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The Films Of Powell & Pressburger: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 19, 2013 at 4:49PM

For much of their lifetimes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger never got the due they deserved. Powell was as English as you could get, who'd worked his way up through the film industry, before coming to the attention of British film magnate Alexander Korda. Pressburger, meanwhile, was Hungarian Jewish by birth, who'd come to Germany in the 1920s to work as a screenwriter, moving to Paris, and then England when the Nazis came to power, and again was working for Korda. When the two met in 1939, there was an instant kinship. They shared a similarly uncompormising and original take on filmmaking, and were soon working hand in hand, sharing credit as writers, directors and producers under the banner of their The Archers production company.
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One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing
"One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing" (1942)
While "Contraband" and "49th Parallel" were made by through a process that became the standard for the pair (Pressburger wrote the story and first draft, then he and Powell would collaborate on further drafts, then Powell would nominally direct, Pressburger would produce, and the two would edit together, though the lines were really more blurred than that), "One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing" is seen by many as the first true Powell & Pressburger movie. It's the first film with The Archers in the credits (the company was incorporated the next year, with the logo debuting at the same time), and the first on which they took the shared credit "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger." But, despite its place in their history, it's not their best work, though it still has its charms in places. Flipping the plot of "49th Parallel" on its head (it was even advertised with the tagline "This Time, We Are The Invaders!"), it sees the crew of an RAF bomber, including Hugh Purden, Eric Portman and Hugh Williams, shot down over Holland and forced to sneak through the countryside to the coast, aided by the Dutch (who include Googie Withers and Peter Ustinov among their numbers). Like "49th Parallel," it's propaganda first and foremost, lacking the nuance of some of the work that came before and after (which isn't to say it isn't very effective propaganda -- try not to be stirred as Pamela Brown's schoolteacher Else tells the airmen, "Do you think we Hollanders who threw the sea out of our country will let the Germans have it? Better the sea.") And there's an intriguing documentary-style realism to the film that's very different from the more stylized techniques that they'd develop down the line. But it's a little more languidly paced and aimlessly plotted than some of their other wartime pictures. The film was edited by David Lean, his last in the cutting room before he made his directorial debut the same year with "In Which We Serve," so perhaps it's not surprising that it's a touch overlong, given the length of Lean's later epics... [B-]

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp kerr
"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943)
“Right is might after all.” When the protagonist, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey, terrific and oh so British), utters these words after he gets the news that World War I is ending and Britain will be victorious, it’s a reinforcement of his belief that even in humanity’s worst moments, there is a right and wrong way of going about it. Things are more black-and-white in this worldview, life seems simpler, and ‘Blimp’ is the rare film that succeeds in having its cake and eating it too. It’s nostalgic, like its lead character, for this more gentlemanly and sporting time when even enemies could become dear friends. But it also delivers a harsh reality and critique of this outdated philosophy. Often cited as a loose adaptation of a comic strip character that goes by the name of Colonel Blimp, the idea for the film actually came from a scene that was cut out from The Archers’ previous film. In a deleted scene, an elderly member of the crew tells a younger one, “You don’t know what it’s like to be old.” Apparently, that film’s editor, David Lean, upon cutting the scene, mentioned it was worthy of an entire film on its own, and it seems the filmmakers agreed. Powell and Pressburger are working at the height of their game here, letting 'Blimp' breathe like a novel, giving it proper time to set itself up and introduce what will become the actual story: one extended flashback that goes back forty years, following Candy and his friendship with a German soldier (Anton Walbrook) through the Boer War up to the still-ongoing WWII. Apparently Winston Churchill, perhaps thinking it was a satire of himself, hated the film and tried to have the production cancelled, but the objections were withdrawn, although it did come under fire from the press for its sympathetic portrayal of a German officer as World War II was still happening. Contemporary events aside, the editing and transitional scenes, along with the montages (in particular the hunting sequences and the turning of blank pages in a book), are, like much of Powell & Pressburger's work, pure cinema, and this marks the duo's first bona-fide classic. [A]

A Canterbury Tale
"A Canterbury Tale" (1944)
While nominally of a piece in its aims and setting with their other wartime propaganda pictures, "A Canterbury Tale" is a wildly different kind of picture. In fact, it's wildly different from almost anything ever made; a gloriously original, unclassifiable piece of work that marks the duo's second masterpiece in a row. Nodding to Chaucer in title and theme, it follows two soldiers -- one British (Peter played by Dennis Price) and one American (Bob, played by John Sweet) -- and Alison (Sheila Sim), a Land Girl mourning the death of her beau, who are all on a train together. Through happenstance, they all get out at the fictitious town of Chillingbourne, where Alison is attacked by a mysterious man in uniform who puts glue in her hair. This is only the latest in a series of attacks in the village, and Peter and Bob vow to help her find the culprit. It seems like a silly, low-stakes idea, but only someone who hasn't seen the film could think that, as the filmmakers manage to wrap up a gripping mystery, moving wartime drama, light comedy, notes on religion and faith, and a deeply ingrained sense of local history into the plot. It's one of the most capital-B British films from arguably the most capital-B British filmmakers, eccentric and novelistic and curiously mystical in places, and somehow working like gangbusters despite the odd mix of tones. It's never quite sat atop The Archers' canon, probably because of how strange it is, but it certainly deserves to. [A]

I Know Where I'm Going!
"'I Know Where I'm Going!'" (1945)
Made as something of a time-filler when they faced delays on other projects, "'I Know Where I'm Going!'" (and yes, you need the quote marks and the exclamation point for the title...) marks something of a shift for the pair. With the tide having turned in the war, it's their first film without explicit propaganda aims, and it's also their only straight-forward romantic comedy. Nodding a little structurally to "It Happened One Night" and the films of Preston Sturges, it follows Joan (Wendy Hiller), a Londoner who's on her way to the remote Scottish island of Kiloran to marry a wealthy older man, and is accompanied by Torquil (Roger Livesey), a naval officer who turns out to be the local Laird. It might seem on the surface to be slighter and lower key than some of their other pictures, but it's more than just a smart, sweet and sparky road-trip rom-com (though it is that too, with sharp dialogue, an impossibly tight screenplay, and sizzling chemistry between the leads). It's much more soulful than most movie romances, both in the complexity of its characters and its spurning of material wealth for earthly pleasures. And in its setting, it nods to Powell's breakthrough "The Edge Of The World," with the Scottish locales as much the star of the picture as Livesey and Hiller. Like "A Canterbury Tale," there's a mystical sense of history and nature running through the film -- Raymond Chandler, of all people, wrote in a letter "I've never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way, nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialized as a show place." Pressburger, late in life, wrote "I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing -- it should have a little bit of magic." And that's rarely better exemplified than by "'I Know Where I'm Going!'", a simple romance elevated by a lot of magic. [A]

A Matter Of Life And Death
"A Matter Of Life & Death" (1946)
Speaking of magic: "A Matter Of Life and Death." Initially dreamed up, like "A Canterbury Tale," after the Ministry of Information asked Powell & Pressburger to think of a film to improve Anglo-American relations, but only shot after the end of the war, "A Matter Of Life And Death" (titled "Stairway To Heaven" in the U.S.) marks the culmination of the filmmakers' career up to this point, blending the genre-hopping of "A Canterbury Tale," the romance of "'I Know Where I'm Going!'", and the sense of cinematic magic that they'd been developing across the previous seven years. It's also arguably their greatest achievement (and, by the by, one of this writer's all-time favorites). After a cosmic prologue, we pick up in glorious Technicolor (the filmmakers' first work as such; they held up filming by nine months to wait for the equipment), as British Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is shot down over the Channel. He manages to talk with, and fall for, an American radio operator (Kim Hunter), before jumping out without a parachute. But Conductor 71, the guide meant to escort Peter to the afterlife -- the Other World -- got lost in the heavy fog, the first mistake in a thousand years, and Peter survives, tracking down June, and the pair falling in love. He's not meant to be alive though, and Conductor 71 asks him to accept his death, but Peter is granted an appeal, where he has to argue his case for survival, against an American prosecutor killed in the Revolutionary War. The film might be a touch heavy-handed in its Anglo-American parallels, but that's just about the only flaw we can find in Powell & Pressburger's magnificent, moving, swooningly romantic, fiercely original fantasy. It's a profound film, full to the brim with ideas about death and love and God and nationalities (it anticipates the end of Empire in a way that perhaps it wouldn't had it been made a few months earlier) and what we're put on earth for. But it's also never anything less than wildly entertaining, and thrillingly cinematic, thanks to Pressburger's witty, imaginative script, glorious lensing from Jack Cardiff, and stunning production design. If you've never seen a Powell & Pressburger film, this is the one to start with; we can't see how you'd fail to fall in love. [A+]

This article is related to: Features, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Retrospective


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