhancing the demarcation between worlds. The earthbound shots are in colour whilst Heaven is in black and white. My own logic would argue that perhaps it should be vice versa but what I can't argue with here is that it works very effectively. I think the first time a movie was shot in both colour and black and white was probably 1939's Wizard Of Oz (please somebody correct me if I'm wrong).

The script, I think, is superb but is a product of its time. The men are all very stiff upper lipped and the women are all: hold me and kiss me dahling! but the movie has a very strong supporting cast to help it along(look out very early on for a bit part from a young Richard Attenborough). There are, in fact, a lot of familiar faces here from that movie making time period. One of my particular favourites is the chiseled Raymond Massey as prosecutor Abraham Farlan (the first American to die by a British bullet in the Americam War Of Independence).

Even when the movie moves into its final stages and becomes a battle of philosphy, freedom and the rights of the individual, it still remains gripping, entertaining and touching.

One of my all-time favourite movies. If you've never seen a Powell and Pressburger film, I can think of no better place to start than this.:)
 

Droflet

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I've seen all of them and agree that A matter of life and death is a masterpiece. I saw it when I was a kid and was wowed, however, I saw it again as an adult and was double wowed. They sure don't make 'em like that anymore. Great post, Foxbat.
 

Foxbat

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Next I watched The Battle Of The River Plate

I'm a sucker for sea battles so this fits the bill. It might also explain my liking for space battles. There's a straight translation from ships at sea to ships in space. There's one classic war film: The Enemy Below, where an American destroyer captain plays a cat and mouse game with a U Boat. There's an episode of Star Trek where Kirk plays the same game with a cloaked Romulan ship. The episode is essentially a remake of the film.

Back to River Plate. The German ship Admiral Graf Spee is causing havoc in the south Atlantic and must be dealt with. Eventually, three cruisers hunt her down (Exeter, Ajax and Achilles) and a one-sided battle begins. The British ships are hopelessly outgunned. Let me explain...

The Washington Naval Treaty that existed between the wars sought to limit both the total tonnage of a nation's warships and the individual tonnage of each ship. A loophole in the treaty meant that cruisers were exempt so each nation began to build lots of these ships. The Germans cottoned on to the idea of building a heavy cruiser but fitting her out with a gun calibre more suited to a battleship. And hence, the pocket battleship was born. Basically, a heavy cruiser with battleship sized main calibre guns. The British (and one New Zealand) cruisers were your normal type with smaller gun calibres and shorter ranges. This necessitated the RN to get in close and put themselves seriously in harm's way.

The British and New Zealand ships are tenacious and take a terrible beating but they also inflict some damage on Graf Spee. It's reminscent of the words used in Henry V to when he describes England as (something like) mighty heart in a little body.

Langsdorff, captain of Graf Spee, heads for neutral Montevideo to make repairs whilst the RN ships sit in wait just outside in international waters. What happens next is a masterclass in fake news. It's nothing new and is something akin to propaganda - although propaganda often contains an, often if heavily distorted, element of truth. If the British can't outgun the Germans, maybe they can out-think them. The Germans are led to believe a large contingent of ships is on its way to deal with Graf Spee.

The Battle Of The River Plate is one of my favourite war films. It presses all the right buttons and it looks authentic. This is because, during filming, two of the actual ships were available (Exeter and Achilles) whilst Ajax was played by HMS Sheffield.

It's a typical Powell and Pressburger movie with lips starched so stiffly, it's a surprise the lead actors could read their lines. A very patriotic but also well made movie full of honourable men doing their duty (including Langsdorff, captain of Graf Spee). If anything, it's worth watching just to remind ourselves that there's nothing new in fake news.
 

Droflet

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And a very clever ruse by the British at the end of the movie, which apparently did happen. Great movie.
 

hitmouse

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Agree with the comments about AMOLOD. Superb. I think I might of commented on it elsewhere on Chrons quite recently.
As to the other films: Black Narcissus and Colonel Blimp are both brilliant.
 

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The Red Shoes (1948)
A kind of psychological drama filled with repressed emotion and sexual tension. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) must ultimately choose between her career as a ballerina and her love for a composer. The stakes are raised by the ballet owner insisting that there can only be one love in her life - dance. Although it's never stated, it's obvious that ballet owner Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is also in love with Page but is too emotionally stunted to tell her. Instead, he does his best to persuade her to throw away her marriage for her career.

The movie itself often parallels the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name and, just like the shoemaker offering the shoes, Lermontov is offering the choice of life or art, but not both.

This film is classed as one of Powell and Pressburger's greatest films and was voted 9th greatest British film of all time in 1999. The problem with time is that it keeps on moving on and, with that in mind, while I think it's a fine and fascinating movie, I don't think it's their best, but that's probably my own personal taste invading objectivity. There's a lot to like here, but still....
 

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Thinking more on The Red Shoes. Interesting that it is the woman that is forced to make the choice between a career and domesticity. I wonder if anybody back then considered reversing the roles? Probably not. A sign of the times.
 

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The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp(1943)
Named after a popular comic strip of the time, this has nothing to do with Colonel Blimp. It does, however, follow the life of a military man (General Wynne-Candy) from 1902 through until 1943. It tells the tale of the great friendship he forges with a German officer (after being involved in a duel with him) and of his missed opportunity for love of the woman who ultimately marries his German friend(played by Deborah Kerr).

As the years go by and he climbs the military ladder, he is always looking for that same love, which leads him to marry a nurse he meets in the Great War (again played by Deborah Kerr). The war ends and his friendship rekindled with the German officer, the years roll by until World War Two. The German is now a refugee in England, his wife is dead and he is estranged from his nazi sons. Wynne-Candy's wife is also dead and the German is brought up to speed on his old friend by the general's driver (a person who bears a striking resemblance to both their deceased wives...agan played by Deborah Kerr) and the movie concludes on a not of optimism and hope.

Another deeply patriotic production from Powell and Pressburger but it keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek. Often poking fun at the British sense of fair play and humorous in such places, it is firmly balanced by the pragmatic German friend's assertion that such methods will not work against the Nazis. Wynne-Candy himself is made a fool of by an impertinent young British officer, who uses the old man's need to follow the rules against him in a military exercise. The old general, however, still has the presence of mind to realise that he was just like that young officer many years ago.

Made in a time of war it's patriotism is obvious but it also is peppered with realism - that war is not a gentleman's game but a fight for survival. It's also a story of unrequited love and how a person might find ways to move on from that. Incredibly touching in places, sometimes funny and always a joy to watch, I think this is perhaps just a step or two behind A Matter Of Life And Death as one of the duo's finest pictures.
 

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Black Narcissus
Deborah Kerr stars as a nun (Clodagh) tasked with setting up a new mission high on a rocky outcropping in a remote area of the Himalayas. It's an old palace that is to become their home and a place where they can educate the local children. On her arrival, Clodagh finds erotic paintings on the walls and has them removed. If she thought that would settle matters, she was wrong because there seems to be something in the air...something that exagerates and reminds each of the sisters that they were not always nuns. Old feelings and memories begin to resurface. Add to the mix the arrival of the local 'general's' agent, a handsome Englishman, and erotic tensions take on a new twist that can only end in tragedy.

Overall, it looks a fine movie with wonderful photography but I found it somewhat pedestrian. It is an hour and forty minutes long but there just didn't seem to be enough to fill the spaces. It's highly regarded by many but not one of my favourites. That doesn't mean that it's a bad movie. It may, however, mean that my own personal taste may be somewhat questionable ;)
 

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