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Academy Unveils Breathtaking Restoration of 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'; Schoonmaker Talks Michael Powell & Scorsese

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood June 29, 2012 at 2:20PM

The Academy unveiled its breathtaking restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's epic masterpiece "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" on June 27. Seven-time Oscar nominated editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell from 1984 until his death in 1990, gave an eloquent introduction...

Kerr is equally impressive, deftly juggling three roles and making each one distinct. In Kerr's characters one can see the striking influence of "Colonel Blimp" on Hitchcock. When Theo gazes, riveted, at chauffeur Angela's profile from the backseat of a car, the film seems to be pointing ahead to Jimmy Stewart's astonished street sighting of brunette Kim Novak in "Vertigo."

Schoonmaker rightly pointed out that, in the film, "what you don't see is sometimes as important as what you see." This is never more true than in the brilliant sequences where taxidermied animal heads pop into the frame, filling the barren walls of a room. We don't see General Candy once during these sequences, but we know what he's up to: He's lonely, filling space in his life with hunting, traveling and wars. He's also sexually frustrated.

Martin Scorsese was instrumental in reintroducing Powell and Pressburger's films to American audiences, and in rehabilitating Powell from a destitute life. Scorsese had watched many of Powell and Pressburger's films as a young budding cinephile, albeit in beat-up and recut prints. Their work had a profound influence on his own filmmaking, particularly "Raging Bull."

"There is a wonderful sequence [in 'Colonel Blimp'] where a duel is to be fought," Schoonmaker said. "Scorsese was stunned: You don't see the duel itself. You see the build-up to the duel, but not the duel. The camera pulls up through the rafters and out into an overhead shot of Berlin in the snow. When Marty had to shoot the championship fight in 'Raging Bull,' he decided he wanted to do the same thing. Marty said, 'Just the get the fight over with, I'm not interested in it. What's interesting is what led up to the fight.'"

"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," completed in 2011 with the Academy Film Archive, is the second of two Powell and Pressburger restorations spearheaded by Scorsese's Film Foundation. The first was "The Red Shoes" in 2009 with the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The Academy's archive team had their work cut out during the two-year restoration process of "Colonel Blimp." First, the 163-minute film was grossly re-edited for its original international release and 35 minutes of scenes from the three-strip nitrate negative had been cut out. (Suffice to say Winston Churchill was none too happy about a 1943 UK film production depicting the British army in a complex light.)

Second, the surviving negative showed light to severe mold growth throughout. Using digital tools, the restoration team was able to correct the corrosive damage of the mold and return the film to its vivid Technicolor palette. They also successfully restored the running time to its original, gloriously epic 163 minutes.

The restoration is now preserved as film elements at the BFI National Archive in London. The screening was a resplendent DCP (digital cinema package) of the restored film.

This article is related to: Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Digital Future, Classics, Martin Scorsese, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.