Posts Tagged ‘Powell & Pressburger’


They can’t all be winners.

Michael Powell’s (screenwriter Emeric Pressburger is not co-billed in triplicate on this one) 49th Parallel certainly has its moments–unfortunately, some of them aren’t GOOD moments.

In conception, this thing is truly ingenious: a dark picaresque tale that moves the (Nazi) highwaymen to center stage, beset by all manner of complacent Canadians (most of whom come to Rick Blaine-style epiphanies through their encounters with Fascism in the flesh–a development that the filmmakers hoped to inspire in the minds of American audiences… the film was made and released prior to the events at Pearl Harbor in December 1941).

It’s beautifully shot–and definitely treats the Canadian landscape well (although, as many have complained, it doesn’t exactly convey the most nuanced portrait of the country).


Don’t get me wrong–sure I’ve lived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada almost my entire life, but I have absolutely no investment in Canadian (or any other) national identity, and I don’t judge films set in my country on their mimetic fidelity (if I did, I’d be no better than Leslie Halliwell–whose whining about Hollywood’s Britain never ceases to annoy me)

Besides, how can you stay mad at a film that begins with this earnest message?

dominionYou just can’t.

But you can’t ignore its follies either!

To me, one of the most interesting things about the film, in general, is the way it thwarts expectations by stocking its renegade U-Boat crew with recognizably British actors, none of whom affect an accent. This is a stroke of genius that reveals the German nationalist project (and ALL ethnic nationalism) for the vicious delusion that it is. You really don’t understand how insane the Nazi dream was until you hear Eric Portman haranguing an audience of Hutterites with the same voice (albeit in a higher decibel) that he will later use to describe the wonders of the Kentish countryside in A Canterbury Tale.

That’s the kind of propaganda (which makes war on the very idea of ethnic distinctions) that I can get behind.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise (as I’ve described it) is jeopardized by ONE wacko performance:

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Pourquoi, Larry?


Again–this performance (spectacle) might have been fine (well no, let’s face it, it could never have been fine–but at least it might have been a little less out of place), in a movie in which the Germans are all played by Sig Rumann (or even by Joseph Tura in his Teutonic mode). But Olivier’s courreur-de-bois just doesn’t make sense in the grand unaccented scheme that I’ve attributed to the director.

This might be your cue to remind me that Powell probably didn’t even think about this stuff in 1941 (or maybe he did–I think I’m gonna have to read his autobiography soon!)

Anyway, I suppose you can’t really blame Olivier (and you know–I actually love his equally wacko take on a Russian engineer in The Demi-Paradise, because it actually suits that film’s fish-out-of-water narrative)–someone obviously gave him a thumbs up on this “acting choice”–but I do wish they had considered this feeble masquerade’s effect upon the delicate cultural critique proffered by the rest of 49th Parallel. (in some ways, Raymond Massey’s ultra-colloquial–and actually Canadian sounding–turn at the end of the film also dilutes the critique, but not nearly to the same extent)

Still, there’s a lot to like here. The city scenes, in which the German trio (fresh from executing their wayward comrade Vogel) sell their field glasses for diner fare, are very fresh and involving. And all of the Hutterite stuff plays beautifully, I think.

Anton Walbrook contributes a dry run for his extraordinary monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:


Glynis Johns is lovable (as always) in a very early part:


And Niall MacGinnis walks off with the film’s top acting honours by somehow putting flesh on the liberal democrat’s wet dream–the fascist who listens to reason. (And who–in the most jarring moment of the drama–is later executed for baking bread)


On the other hand, while I’m a big fan of both Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, and can appreciate the gusto with which they munch their scenes, I can’t exactly claim that I was moved by anything in their respective sectors of the journey.


Does anyone else see Howard’s transformation as a dry-run for Vincent Price’s extraordinary antics in His Kind of Woman? As he marched boldly into danger, I kept saying to myself–“Mark Cardigan.”

good afternoon friends!


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Gone to Earth represents the confluence of three of the most important elements in my mental universe: Powell & Pressburger, Jennifer Jones, and (proto-)animal rights (linked–as in the novella I’m launching tonight!–to a critiique of patriarchy). So don’t expect anything resembling objectivity from me on this one (or at any time, really–I hate prescriptive criticism, and I don’t practice it!)

But I suppose we can start by praising something that even the film’s detractors (and they are legion) agree upon–the cinematography by Christopher Challis. I think the above image speaks for itself, no?

If not–how ’bout this one?


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does a better job of conveying the frankly mystical connection that human beings have to the landscape of their chosen home (Melville called it the “all-feeling”), WITHOUT sentimentalizing it. Those woods are lovely, dark and deep–and so are the characters who inhabit the area, and the narrative.

The film may travel under the guise of a mid-Victorian melodrama, but its guts are deeply existentialist. For me, the key to reading Gone to Earth is the double-character of Hazel (JJ)/Foxy. There’s no question that Hazel’s extraordinary flight across the hunting grounds is intended to recall the scene of Eliza and her baby on the ice floes (in Uncle Tom’s Cabin)–but it’s the differences that matter.

Hazel castigates Squire (squire!) Reddin (Farrar) for “having blood on him,” but she and her surrogate child aren’t blameless either–on several occasions, we see Foxy invading the chicken coop, and Hazel herself bites into a drumstick, early in the narrative. These two are implicated in an economy of horrific violence, just like everyone else in our world. Not for a moment is the protagonist presented as “defenseless,” in classic melodramatic terms. Jennifer Jones is pretty much incapable of playing a weak human being anyway–and her oeuvre, as a whole, constitutes one of the most sweeping feminist critiques of the 20th century. In almost every one of her films, her natural authority and vivacity (Foxy’s “woof”) are warped by patriarchal discourse. Her protean spirit is NEVER broken, but is always in danger of being channeled in an unproductive direction. Often, the best the world has to offer her is an escape hatch–as here, when all of her hopes go down the drain, at the film’s startling conclusion. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that, because Hazel refused to dive into the foxhole of a prescribed gender role, she and her fox have no place to go but into a black hole in the narrative (and in the culture). That’s an extraordinarily damning statement–and one that’s pretty hard to disagree with.

And yet–it’s a beautiful world, and there are many good things in it–worth desiring. “Keep yourself to yourself”–that’s what Hazel’s mother recommended–and it sounds like good advice, but it’s not a sound philosophy. Powell and Pressburger are NOT ascetics. They treated that life option with a great deal of dignity in Black Narcissus (in the figure of the holy man–who successfully ignores the landscape–but at what cost?), but in Gone to Earth the closest analogue is Reddin’s evil-minded servant (a cousin of Wuthering Heights‘ Joseph):


Renunciation is explicitly renounced by the narrative–and I think Edward (Cyril Cusack), is absolutely correct when he takes the blame for setting the narrative’s tragic chain of events into motion by offering Hazel a marriage without sex. Yes, she calls him “her soul”–and what she really means is that she trusts him to take care of her real soul–Foxy… but, again, at what cost? Foxy’s cute little fox house (like the minister’s own cottage–complete with colonized mother), is clearly a prison of sorts. And it’s to Edward’s credit that he comes to understand his role as jailer–after a violent fit causes this knowledge to bubble up into his conscious mind…

But how about David Farrar’s stock “evil squire” Reddin?


Well you know, I’d say if you had invested in that stock, you’d have lost all of your money by the end of the film. Reddin is, in fact, the site of the film’s most ingenious (and even subtly hopeful) subterfuge. The character’s inconsistent behaviour reminds us that patriarchy imposes roles upon MEN too. He’s a violent sleezeball, there’s no question about that–but once he and Hazel consummate their strange passion (and here I want to disagree–despite the undeniable surface similarities, introduced in order to pull us into the skewed gender paradigm of Harlequin style romance–with critics who claim that this relationship depends upon Gone With the Wind-style “women want to be raped” foundations… Jennifer Jones is not Vivian Leigh–and she is NEVER cowed/overpowered by Farrar in this film… she does respond to his clearly focused desire–I fervently believe that every human being wants to be desired–but when she finally embraces him, it’s on her own terms), he exhibits none of the qualities of his melodramatic genus–when the pair are alone

Unfortunately, for all concerned, he reverts to type when society, in the form of Edward, invades the sanctum:


In one split second–and this atmospheric jump cut is the key to the film’s critique of the genre it ostensibly participates in–the Squire appears to remember that he is supposed to be the villain of the piece, and, as Shelley (in The Masque of Anarchy) would put it, adopts the mask of Castlereagh:


“…One by one, and two by two

He tossed them human [and Foxy] hearts to chew”

The film presents social existence as a terrible fox hunt through a lush countryside–in which our roles are preordained by economic and gender imperatives. This is perhaps most shockingly dramatized by Hazel’s refusal to give up the role of prey to the hounds, when the Squire (outfitted in the gestapo outfit of the huntsman) makes a sincere last ditch attempt to pull Foxy out of her arms, to safety… And yet, the very fact that we observe moments of ontological tenderness between these overdetermined stock characters seems to suggest that this tragedy (and the one we are currently living together) might have (and, for us, might still?) ended differently…

Yesterday night, I gave this an A/A+… but I think I’ve talked myself into the full A+!


good afternoon friends!


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I’ve really been Powell and Pressburging my luck lately–revisiting some old favourites and filling in the gaps. Absolutely no disappointments so far. Quite the reverse, actually. I’m more fascinated by these guys than ever before!

Case in point–The Small Back Room (1949).

How’d I ever miss this one?

(I know how–it just wasn’t available in North America until Criterion released a beautiful DVD last year)

I just watched the film yesterday, and I already can’t imagine life without it–which is not to say that I’ve figured out where it fits in the P & P canon.

Just some impressionistic rambling then…

Byron and Farrar–astonishingly good (and about as far from their Black Narcissus characterizations as you can get):


Apparently, the film repulsed British cinemagoers in 1949, prompting director Powell to suspect that he had done TOO GOOD a job of exposing (in extreme close up) the guts of a less-than-perfect-but-intense relationship between a man and a woman… Speaking as a once(and probably future) co-dependent individual, I have to admit that the couple’s scenes were hard to watch, but also magnificently compelling and true. And the fact that the narrative’s “happy ending” presents the triumph of the antithesis of what the self-help books would call “healthy love” can’t have helped!


Oh yes–love is neurosis and shared delusions.

And when one person pulls out of the tale-spin (say, by removing her picture from the frame), the other one is often doomed to self-scrutiny…


Which usually isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Thank goodness the bombs are still ticking! (they help to drown out the clocks…)

One of the most amazing things about the movie (which I certainly consider a film noir, even if many wouldn’t) is the way it brings the essentially pre-adult aspects of Hawksian “professionalism” into sharp focus (yes, we’re venturing into Leslie Fiedler territory here).

The contrast between the beautifully noir compositions of the scenes from Sammy and Susan’s private life (in their flat, at the local pub, at the Hickory Club, inside Sammy’s brain), and the brilliantly even lighting of the (physically) dangerous scenes on location is hard to miss. Only the thrill of doing his job keeps Sammy off the sulk (and the ever-present threat of the bottle). People (especially Susan) are forever speculating about this guy’s psychological age (with the numbers ranging from six to ten)–but is it really “grown up” to run off and play in the sunshine (even if the game involves the possibility of dying)? I’m not saying that it isn’t important to do a thing well–especially when what you do can help to save lives–but I don’t think it’s MORE important (as in Hawks) than figuring out where you stand with the people who are closest to you (as Byron/Susan asks: “Why am I the only person you can get tough [I think she means petulant] with?” … that’s not a question that would come up in a Hawks film–Susan’s job in the HH universe would be to learn to appreciate the superior importance of his calling)

From the little I’ve read about the film, people seem to be quite annoyed with the expressionistic presentation of Sammy’s struggle with the bottle and the clocks.


It seems “heavy-handed”? Of course it does–it’s the phantasmagoria of a self-pitying brat. I find it extraordinarily appropriate. The next time I watch Only Angels Have Wings, I’ll keep this waking nightmare sequence in mind. It might help me to understand the behaviour of the characters in that movie–although not, of course, in the way the director would like us to.

And then again–some of Sammy’s “childishness” really bears interesting fruit. Most notably his comment, when refusing to get up and participate in the main social activity promoted by the Hickory Club, that: “Men and women are all the same when they dance.” On the one hand, it’s a Ramones-style “I don’t want to grow up” moment–but it’s also a remarkably pithy summary of the fear that neuro-biology is painting us into a corner (of life’s dance-floor)… Perhaps there’s no difference between the sides of the coin that I’m attempting to mint here–but my own (almost certainly neurotic) sense of Sammy’s meaning here is that he’s grasping for a romantic relationship that is absolutely shorn of all cultural prescriptions.

Of course–in that end–they fail miserably.

However, at least they get to live with this awesome cat.


Oh–before I hit “publish”–I feel compelled to mention one of the greatest soliloquy set-pieces in P & P’s oeuvre… In the tradition of Anton Walbrook’s narrative of his journey from Nazi Germany to his beloved (and now deceased) wife’s homeland, Renee Asherson tore my heart out with her short-hand notes from an experiment gone awry.


I love that woman (although I must admit, when she first appeared on the screen, I thought she was Glynis Johns–whom I also love…)

Good afternoon friends!


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"Reassuring, isn't it?"

"Reassuring, isn't it?"

“Film Blanc” (the term was introduced by Peter Valenti, in the pages of the Journal of Popular Film, although I first encountered it through Glenn Erickson) is a politically suspect style of phantasmagoria that came into its own during the exact same period (the 1940s) that its anti-thesis (film noir) flourished (although, of course, both styles had their precursors in literature and in early cinema).

While film noir looks at this hellish period from the crushed vantage of the alienated individual, the blanc movies pull waaaaaay back to look at the “big picture,” revealing that all of this death and destruction is maya, and that every terrible thing happens for a reason. At its worst, film blanc is horrifyingly smug, presenting a “best of all possible universes” scenario that is just begging for the Candide treatment.

On the other hand, you could argue that I’m being a little smug in passing judgment upon a series of films that obviously helped a lot of people through circumstances that I don’t have much experience with. It’s a fact of human psychology that we need to posit some ground of certainty beneath our mental feet before we can move forward. (Film noir shows us what happens when every vestige of that certainty is cleared away–in The Killers‘ “Swede.”) Still, I think we can hold people responsible for the kind of fantasy they stake their future (and their agency) upon.

Especially when one of the films blancs on the menu is Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Here’s a movie that could easily have become nefariously (status) quomforting–it was mandated by the Ministry of Information for god’s sake! (P & P were asked to make a film that cast post-war Anglo-American relations in the best possible light.) It presents heaven as a futuristic community center where the miraculously unmangled war-dead are outfitted with mass-produced angel wings and sent off to enjoy various leisure pursuits. It pays lip-service to Mr. Jordan-style bureaucracy, with every preordained death drained of its actuality by actuarial decree. The script even commits casual murder in order to move one its most beloved characters (unruffled by the experience, of course) onto the correct plane of existence, at the appointed time.

And yet, Powell and Pressburger manage to steer their way through these obstacles (or, rather, engulf them in narratological brilliance) to produce a truly exhilarating and politically progressive film. Did I mention that I love P & P? The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, I am quite certain, one of the greatest films ever made, and several other works in their canon (The Red Shoes, I Know Where I’m Going, Black Narcissus and Gone To Earth–although I suppose the last choice might not play as well outside of my Jennifer Jones- and animal rights-loving perspective) are right up there!

So how did they manage this feat?

It starts with two wonderfully preemptive strikes against the cosmology of the style/genre/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

First off, at the conclusion of a very nicely rendered Technicolor tour of the universe, the voice-over guide introduces our planet (see image above), spinning serenely on its axis (and in supposed harmony with all that has come before it), in an ironic tone of voice that amounts to a dare–“isn’t that reassuring?”

No, not really. Or, if it is, it’s only because we crave reassurance so badly that we are willing to think about exploding solar systems, sucking voids and freezing gas clouds in some very creative ways. Our narrator gives us license to do precisely that, while reminding us that this interpretive stratagem has nothing to do with objective reality.

Then the camera zooms in on the supposedly different (i.e. ravaged by “apparent” chaos) realm of human history, on the night of May 2nd 1945. The first spoken words sound, to me, like P & P’s genre-bending battle cry, as RAF pilot-in-distress David Niven introduces himself to a distant radio tower by describing himself as “Conservative by temperament, Labour by experience.” That’s Great Britain in 1945. And it’s also the film blanc–in P & P’s hands.

Niven’s interlocutor?


The wondrous Kim Hunter as an American flight controller. Need I say more?

It’s an amazing variation on the “meet cute” scenario. Niven (steeling himself to bail out of his burning plane without a parachute) and Hunter, aided by some magnificent editing and Cardiff cinematography, generate an astonishingly intimate mood, during their brief radio exchange. In order for this film to work, you have to believe, by the time Niven jumps, that these two have somehow fallen in love. And you do. Or, at least, I do!

No doubt about it, this is a “love is stronger than logic” story–but it’s an unusually even-keeled one that eschews the isolationist proclivities of the genre in favour of an emphasis upon the tangible future that the spotlighted couple (and the nations that they represent) hope to create.

But first, of course, they have to meet again (and even “cuter”)–and the film wastes no time in bringing this about.

Somehow intact (in fact, he is in such good shape that, knowing the way this genre works, you figure he MUST be dead), Niven wanders for a few minutes across a very pleasant landscape, expressing delight when he meets this putative paradise’s first inhabitant:


I love dogs too… but I digress!

Moments after this meeting, the pilot is directed (by an Arcadian shepherd boy) to Ms. Hunter herself, biking home from the tower. No, this isn’t heaven! It’s much, much better! They recognize each others’ voices immediately, and pick up where they left off the night before–which means they are soon kissing. That’s how simple things are on the magical earthly plane posited by the film.

It’s (black and white) Heaven that complicates things, with its bureaucratic timetables and claustrophobic vistas.


AND its peevish Ancien Regime Aristo agents:


Marius Goring’s “Conductor 71” plays the Edward Everett Horton role (the functionary who goofs and upsets the heavenly applecart). Actually, both Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death offer an implicit critique of the Heavenly regime, simply by dramatizing its fallibility. However, I find P & P’s variation upon the theme immensely more interesting–firstly, because it raises more interesting existential questions (pretty much “to be or not to be,” rather than “whose body shall I use tonight?”), and secondly, because it’s all staged in such a way that it almost has to be read as an exploration of a mind (Niven’s) in extremis, driven to clutch at exactly the kind of totalizing system that Jordan promotes so much more unquestioningly.

When Niven goes on trial for his life, arguing that Goring’s negligence has allowed him to bring to fruition a love that neither he nor Hunter had ever expected to consummate (bringing responsibilities that he claims he ought now be given the chance to fulfill), he stumbles into a fascinatingly unexpected cosmic appraisal of the freshly victorious Allied powers. As soon as prosecutor and defence-counsel Massey and Livesey (I’ll get back to him in a moment) get rolling, we find that it is Britain (which had, simply by surviving the war, achieved a feat analogous to jumping out of a plane without a parachute) that is on trial.

Even more amazingly (given that this IS a propaganda film), there is no attempt to disguise Britain’s appalling record as a colonial power (ah, India gentlemen, etc…) But this is a film blanc after all, not a cynical expose–and so, after the sound and the fury dissipate, Powell and Pressburger (through Livesey) speak up for a future in which the UK pledges to listen to the “better angels of its nature” (symbolized–and here the film IS uncritical…segregation P & P?–by a multicultural sextet of jurists from the United States of America. a “more perfect union” founded upon English liberal political doctrine)… Basically, they appear to be saying: “Okay. Now that we’ve come through that hell, we’d better justify our survival by chucking the Empire and sharing the wealth.”

On the other hand, the scene at the bottom of that beautiful “stairway to Heaven,” in which Hunter pledges to give up her life for Niven, while enabling the filmmakers to advocate the abrogation of the law in favour of true justice, doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about the romantic pair (we know they feel this way about each other from their first conversation)–but it DOES, if interpreted symbolically, express the hope that, if a World War Two style crisis should ever recur, the United States (Hunter–whose character was born in Boston) will be more on the ball about leaping to the defense of its natural democratic partner, Great Britain (Niven), regardless of the consequences.

One last bit about Roger Livesey (Col. Blimp himself!)’s Dr. Reeves before I go! Is this guy great or what? A master of psychology, neurology, chess and ping pong, he takes that Hippocratic Oath REALLY seriously, making sure that NO opportunity to help his fellow beings goes unheeded (thanks to his trusty camera obscura):


P & P’s oeuvre is FILLED with affecting dramatizations of friendship in action, but none of their characters ever did more for a pal than Dr. Reeves does by lurching into a fiery motorcycle crackup just in time to qualify to defend Niven on the plane above! I can’t help but read this last stroke of bloody good luck as a fabulous swipe at the logic of the film blanc (as internalized by Niven–“oh good, my friend is dead, now he can speak for me in Heaven!”)

This is a movie that has it both ways, delivering a superlative tale of Cosmic Balance, while exposing the narrow bar upon which the human psyche must tread, in order to keep the thing aloft–and all in the service of authorizing a better future that we had BETTER cash in on…

good afternoon friends!


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