Sunday, 5 May 2013

Contraband (1940)


World War Two must have been Powell and Pressburger's bread and butter for 7 years. From 1939-1946, all they made was war movies. War thrillers, war propaganda, war romance, A Canterbury Tale, and war battles. They would revisit the genre later on, but during those 7 years, they pretty much had one subject on their mind. They also weren't the only ones. Hitchcock and Reed had Hitler on their minds for that period as well, and all three accomplished directors at one point made a very strict kind of film. Reed made Night Train to Munich, Hitchcock made The Lady Vanishes and Powell and Pressburger made Contraband, among others. All these films adhere to a very strict formula. There is a dashing anti-hero at the core, a tough woman for him to fall in love with, British spies, a couple of witty sidekicks, an evil Nazi for him to battle, and a time limit in how long his exploits can continue for.

Here, the dashing anti-hero is Danish sea captain Conrad Veidt, the tough woman and the British spy (what a combination!) is Valerie Hobson, the witty sidekicks are Hay Petrie and his troupe of waiters, the evil Nazi is Raymond Lovell and the time limit is that his ship leaves at dawn. All these elements come together well, and provide for an entertaining 90 minutes. So why does the film feel lacking? Well, because it feels formulaic. I've seen this all before, and I've seen it done much better. It's like when you watch a romantic comedy. If it adheres to the formula at all, it's going to feel tired. While this kind of film belongs to a much smaller niche, it still belongs to one.

It isn't really the fault of the actors. Veidt is a solid leading man, and he does well in the part. He manages to convey a sense of heroics while still managing to almost alienate the audience with the demeanor. However, you can't help but feel like he's just filling in for someone like Michael Redgrave or Rex Harrison. Veidt is a great actor, but I feel like he is a much better character actor than leading man. In a film like Casablanca, he excels in a supporting role. Here, his performance feels a little half baked.

In the female role is Valerie Hobson. She gives the performance that Margaret Lockwood gave, or that most female actresses at the time were regulated to. The "tough" woman who falls for the manly male lead, without so much as a line of dialogue. Sure it's unbelievable, but it's part of this movie's charm. The film doesn't feel like it's set anywhere but in a kind of fantasy world. All of these war thrillers have no realistic stakes, but they give the audience enough enjoyment to have them not to think much. Basically, it's like the forties version of superhero movies.

Anyways, back to Hobson. She does well, but there is nothing to write home about. She gives a really average performance in a really average movie. That's the gist of it. In supporting roles, Hay Petrie plays an eccentric chef in London who helps Veidt to beat up some Nazi's. His role is also quite typical of this film, but that does very little to diminish the enjoyment of it. Raymond Lovell plays the evil Nazi in London who kidnaps Hobson and Veidt, and he does it well, but I again hasten to use the word "average".

The screenplay, written by Emeric Pressburger, is really nothing special. It feels like it was done quickly, and Pressburger didn't really care about it, injecting the film with  the typical standards of the time and then just dashing off a throwaway plot with it. He never feels to have invested much in the film, and the end result is just average. Pressburger was an amazing screenwriter when he wanted to be, but it appears that here he didn't want to. The score of the film is really nothing special at all, and it's actually kind of boring, but I guess this kind of film doesn't really need a good score.

However, it should have good cinematography. Perhaps it was just the copy I had, but the visuals on mine were scratchy and hard to see. As most of the film takes place at night, the film is dark. However, in some scenes I couldn't see what was going on. I could sometimes see Conrad Veidt's shoulder, and I could here him walking, but other than that I had no idea what was going on. It was kind of frustrating, and it made it a bit hard to see exactly what was going on. However, what I missed visually I got through the audio, as the characters had a tendency to explain exactly what was going on when it happened.

The direction by Michael Powell was nothing but average, and he feels at points like he is just going through the motions. He shoots his film in a boring way, and this has an impact on the audience as well, as we too can get bored during long scenes. Powell never seems invested in the film at all and it definitely shows on the final product. He does nothing to improve on the formula from which he draws his material, and thus it begs the question "what was the point?" The point, was to make a movie.

Overall, this film is entertaining, but quite average. Nothing here is special, but nothing here is bad either. This film is just a straight shooter, and it aims not for greatness, nor for mediocrity. Instead, it's just okay.

Starring: Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson and Hay Petrie,
Directed by Michael Powell,
6/10 (C-).

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Small Back Room
5. The Red Shoes
6. The Tales of Hoffman
7. The Spy in Black
8. Contraband
9. A Canterbury Tale
10. The Battle of the River Plate
11. I Know Where I'm Going
11. One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing

Sunday, 28 April 2013

One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)

British Men Sit In Fight Jets While Bickering Back And Forth Battling Nazis

The problem for propaganda films is this: for some people it makes them feel proud and patriotic, and for some other people it just feels awkward. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is not only awkward for the audiences, but it is even more so for the filmmakers. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is so blind to anything but the magnificence of Great Britain's flag. Although I rather like Great Britain and I obviously do not like Nazis, One of Our Aircraft is Missing still managed to come to a giant mess, even though I was naturally routing for who they wanted me to.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing is blind. I think that is the best way of putting it. It is blind to anything that may increase it cinematically. It is playing safe with the ignorance of the audiences of the time and even the ignorances of audiences today. They simply show what people would want to see, no more, no less. For that reason alone, One of Our Aircraft is Missing was a rather large success upon it’s release. I suppose it could be considered a way of escaping from the then current horror of World War II, but does that mean it should still be watched today? Absolutely not.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing was pulled together so fast it is almost incredible. It was also whipped together very cheaply, and trust me, it shows. The film looks as though it was shot on the most inexpensive camera Powell and Pressburger could possibly find. The cuts are rugged and the old 35mm film has been clearly damaged of the course of the last sixty years. For these reason, One of Our Aircraft is Missing is painful to the eyes. In wouldn’t be until 1943 with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, that the Archers would realize their calling for shooting a fabulously coloured and positioned Technicolor film. So here, in 1942, only one year away from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp they make a completely stylistically opposite film. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was lavish and beautiful where as One of Our Aircraft is Missing is rough and hideous.

I have never read the actually screenplay for One of Our Aircraft is Missing, but I have heard it is sloppy and a great deal of the film was improvised on the spot. The story is also jumpy, it feels structureless and sloppy. We go from one event to the other with no smoothness in between. For this reason, One of Our Aircraft is Missing is even more aggravating to watch!

Eric Portman starred in many other films by The Archers, and he has never been worse than he was in this failure of a performance. It seems that he did not care about delivering a realistic performance. What he focused on, was making sure his British accent was cool and made all his lines sound witty. Well, at least he succeeded with that one.

Googie Withers is not half bad as a Dutch agent, despite having a very mediocre accent. Withers is a fairly good actress, and it struck me here that she truly understands how The Archers wanted her character to appear as in the film and Withers understood how to get her character to come in such a way. Her character and Joyce Redman’s character are two strict agents of the Dutch resistance and although they are not  characters that demand profound interpretation and intensive method acting to master, they are certainly interesting characters who are both well played. I’ll take the moment to promote two films I love; if you want to see Googie Withers in three great performances check out Dead of Night, The Lady Vanishes and Night and The City, all of which she is superb in.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing seems to be Powell and Pressburger trying to have a fun time. However, The Archers clearly have a strange definition of entertainment because One of Our Aircraft is Missing is my definition of boring. It is slow-moving and it meanders over that which we could care less about. The less twenty or so minutes of the film are actually fairly well done. Perhaps Powell and Pressburger decided to put all of their effort into the very end of the film, and not the rest of it.

I can tell what The Archers were aiming for (pun intended) with One of Our Aircraft is Missing, but as pretentious as this may make me come across as, I felt the film was more for an audience of less dedicated film watchers. The film is not terrible, but it certainly isn’t good either!

One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressubrger
Starring: Eric Portman, Googie Withers and Joyce Redman
★★½ /★★★★★

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Small Back Room
5. The Red Shoes
6. The Tales of Hoffman
7. The Spy in Black
8. A Canterbury Tale
9. The Battle of the River Plate
10. I Know Where I'm Going
11. One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

49th Parallel (1941)

NOTE TO VIEWERS: Cinema Stripped Down will now only show the sections "The Plot" and "The Film" when the author deems that these sections are relevant enough to be featured. If the film has a boring, or uninteresting history, THE FILM will not be feature.

49th Parallel Or: How Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Went To Canada and Made One Of the Best Propaganda Films of All Time.

When one thinks of propaganda, we most likely focus on "evil" propaganda, such as Nazi films or Soviet films. Perhaps we even think of more modern, biased "impartial" news broadcasts, or productions. When people think of England's propaganda films of the WWII era, most of them think of them as more of  "movies" than "propaganda". While that may be true, they were made to try and bolster a nation's waning confidence in a losing war. While it is remarkable that many of these films still stand up today, some were made for other purposes. The purpose of 49th Parallel was to get The United States to join in the war.

You see, Britain was fighting a losing battle. The once powerful nation had, in the space of two years, had gone to barely hanging on. They needed help, and what they got from Canada, Australia and the other nations in the British Empire was minimal. But America didn't want to join in with out having to, and in 1940, there was no reason to (Pearl Harbour would occur after this film was released.) This film was Powell trying to show those Americans how nasty those Nazi's were. And it worked, kind of. The film as a big hit, and teh U.S. joined the war effort at the end of the year (probably had less to do with this film, and more with the Japanese attacking Hawaii).

The film is (basically) about a group of Nazi's wandering around Canada and trying to escape, first to overseas, then to the US, where they could be shipped back to Germany. It is also terrifically entertaining. Being from Canada, I have heard from a friend that this film is full to the brim with stereotypes (Eskimos, fur trappers, politeness), but I am sure that at the time that those kinds of people exist. Also, I have heard that there is a scene where a man fights a polar bear...which there isn't.

Anyways, stereotypes aside, this is a great film. For starters, the acting is great. I mean, look at that cast! Anton Walbrook, Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey and Eric Portman. And they are all great. Portman here is miles away from his sticky role in A Canterbury Tale (Such a sentimental movie!). Here he is slimy, and most definitely evil. He may not be the most accurate Nazi, but he is pretty unappealing. He carries with him a kind of smirk that personifies pure craftiness, and whenever he sports it, I sort of want to punch him in the face.

It helps him that he is surrounded by great actors playing some seriously heroic characters. Olivier's French Canadian is incredibly funny, but in a few short scenes, Olivier manages to capture the viewer and ultimately sadden them. Indeed, he is the best character in the film. Never has such a few scenes produced such an endearing, incredibly human character. What a sadness it is when the film moves on from him (and the imaginary super-Eskimos fighting polar bears).


But when it does move on, it comes to Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is good, and he has a great speech where he denounces Nazi's. But his few scenes few to captivate the film in such a way as Olivier's. It also doesn't help that his is the weakest section of the film. The Nazi's encounter Hatterites, a religious group who live in a relaxed manner. In this section we also find a "nice" Nazi, and that plot line feels kind of half baked. Portman is quite good here. From this section the film moves to....

The next section focuses on Leslie Howard as a rich, English writer who lives in a teepee and writes about Native tribal studies. He meets them and insults their leader (without knowing they are Nazi's), and then is tied up. Howard is quite good here, and is very relatable in the role. He is very foolish, meaning the walking-towards-a-Nazi-who-has-a-loaded-gun kind of foolishness, but impeccably charming and goodhearted all the same. His incredibly cool actions under fire make everyone wish they could be so cool (well, maybe just me).

The final section showcases Eric Portman going head on with a Canadian GI in a freight train bound for Niagara Falls. The scene features a lot of preachy dialogue (democracy is amazing!), but it provides a fitting conclusion to the story so far. Raymond Massey, who plays the GI, is actually quite interesting. He plays a very boring part in a very interesting way, and I find his face to be fascinating. He manages to make the audience care for him, and gives us one last interesting character.

I hesitate to use the word "epic" when describing a film. For one, it has become increasingly overused in our modern society (Ex. "dude, that was epic") and it is mostly confined to films such a Lawrence of Arabia. However, the scope that this film manages, in such an intimate matter really makes me want to describe it as such. Pressburger's screenplay must have had something to do with this. It presents a story of scenes woven through a thin narrative fabric, but the genius lies in it's deceptively simple nature.

If you were to take one look at 49th Parallel, you could disregard it as wartime fluff. If you were to look at it a second time, perhaps you would think it was an adventure film. For a third glance, you could say it was a character study. A forth will reveal hidden commentary. By the fifth time, you are most likely over analyzing the film. But this kind of provoked thought that lies beneath a layer of entertainment is fascinating, and if one wishes to go fishing, you just need to put the bait in the water and see if the fish bites (I hope that analogy makes sense).

If the screenplay gives the actors good material, than the score gives us rousing wartime strings, and a resounding sense of patriotism. And that's it. Meaning it's a pretty average score, and not really that memorable. The cinematography is very nice and pretty, but doesn't stick out like Black Narcissus or The Small Back Room.

And now to the direction. Michael Powell manages to keep the entertainment at an almost unattainably high level, and he does it while telling the good ol' USA to get off their backs and pitch in with their old friends over at the UK. His technique is such that we rarely feel bored, and he gives us a light airy tone that can easily turn dark when it wants to. Powell's direction is conventional, perhaps, but good in any respect.

The thing that truly separates 49th Parallel from, say, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is it's enthusiasm. While Blimp is technically better than 49th Parallel, but this film sweeps over you like a bubbling tide, while the other slowly crawls to cover you with tepid seawater. This film has all the scope and entertainment to be a bonafide classic adventure film, with some generally unlikable protagonists. But it is relatively underrated. Perhaps it has dated, perhaps it is one stereotype too much for some people, or perhaps some just don't like it.

I don't quite know. But I do know one thing, this is a great film.

49th Parallel,
Starring: Eric Portman, Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard,
Directed by Michael Powell,
8/10 (A-)

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. 49th Parallel
4. The Small Back Room
5. The Red Shoes
6. The Tales of Hoffman
7. The Spy in Black
8. A Canterbury Tale
9. The Battle of the River Plate
10. I Know Where I'm Going

Friday, 29 March 2013

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

The Canterbury Tales was the first major piece of literature to come from England. Indeed, it was a novel that proved that works of art could be made in English. So flash forward 900 years. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have just come off of their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They were eager to move on to another project, and Powell thought of an idea. One of the most famous works of the English language, transposed to the modern day.

They chose to tell the story in a city near Canterbury, and have the film climax in Canterbury itself. Due to damage from the war, they had to rebuild part of the church in a set to shoot the last scenes. On release, it was a large enough success, and today it belongs to the prestigious Criterion Collection. The film itself has a 7.6 on IMDb, and on Rotten Tomatoes, it has no score, but all of the reviews given are highly positive. Having been sandwiched between two of Powell and Pressburger's most popular films, The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp, and "I Know Where I'm Going!", the film isn't Powell and Pressburger's most famous outing, but it is by no means their worst.

A young girl, who works for the agricultural committee, a young American soldier who got off at the wrong stop, and a British man who is spending a couple days on leave before going abroad with his troops. Together, they all get off of a train at a station in Kent, just before Canterbury. They are tired, and head to town, to find a place to stay, when a man in uniform comes out of the shadows and pours glue in the girls hair.

They chase the "glue man" to town hall, where he seems to have disappeared. There, they meet the mysterious magistrate, a man who is the governing body of the town. Unable to find the glue man, they head their separate ways, however they will come together again in search of the glue man. all the while, they become enamored with local history, and the plot indeed, begins to thicken.

The mystery element in the plot is very much a red herring. Neither Powell and Pressburger seem very interested in it. However, the goal that they truly held, was to show everyone how beautiful Canterbury is.  I will not deny that the city and the surrounding countryside are not beautiful, Kent certainly looks like a very beautiful lace. However, the film plays pretty much like a travelogue, climaxing in a portrait of Canterbury, and how it is a miraculous city.

It seems as if I didn't like this film. I didn't. The characters were stereotypical, a scene was completely laughable (more on that later on), and the plot itself was not that interesting. Yet it could have been awesome. At the beginning of the film, there is a shot of a medieval caravan and a man throwing a falcon in the air and watching it, while a lute plays in the background. Then the falcon turns into an airplane, and the man turns into a modern day soldier. This is an great shot, and I was hoping that the whole film would be as interesting, but I was sorely disappointed.

It may not have been the actors, but their characters perhaps. For example, the American sergeant is  such a typical depiction of the kind of "aw-shucks" American stereotype. It doesn't help the actor playing him is doing it in such an unbelievable way. By this I mean that, the character is so unconvincing. All he cares about is going to Canterbury for his mother, and he is waiting for some letters from his girl. He never blows his top, he is just such a typical stereotype, as a lot of the characters in 49th Parallel are.

Also rather uninteresting is the lead female, who is the glue man's 11th victim. She is immediately enamored with her surroundings, and becomes very interested in the history of the area. Her fiancee is missing in action, and she has no one, but her work as a farm hand. She too has a kind of unbelievable innocence to her, as if she is not part of a real world. And it works more to the film's detriment than to it's benefit. The third man making up the mysterious party, Peter Gibbs, a British soldier. He is the most realistic of all the characters but he has this kind of stereotypical "Britishness" to him, that makes him too seem like a stereotype.

And the fourth major player is the Magistrate. I have no problem with the actor playing the character, Eric Portman, but his rendition of the character is really annoying. I guess he is the villain, but he tries to provoke pity, and it comes off half baked. He reads his lines in such an obvious monotone, that it makes the already bad mystery take the turn for the worst. I'm going to talk about the end now, so **SPOILER ALERT** The magistrate really wanted people to know about local history, but no one was interested.  When an army base opened nearby, he thought the soldiers would come to his lectures, but they were too busy with girls. So He dressed up as an army man, and poured glue on girl's heads, so that the soldiers would have nothing to do, and come to his lectures instead. That has to be one of the silliest reasons to commit a crime I've ever heard. Then they go to Canterbury, and a miracle happens to each. A miracle. Really? **END SPOILER ALERT**

Part of the blame for the frankly ridiculous has to go to the script. It seems as if it was written on the fly. The first twenty minutes are interesting, but then the film really goes down. It just isn't that interesting. This is not truly a propaganda film, like 49th Parallel or In Which We Serve, but it feels as if it is written that way. But the whole message of the film is...go to Canterbury? According to this film, if you make the pilgrimage, than a miracle will happen. Once again, really?

The cinematography is very nice and pretty. There are plenty of shots of light shining down on the characters and on Canterbury of course. It's all very well done, and aesthetically beautiful, but it really can't save the film from mediocrity. The score itself is also rather humourous. At points it will soar in intensity, as when they get to Canterbury, but for the most part is is rather unremarkable. The sets, and locations are rather beautiful, and you can tell that care was put into them. The church sets are very nice and pretty, and I am sure that Canterbury Cathedral is very pretty in life.

I am struck by something that the American soldier said. He talks about how much he loves movies, but then the Magistrate says that once you've seen something in a movie, it isn't as impressive in real life. What I found interesting about this is that, Powell and Pressburger are doing exactly what the Magistrate seems to loathe, so are they telling us that if we go to Canterbury it won't be as impressive in real life as we have seen the film. Are they telling us to not see the film? I'm confused.

And now to Powell and Pressburger's direction. It is really quite average. I can see why they would want to do this film. It's very nice visually, and it wraps up many of their themes and ideas from the time into one film. However, that one film isn't very impressive. It had great potential, of course, but no direction could have made the story better, unless you completely changed it around. Many have liked this film, I am not one of that crowd. I enjoyed, and I respect it's tone, but the film runs out of steam quickly on. Ah well, at least it isn't the worst Powell and Pressburger. At least, I think it isn't.

A Canterbury Tale,
Starring: Eric Portman, Shelia Sim and John Sweet
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
6/10 (C)

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. The Small Back Room
4. The Red Shoes
5. The Tales of Hoffman
6. The Spy in Black
7. A Canterbury Tale
8. The Battle of the River Plate
9. I Know Where I'm Going

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Red Shoes (1948)

An original release poster for, The Red Shoes.
The Red Shoes is the most well known film to come from the partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It is considered to be their greatest film, and certainly their most iconic. To this day it's influences have done nothing but increase. Many film directors consider The Red Shoes to be among the great films to inspire their style. Can The Red Shoes be all that everyone says it is? Read on to see...!

Upon original release, The Red Shoes was a massive success among the film critics. Sadly, it had the opposite affect on the box office in the UK. The finances behind The Red Shoes didn't trust that it stood a chance in making any signification amount of money since it was an art film. After Powell and Pressburger's dismay, they re-marketed the film. After doing this, it went on to become the sixth most popular film in the 1948 box office.

Then The Red Shoes came to America. After the re-marketing in the UK, The Red Shoes, it went on to become a box office smash in the United States. In fact, the film stayed in theatres for 110 weeks. It was not long before it was calculated to be one of the highest grossing British films of all time.

Want an example of how pretentious artists can be? At first, ballet trainers, performers and critics wrote in review of The Red Shoes, praising it's fabulous performances of dance. Soon, word came around that The Red Shoes was not an internationally popular film. Suddenly these reviews of congratulations from the ballet experts stopped coming in. Some of the previous writers of the reviews, wrote in to explain they were incorrect, and this was a horrid film. They didn't want to possibly give congrats to a mainstream film! Even though the dance sequences were better than many a ballet.

When Academy Award season came around, there was some speculation whether The Red Shoes would be credited for the awards it deserved? Indeed, it was not snubbed. The Red Shoes was nominated for Best Art Direction (won), Best Music (won), Best Film Editing (lost), Best Writing (lost) and Best Picture (lost).
Here, we can see the famous red shoes!

Where dose The Red Shoes stand today? It's importance increases in the modern world every day. It is popular, not only among cinema-lover, but among everyone.  It exemplifies beauty in dance and art. The best way for viewing The Red Shoes is on a DVD from The Criterion Collection. It currently holds a very high 8.2 on IMDb and a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. One thing is for sure, nobody is going to be forgetting The Red Shoes any time soon!

A classic still from The Red Shoes. Here, Vicky is torn
between two worlds.
A stuck-up ballet impresario named Boris Lermontov, is feeling generous one day, when he gives life  changing opportunities to two unheard of artists. The two artists are, Julian Craster and Victoria "Vicky" Page. Craster is a very intelligent and very young composer. Craster never expected such luck. Vicky Page, an also young and equally unheard of artist. Vicky is a dancer with great talent, but little money. After going through training, she is given the lead in the ballet "The Red Shoes", which is to be conducted and composed by Craster.

Everything is at it's best. "The Red Shoes" is a huge success, which makes Vicky into a very large name! However, she soon finds herself in love with Craster. He loves her back. This is not what Lermontov intended for. He believes that once you are engaged in the art of dance, there is no room for dance. What will Vicky choose, her successful career in the dance industry, or her love for Craster?

Here you can see the great make-up
 job done on The Red Shoes.It makes the character look animated.
As I mentioned earlier, in my review of The Tales of Hoffman, these types of films are more suited for Technicolor than some other Powell and Pressburger, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where it seems the decided, "Hey! We have money! Let's shoot in colour!". However, it all seems to make sense in The Red Shoes. Technicolor elicits the dreamlike fantasy aspects of the film. In order to fully deliver these themes, they also accurately use make-up to make everything seem slightly surreal.

I will try to focus on the aspects of The Red Shoes that I have knowledge on, and the aspects that have not quite been discussed as often. However, it would be a terrible review if I did not credit the brilliantly haunting score by Brian Easdale. Once I re-watched The Red Shoes, I was immediately struck by the completely eeriness of the score. It will forever be etched into my memory. Finally, I also must congratulate the dance. I am in no way well-versed in such a subject, but I can tell when it is well preformed. It is well preformed in The Red Shoes.

So far, I have never seen The Archers use their camera so appropriately. Usually, they use the camera as a camera, it's only purpose being to record the events depicted in the film. However, in The Red Shoes, the camera seems to have a little bit of a life of it's own. For example, there is a great scene in which Vicky Spins. We would then cut to a POV shot (Point of View shot) where the camera spins. This is unlike many other Powell and Pressburger films where all we use in the forum of camera angles are close-ups, mid-shots and long shots. It was great to see The Archers attempted (and succeeding  at something new!

In the film of Powell and Pressburger, you almost always find very marvelous performances from a very marvelous cast. The Red Shoes, is in way an exception. Moira Shearer, who sadly acted in very few films, delivers a spellbinding performances in this film. I was in a state of awe as I watched her dance, and I was in a state of awe as I watched her struggle between two separate worlds.

As the film lengthens, The Red Shoes enters an unfortunate territory. It becomes a fair bit too melodramatic for my liking. It is not simply the idea of her having to choose between love and her career, it is more the execution of it. There are long scenes in which Vicky ponders over what she will ever do... I really began to not care. If you find yourself in a situation where you don't care about the lead character of Vicky, The Red Shoes. Luckily, the film ended before I could personally find myself in such a situation.

The entire last third of the film rests on the sheer evilness of one character. That is Boris Lermontov. His character simply did not work for me. He is evil, he hates it when he sees his beloved ballerinas leave him. Throughout the film he always seemed, stuck-up, but never evil until the end. This transformation is so sudden, that I did not believe it. Although the performance by Anton Walbrook as Boris Lermontov is not bad, it is not great. The leading problem with that character is the writing though, not the acting.

When we complete a viewing of The Red Shoes, one thing that it is impossible not to take back with you, is the imagery. I don't want to over-explain anything, especially since if I did I would have to spoil the ending. See The Red Shoes, then we can talk.

The Red Shoes,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring
7.5/10 (B+)

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. The Small Back Room
4. The Red Shoes
5. The Tales of Hoffman
6. The Spy in Black
7. The Battle of the River Plate
8. I Know Where I'm Going

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is a true demonstration of how far Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would dare go for the sake of a film. I consider that to be a theme I will focus on in this article.
A Matter of Life and Death is best known for the great difficulty The Archers went through in order to create the film the way wanted it, rather than being known for enjoyable antidotes about the production.

For example, in A Matter of Life and Death there is a sequence in which Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey play a game of tennis. They were both some of the worst tennis players imaginable. However, Powell and Pressburger were keen on the tennis sequence  Rather than alter the scene, they hired Alan Brooke to teach Hunter and Livesey to train them in the field of tennis. After a drastic improvement in tennis-playing skill, Hunter and Livesey were able to shoot the sequence. Just for additional luck, Kim Hunter borrowed Brooke's tennis racket for the game when they shot.

The stairway dividing the world of Earth and the world of Peter Carter (David Niven's character 's visions was crafted by the same builders who created the London Passenger Transport. The stairway "Ethel", took three months to build. To make matters more difficult, Ethel costed $3,000 pounds. This was in pounds, therefore it is more than Euros. AND, this was in 1946, therefore it would have been far more expensive. The staircase had 120 steps, each were 20 feet wide.

In the courtroom we see in the world of Peter Carter's visions, there is a large cloth that is shown to represent that the courtroom goes on into infinity. The cloth was 350 feet wide and 40 feet tall. Eight other clothes of similar size were crafted for the world of Peter's visions.

Kim Hunter was not a popular actress at the time. The Archers had intended for Betty Field to play the role of the American girl Peter falls in love with. However, Field lived in America and it was difficult to schedule a meeting between Powell, Pressburger and Field. Afterwards, Alfred Hitchcock made a recommendation that The Archers use an actress named Kim Hunter. According to Hitchcock, she was a fabulous actress who had auditioned for Notorious. However, Hitchcock went with Ingrid Bergman instead. Unable to let Kim Hunter's talent go to waste, he demanded that The Archers use her in A Matter of Life and Death. Kim Hunter became rather successful after her performance in A Matter of Life and Death. She went on to star in such films as Planet of The Apes and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Where does A Matter of Life and Death stand today? It is deemed among many to be one of The Archer's finest films. It currently holds an 8.1 on IMDb and a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 Peter Carter sits in the front of a burning aircraft. He calls into mission base knowing full well that he is soon to die. On the other line an American woman named June answers. After we learn the basis of these two character Carter's plane crashes. After this we learn that all of the member of Carter's aircraft - except him - have arrived in another world. Those who run the alternate world are frustrated, because Carter is supposed to have died.

Carter awakens in the middle of the ocean. He swims out onto land. After being created by a naked teenager he realizes he is awfully close to where June lives. They continue their romance. However, soon those from the other world come to take Peter back into his rightful passage of death. However, this goes against Carter's plans. He has just fallen in love with June and refuses to return.

Carter is taken into a court case to decide whether he should be given the privilege of staying on Earth to be with the woman he loves - or to resume his rightful position, as a dead man.

As I watched A Matter of Life and Death, I was struck by a sudden realization. Finally, this was the first Powell and Pressburger film I'd seen to use Technicolor in a comprehensible manner. In,  A Matter of Life and Death, black and white is used to symbolize the world of Carter's visions and Technicolor is used to represent "the real world". This leaves The Archers a change to do what they're great at - using Technicolor. However, this time, they're able to do it without us raising an eyebrow at their intentions.

This is without a doubt the most intellectually stimulating film I believe The Archers ever directed. They deliver great insights into reality that may be misunderstood by some viewers. The world they create is not that have heaven. The only referral to it as being heaven is when a disillusioned solider (played in his one speaking line by the great Richard Attenborough) states "this is heaven!". However, as the voices in the opening claims, the other world is not one familiar to anyone else. It is not heaven, or any after life belonging to any religion. This is a new world, and many were unable to wrap their around that. Many "religious-fanatics" were not impressed by  A Matter of Life and Death since it openly (in their opinion) states that there afterlife is not heaven, it is this "other world". Yet,  A Matter of Life and Death never states such a thing. We are never told whether or not Carter's visions are real. For all we know, he could be an old man in a mental institution dreaming all day long. For once, there is subtly in a film by Powell and Pressburger. Therefore, any person who believes that  A Matter of Life and Death contradicts with their religion  has clearly not paid attention to the film and should think it over once more before making such an accusation.

I'll put a quick note and say that the concept behind  A Matter of Life and Death is one I found very clever and unique. It is a touching story that combines a rather unrealistic love story that The Archers would be fond of with a very creative twist to it.

 A Matter of Life and Death would not be the same without Allan Gray's score. It combines the fantastical side of discovering the other world with the hopelessness of Carter's love. Gray has worked with Powell and Pressburger in many of their other films, but his soundtrack has never been so poignant before  A Matter of Life and Death.

 A Matter of Life and Death features a strong cast delivering strong performances. Kim Hunter is your typical female lover that you would find in a film of this time period, and yet she evoked my sympathy for some reason. Over the course of watching these film by The Archers, I have found Roger Livesey to be one of my favourite actors now. He adds much to  A Matter of Life and Death as he plays a clever and witty man standing up for Carter. However, I was slightly disappointed by David Niven in the role of Peter Carter. I think the role could have used a "Niven-esque twists" to it. In the opening sequence, we see what Niven can do as a comedian. After that, we never get to see that side of him again. It is as if he has a sudden change of persona. The great, Raymond Massey is fabulous in this film as the prosecutor against Carter. Although his character's hatred for Carter is slightly unrealistic  what can you expect from a dead man? However, the cake certainly goes to Richard Attenborough for muttering his one line... but oh... the power in his voice!

 A Matter of Life and Death is a fun film with great acting and new insights into existence. Be sure to see it!

A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven),
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey
9/10 (A+)

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. The Small Back Room
4. The Tales of Hoffman
5. The Spy in Black
6. The Battle of the River Plate
7. I Know Where I'm Going

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)


In 1956, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had peaked long ago. It is said that the two filmmakers never made a good collaboration after The Battle of River Platte, their most successful film.  However, Powell did have a little left in him as he went on to make Peeping Tom, one of the greatest horror films of all time, four years after The Battle of River Platte.

The film was conceived when The Archers were invited to a film festival in Argentina, two years before The Battle of River Platte was released. Being two very busy filmmakers, they could not afford to take time off of work, so they decided not to relax on this trip. They spent their time researching a Admiral Graf Spee, a German naval officer. It was then they were referred to a novel called "I Was a Prisoner on the Gaff Spee". The British naval officers who had recommended it to Powell and Pressburger were very fond of it, therefore they assumed it must of created the emotions they want their film to create.

In late 1955, filming of what would later become known as The Battle of River Platte began. This would be the swan song for The Archers, and they knew it.

For once in the entire history of film, the producers of The Battle of River Platte were persistent on the fact that the film pay great attention to detail. They figured that many members of the audience would be offended should the film not follow historical events. Therefore, The Archers decided it was necessary to shoot using real ships. Most of the action that we see aboard the ships, was really shot on ships. It order to afford all of these rental, they required a large deal of money. This was not a problem however, considering the fact that The Battle of River Platte had a massive budget. In order to keep up with all of the action aboard the ship, Powell and Pressburger rented another ship to put their camera on.

The Battle of River Platte was given three awards at the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). These awards included: Best British Film, Best British Screenplay, and Best Film of Any Source. It is undeniable that The Battle of River Platte was a success among film critics and audiences  as it was The Archers' most successful film in the box office. Where does The Battle of River Platte stand today? Sadly, it has faded not only in respect from audiences but it had also faded in popularity  It is now one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's most unknown films. It's most popular purpose for being viewed is one that I myself have conformed to. That purpose is because it is a film by Powell and Pressburger. Their name is what grabs audiences into it. The Battle of River Platte currently stands at a 6.5 on IMDb, this is the lowest ranking of any of any Powell and Pressburger collaboration on IMDb. On Rotten Tomatoes, it holds a very solid, 80%. The puts it in a tie for the lowest Powell and Pressburger film on Rotten Tomatoes with The Small Back Room being at the same percentage.

The Battle of River Platte is considered a classic, not because it is a great film, but solely because it was an old one.

The Battle of River Platte is the story of a World War II. Captain Bell is the captain of a ship called The Exeter, one of the many ships in the process of chasing after the German battleship, the Graf Spee. When there is no way that the ship can escape, Admiral Graf Spee steers it into an area protected by the Uruguayan government.

Soon, Admiral Graf Spee must make a decision between battling the many British naval ships that stand in his way, or he must hide out, like a coward. This results in one of the greatest filmed naval battles.

The Battle of River Platte is possibly best known for the fact that it does not represent the German Nazis as emotionless, zombie-like people. Unlike other films of around that time (such as Night Train to Munich) it does not exhibit sequences in which the Nazis are seen doing evil deeds. They are simply personified humans on the other side of battle. Many may think this is a bad thing. People believe the Nazis are emotionless evil people who deserve to die. I believe Nazis are humans, who are mostly in the war for the same reasons as everyone on the other side; to defend the country they were born in.

That said, The Battle of River Platte way not throw dirt on the Nazis, but it certainly does the opposite of it's own country of England. Never have I seen such patriotic love for one's own country. This film states, England is the best, England always win and such other nonsense  I consider this to be the most patriotic film since David Lean's In Which We Serve (just listen to the title to get an idea of how patriotic it is). We have learned that when The Archers try to give credit to another nation... they usually screw up (observe such films as 49th Parallel and I Know Where I'm Going). However, when Powell and Presburger finally try to give the same treatment to their own country... they succeeded. This is most likely because they knew how to properly represent their own country, and because they knew The Battle of River Platte would be watched primarily by British citizens. What I'm trying to say is, I don't like a patriotic film. I don't care whether it is promoting my country or another one. Such films are so opinion based that I consider it impossible to affect a person of another nationality than the one being represented in the film.

Although there is one clearly great performance in The Battle of River Platte, it seems rather deluded of great acting. Peter Finch delivers the great performance I mentioned earlier. He plays Admiral Graf Spee, a man who is caught between two choices. However, there is a large cast in The Battle of River Platte, and that is possibly the main problem. Such a largely diverse cast makes it difficult to tell several of the characters apart from each other. This also fails to give time for each character time to develop. The only character who does get a change to develop is Admiral Graf Spee, and that's why he's the only well-acted character.

Such a grand scale that we become familiar with after watching several Powell and Pressburger films is certainly visible in The Battle of River Platte. In fact, it could be said that it is more visible here than in any of their other films. Here we observe what an extremely large budget can get you: authentic British and German war ships, authentic naval costumes, and some very realistic battle effects. That said, it's not too hard to let The Battle of River Platte suck you in.

Perhaps it was only me who had this problem, but The Battle of River Platte could have been cut down to about 90 or so minutes. There were several moments of both dully executed dialogue and moments of dully executed action. Certainly the producers could have once done what they do best and cut down a film, because for once, The Battle of River Platte is a film that would benefit from it.

The Battle of River Platte is filled with historical details that pass through one ear out the other due to an elaborate array of special effects. However, The Battle of River Platte is very realistic, and overall an enjoyable film.

The Battle of River Plate,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch
6/10 (C)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Small Back Room
3. The Tales of Hoffman
4. The Spy in Black
5. The Battle of the River Plate
6. I Know Where I'm Going