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

The Small Back Room (1949)

The Red Shoes was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's greatest commercial success, and it put them in the position of making what ever suited their fancy.  They chose to adapt a novel by Nigel Balchin, they called it The Small Back Room. It was a complete 180 from their previous film. It was a study of one man, consumed by doubts and alcoholism, shot entirely in black and white, taking place mostly indoors during World War II.

They cast David Farrar, whom they had worked with on Black Narcissus, in the lead role. They cast Kathleen Byron, also from Black Narcissus, in the main romantic interest. The film was made on a small budget, and marked the beginning of Powell and Pressburger's decrease in popularity. It was well received critically, but it never found it's audience, and lurks somewhere in their forgotten films.

Sammy Rice is an expert on explosives living in London in 1943. He is an alcoholic, a trait he refuses to accept. His girlfriend Susan loves him, but he is constantly questioning their relationship, and he is never satisfied. One day, a man in the War Office brings him a new kind of bomb that the German's are dropping all over the country. He doesn't recognize the bomb, but he wants to be alerted if another was to be dropped.

He goes on wrecking his personal life, while more and more bombs are being dropped, and he begins to reach a crisis as political tensions in his department reach a boiling point.

You can separate Powell and Pressburger into two categories, Colour and Black and White. While their colour films can be fun, and flamboyant, it is their black and white films that truly exemplify their talent. Their black and white films tended to focus on  characters, rather than sets. The Small Back Room is one such character drama. It would have been perfectly suited to be a stage play (except for the bomb scene, but I'll get to that later), but the two directors manage to craft a fully functioning film.

Yet the whole thing rests on the shoulders of one David Farrar. Farrar did good work in Black Narcissus, playing second fiddle to Deborah Kerr's lead. Here, however, he truly gets a chance to shine. His Sammy Rice is a shadow of what he used to be, a nervous wreck. He keeps soldiering on, for King and Country, to watch while everything falls apart. Powell and Pressburger use a magnificent framing device. Every time Sammy goes to his apartment, there is a close-up on the keyhole. It's like every time he goes home, he drops his thin facade and truly becomes himself.

In one brilliant scene, Farrar is consumed by his need to have a drink, yet suddenly he becomes very small, and becomes crushed by a giant bottle. It is incredibly effective scene, showcasing the best work of Farrar's career, and the tension that is come to a boiling point later on. While the entire film is cliched, it actually uses the cliches to it's advantages. It spends little time setting up the characters, and you are left to base your understandings off your own knowledge.

However, Farrar may turn in the best performance of the film, but Kathleen Byron gives him a run for his money. Her character is made up of the oldest cliches in the book, but it just takes one look from her to crush them to the ground. She is outstanding. The rest of the cast turn in great performances, but I found all my attention going towards David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, and not to the supporting characters. There is however, one scene that stands out in particular. In it, Farrar goes to visit a dying soldier, to obtain information about a new type of bomb. The soldier is close to death, but he still tries to tell Farrar all he knows. It's a terrific scene.

The cinematography is wonderfully stark, and in glorious black and white. Pressburger's screenplay functions on all accounts. It provides emotion context, a great plot and a wonderful story arc. I'll take the time now to talk about the film's most famous scene. If The Small Back Room is remembered at all, it is for it's bomb defusing scene. The scene is incredibly thrilling, while providing an emotional climax for the film. In it Sammy is on his last string. He is drunk when he is called out to defuse a bomb. Someone else had tried it, and died in the process.

He arrives, tired and worn out, and decides to give it his all. The scene is incredibly harrowing, and easily the best of the film. There is one point where Farrar is puling on a lever. If he lets go, the bomb will explode, and he will die. He is pulling with all his life, as if concentrating all of his failures into this one moment, when he cannot fail. It is thrilling.

Powell and Pressburger direct with ease, trying something very different from their other efforts. Instead of spectacle and action, they focus on character, and it pays off. The film is not without flaw. It drags in some parts, and it contains cliches galore. However, in the end, it is nothing but an entertaining movie, if slight. It may not be their most well known films, but it it one of their best.

The Small Back Room,
Starring: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron and Jack Hawkins,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
8/10 (A-)

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

The Spy in Black (1939)

In 1939, Michael Powell was not a name anyone had heard of. Emeric Pressburger did not get credit as director, he was solely credited as writer. The Spy in Black is to Powell and Pressburger as Blacmail is to Alfred Hitchcock. They were both very small British films that set up great directors in their root to fame. The Spy in Black was created as a contract between the British government and the film industry  They were legally obliged to make pro-Britain films. These films were common in the beginning of Powell's career. Perhaps making pro-England films are what got him to his certain position. Therefor, this is an important film.

The Spy in Black is an incredibly hard film to find. Every print that is accessible is filled with audio problems. The print I had to watch had a 20 or so second delay in video from audio. Therefor, let us hope the film is picked up by Criterion or Kino some point soon.

Where does The Spy in Black currently stand? It has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 on IMDb. It is not The Archers best film in a long shot, or their most popular either. But it is a solid film.

Our story revolves around a man named Captain Hardt. He is a German submarine commander. He receives his orders one day and embarks on a travel to England where he is to make an attack. However, once he arrives there he meets a school teacher. Strangely enough, this teacher seems to know more than she should. But Hardt seems to be falling in love with her.

The Spy in Black is just filled with marvelous performances from every member of the cast. Conrad Veidt was perfectly cast in the role of Captain Hardt. He combines a somber respect for his duty with a devilish charm. Here we find Valerie Hobson in a strong performance as a female spy. She combines strength with her character along with the basic charm we have seen many times.

We have seen many film-noirs that are filled with clever twists in their writing. Although The Spy in Black is not officially a film-noir, it presumes the great plot and twists of one.

Here is an example of how budget, means nothing. Powell achieved a strong film than focused on cinematography rather than effects. Oh, and how the cinematography was excellent. This is stronger than most Powell and Pressburger films in that it demonstrates techniques that would seem foreign to them. Instead of using colour to create dream-like fun, they use black and white to create foreboding messages.

There is no fun in The Spy in Black. Not in the way that The Red Shoes is fun. This is a serious military film about undercover agents. I congratulate them on a mildly good film.

The Spy in Black,
Directed by Michael Powell
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sebastian Shaw and Valerie Hobson
6.5/10 (C+)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Tales of Hoffman
3. The Spy in Black
4. I Know Where I'm Going

I Know Where I'm Going (1945)

*The following review will contain spoilers. However, there are surprises in the film. It is very predictable and conventional like many films of its time*

At this point, in 1945, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had risen to fame around the World War II time period. They had created such successful films as 49th Parallel, One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. They knew that the end of World War II was approaching so they decided to make more personal films, such as A Matter of Life and Death. However, in 1944 there was no available Technicolor stock to shoot with. This left Powell and Pressburger in a mind-boggoling situation. They desperately need to create a film in black and white, very quickly. Pressburger proposed the idea for a film about a young woman who tries to get to an island, but by the time she can, she doesn’t want to. Powell raised an eyebrow and asked “Why can’t she go?” Pressburger shrugged and responded with “Let’s make it to find out.”

After that began the production of one of Powell and Pressburger’s simpler films. The script was written in practically no time. When they arrived to shoot on location in Scotland, everything seemed perfect. It was in Scotland where they met up with the major actress of the time, Wendy Hiller. They thought she was perfect for the lead role of Joan Webster. In fact, it was in Scotland where Michael Powell fell in love with supporting actress in I Know Where I’m Going, Pamela Brown.

I Know Where I’m Going is an important film in the chronicles of The Archers (the nickname for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). It was a film that represented the transition from World War II dramas to surrealist expressionist films such as The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman. Where does I Know Where I’m Going currently stand? Well, it’s certainly far from being The Archers’ most discussed film, however it did survive the thunderstorm known as ‘time’, unlike some other films such as Oh, Rosalinda!!. I Know Where I’m Going currently holds a very high rating of 7.7 on IMDb. The best way to view the film would be on the Criterion Collection.

For all of her life, Joan Webster has known where she was going. She has always demonstrated exceptionally mature and intelligent behavior.  We meet up with her when she is in her early twenties. She meets with her father and divulges the news of her engagement to a rich Scottish lord. Her father tries to convince her to back down, but she is too self-reliant to listen to him.

After embarking on an expedition to Scotland she finds herself on a small isolated island across from that off her fiancé’s castle. It is then a problem arises. She seems to be trapped on the island due to extremely poor weather preventing her from sailing across to her fiancé’s castle. She somewhat-reluctantly surrenders to the isolated island across from her fiancé’s castle. It is there she meets a young naval officer named Torquil MacNeil. Much to her surprise, she finds herself falling in love with Torquil. This sudden romance that arises puts quite the wrench in Joan’s plans.

When I say this I don’t mean it just for the pun… that’s just a benefit, but I Know Where I’m Going simply has no idea where it is going. There, I said. But the comment is truthful. We begin as a Lubitsch-ish. We then fade into a Preston Sturges-ish film. I have no problem with Sturges’ films, but I must admit it is a fair bit of a step down form Lubitsch. Then…  I Know Where I’m Going fades into a realm of utter clichés, conventional plot points and predictability. Allow me to elaborate. At the very end of the film, Joan is supposed to have left for the other island. Torquil is a state of mourning enters the gloomy premises of a cave he earlier stated he was opposed to entering. Suddenly Joan runs in, they embrace and walk off into the sunset. What I am attempting to explain is that I Know Where I’m Going goes from being a unique film about a headstrong woman, to a film about being as cliché as possible.

I Know Where I’m Going does to the Scottish as 49th Parallel does to the Canadians. Both films compliment their specific culture while honestly, being very offensive in their usage of stereotypes. In 49th Parallel, we see the Canadians riding bears, sitting around in what looks like Antarctica, speaking with ridiculous accents and having everyone have occupations such as ‘fishers’ and ‘hunters’. I Know Where I’m Going does not use stereotypes as poorly as 49th Parallel, but it is wrong to imagine I Know Where I’m Going is being respectfully to the Scottish. They dwell on hairy men in kilts, beautiful rivers and simply the worst accents I’ve ever heard. I believe The Archers had no intentions of offending anyone, but the definitely screwed up in demonstrating cultures.

I enjoyed Wendy Hiller’s performance as Joan Webster in I Know Where I’m Going. She demonstrated perhaps the only special aspect of the film. Yes, we have seen the “strong woman” type character in several of these films, but it is a little different in I Know Where I’m Going. In other films this type of character is always perfect, as if the entire of the film is “women are better than men”. In I Know Where I’m Going we dwell on people and do not zoom in on a specific gender. The idea of the film is perfection is non-existent. I guess the greatest thing says is “you never know where you’re going”. Life is not a plain road that you just drive down. You need to take several side streets in order to get to the your final destination. And sometimes, your destination may change. 

I Know Where I'm Going,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,
Starring: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey and Finlay Currie
6/10 (C-)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. Tales of Hoffman
3. I Know Where I'm Going

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)


As you may come to learn, Emeric Pressburger did not actually direct. As well, Michael Powell did not actually write. They simply were credited in the three categories of writer, producer and director. Therefore, it was Powell’s decision of who he would cast in the lead role. He initially wanted Laurence Oliver. This was a more than understandable desire considering Oliver has come to be known be many as a the greatest actor of all time. However, the Ministry of War refused to release Oliver from his military duty. What a pity. Instead, Roger Livesey was cast. After that, Anton Walbrook was cast. There is a famous exchange of dialogue between Walbrook and Wintston Churchill which I would like to shed some light on. Churchill stormed in on Walbrook while he was in his dressing room. Churchill declared “What’s this film supposed to mean? I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for England.” Walbrook glanced at him and replied with “No, people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to the people such unvarnished truth. This did not meet the approval of Chruchill. He denied Powell access to the military equipment that was needed for props. Powell claimed that to escape this situation… he stole the equipment.

The film was originally banned. After much protesting and reluctance, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was released in a much shorter version. In fact, in the United States, the film was released with the absence of approximately fifty minutes. It was also re-edited into a chronological story.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is among the most essential films in the works of history. It’s reputation as the greatest British film is a very popular opinion. It remains among the most popular film of directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Where does The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp currently stand? The film has a 8.2 on IMDb. The best way to view the film would be on the Criterion Collection’s restoration.

The film commences in a military training camp. It has just been announced the war is to begin at midnight. A group of young gung-ho military officers decide to cheat at war and attack the enemy before midnight. This would violate all the military rules. The troops barge into General Clive Wynne-Candy’s club where he is in the middle of enjoying a steam bath. The troops encircle him and try to take him into custody. As they do so, the General shouts about the injustice these troops are delivering. The leading lieutenant proceeds to insult the General’s large belly and ridiculous moustache. He then tackles the leading lieutenant. As he attacks, he pounces. This knocks not only him, but the lieutenant into a vast swimming pool.

We proceed into a long flashback where we watch the General slowly age. We draw comparisons to the soldiers who barged into his club and the younger version of himself.

The largest theme in the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is certainly the theme of time and how it passes. We observe how exactly the transformation of General Clive Wynne-Candy occurred. There are many comparisons to how people age, and how the elderly were once young and like as all. It comments on how the younger generations should truly listen to the world of the elderly as they have experienced the same things and have words of wisdom. Yet, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp also depicts the lack of honour that was lost in the generations. Even when General Wynee-Candy was younger, he may have been playful and careless, but he still lived by a code of honour. This concept of honour is lost among the young soldiers he sees in modern time. All of this is demonstrated to evoke the realistic life of General Wynee-Candy. This is a fabulous character analysis. Perhaps the deepest The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp gets is with his love life. The General is blinded by his love for a woman he met at the very beginning of the film. In his search for another woman who may perhaps act as a double for her, he stumbles into a metaphorical blindness. This theme is perhaps overdone when Deborah Kerr plays the other woman in the General’s life. This was a creative idea, but the multiple character aspect was slightly too overt for my liking.

Each frame of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is dealt with fabulous acting. Overall, the film is embellished in all-around solid acting. However, many may consider Roger Livesey to be the highlight of the film’s acting. I would personally beg to differ. The highlight of the film’s performances, for me, was with Deborah Kerr. She took on the challenge of pulling the strings between her multiple characters to have a compilation of necessary recurring details while making them unique enough to fully notice a difference among her characters. She clearly comprehended the essence of her character and her essential role to play with the character of General Clive Wynee-Candy. To speak frankly, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would have failed to live on as it did if I were not for Deborah Kerr.

Yes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is another example of what a big budget in the hands of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can get you. The film requires an elegant array of upper-class costumes. These costumes were perfectly selected to better match the characters and style in the film. On a similar note, the extravagant sets in the upper-class settings were extremely fitting. It is nearly impossible to create a film on such large a scale without the usage of humongous sets. In the state of mind, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp nails it.

In this film, Powell and Pressburger demonstrate their skill of physically positioning characters. I mean to speak of how exactly they have their actors positioned in separate angles and positions. The characters are layered in their positions and constantly are carefully placed in unique directions of the screen. I mean to explain how one character may be leaning against a wall at the back of the frame while another stands directly before the camera. This creates a layered effect that resonates throughout. However, I did notice one major fault in the direction of Powell and Pressburger. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp suffers from camera angles and camera movements that are in no way innovative, or interesting for that matter. They knew how to use Technicolor, so they figured that they wouldn’t need to know how to use the camera to its best possible potential. I mean to speak of the manner in which the camera sits before the characters in close-ups and then cuts to a long shot. The camera only pans and never considers moving in any other motion. Using the camera was not exactly Powell and Pressburger’s strong suit.
There are many people who find The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp boring. I would not go to such extremes in any long shot, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is slow at times. In an attempt to give us the full pictures of the General, the directors went overboard and gave us a little too much. This resulted in a fraction of our attention to be lost somewhere in the second third.

But The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp never delivers and drastic disappointments. After completing the film I found myself deeply satisfied with its ranking as a cinema classic.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook
8/10 (A-)

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
2. The Tales of Hoffman

Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Tales of Hoffman (1951)

The Tales of Hoffman was first started when Michael Powell heard Thomas Beecham playing piano and singing all the parts. It was then Powell realized he should make "The Tales of Hoffman" into a movie. As I have watched a few Powell and Pressburger films I have learned they are obsessed with the upper-class. Observe The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Tales of Hoffman. There is something within the lives of the rich that they seem so interested in. The Tales of Hoffman is not their most popular film, but it is among their greatest.

"The Tales of Hoffman" was an opera originally preformed in 1981. Powell and Pressburger have a vast taste in art, and it is clear they are a big fan of Broadway shows. They were very fond of the opera, and were very careful to be faithful. However, since The Tales of Hoffman was created primarily for an English-speaking, therefor the language of the opera needed to be changed. At times the lyrics don't seem quite write, but if you put that aside - you will enjoy the film.

I believe the main reason The Tales of Hoffman was made was to go behind the stage. When you watch an opera you sit in a far seat on a stage. However in The Tales of Hoffman we move around as the character are restrained to one small stage.

Hoffman is an elegant and handsome poet. One day he goes to see his new love, Stella preform in a ballet. After the ballet he goes to a tavern and recounts the stories of his failed attempts at love. There are several distinct and bizarre reasons for these failed attempts. For example, one of the women he loved was revealed to be simply a mechanical doll.

Hoffman soon learns that there is more than just misfortune responsible for these failure with love. In fact, there may be an evil presence seeking vengeance against Hoffman.

Everyone who has watched a Powell and Pressburger film is familiar with their usage of Technicolor. It is not used with more skill in The Tales of Hoffman, but I believe it fits the story more. Powell and Pressburger's theory on the use of colour was that it should be used if they had enough money in their budget. This at times lives us with a film that does not benefit from Technicolor, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. However, The Tales of Hoffman uses colour to make people, objects and scenes go beyond reality into a realm of dreams. That is perfectly suited for the plot and style of The Tales of Hoffman.

Whenever there was a close-up on a character in The Tales of Hoffman I felt very distracted. Powell and Pressburger give the direction to slobber their actors and actress in make-up to the point when they look like cartoon characters. This is especially strange considering this is completely unnoticeable in the long shots.

The Tales of Hoffman is filled to the very peak with extravagant and luscious costumes. Overall, they contributed to the fantasy of the story. However, in a large-budget Powell and Pressburger film, what can you expect? I would have disappointing if the costumes were a little less than they were. Yet, they were still very impressive.

A majority of the actors and actresses in this film act as if they were in a silent film. That statement may seem as if it were positive... so let me elaborate. When the characters in silent films over acted to demonstrate their emotions it was done for a reason, to convey the characters feelings when they could not say "Gee... I'm hungry." However, The Tales of Hoffman is not a silent movie. Although all the dialogue is through song, the words convey their characters thoughts perfectly. There was no need for this over-expression of emotion.

I have a problem with the casting in The Tales of Hoffman. As we learned in this film and even before in The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer is a fabulous dancer. She is also a marvelous actor. However, she is not a beautiful singer. In order to adapt "The Tales of Hoffman" there is a certain kind of voice that is required. Moira Shearer does not have this voice. In fact, it is my belief that she was hired because of her other contributions with Powell and Pressburger. They most likely had a good relationship since 50% of the films she acted in were Powell and Pressburger films.

There are several overlapping themes in Powell and Pressburger films. Once I noticed after I watched The Tales of Hoffman was how the two filmmakers enjoy drawing comparisons between two characters by having two separate actors or actresses play them. In The Tales of Hoffman Moira Shearer plays Stella, Hoffman's current love and Olympia, one of his loves. However, like all Powell and Pressburger films there is one film where a current theme in used best. This is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp were Deborah Kerr plays several of Colonel Blimps lovers.

At this point I have neglected to mention one of the most jaw-dropping aspects of the film. The Tales of Hoffman contains beautiful styles of dance. I am no expert dance, in fact I cannot even point out what was good about it, I can just tell you there was a great deal of dancing talent within the cast.

Powell and Pressuburger are more concerned with style over film making with The Tales of Hoffman. There is not a single unique camera angle or camera movement. The entire film is practically a compilation of long-shots, mid-shots and close-ups. The Tales of Hoffman positions it's camera and makes us watch with no personality of the camera.

My final point is about the transition of a stage opera to a film opera. If you are an opera fan, I suggest watching the opera over seeing the film. There is a stage presence that can only be captured on stage. There is a feeling of seeing live humans preform the art that can never be captured on camera.

Powell and Pressuburger's The Tales of Hoffman misses greatness but certainly dwells as a 'good' film that uses elements we've seen before in their films.

The Tales of Hoffman,
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Powell,
Starring: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Robert Rounseville
7/10 (B-)

1. The Tales of Hoffman