Criterion Sunday 341: A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I can see from reading others’ reviews that there are a lot of big fans of this Powell and Pressburger film, made in black-and-white and telling a wartime story of three people (pilgrims if you will) in Kent, a Women’s Land Army volunteer (Sheila Sim), and two sergeants (the British one played by Dennis Sim, the American by a real Sgt John Sweet). And to be fair by the end there were plenty of positive things to be said about it, but perhaps my own impressions were negatively affected by my first impressions, which are of the kind of British officers you get in contemporary films (and certainly in P&P productions) of clipped RP accents delivered peremptorily and with a fair dollop of condescension, competing for annoyance only with the (non-actor) American sergeant’s incomprehension at all the very British people around him treating him like dirt, until of course they finally relent and show some compassion. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mysterious local putting glue in women’s hair, though this doesn’t remain a mystery for too long and is all resolved in a jolly and very English sort of understanding way (despite the unexamined underlying weird sexism of the whole thing). But this is a wartime film about people of different backgrounds coming together to learn something about what they are really united for, and if you’re willing to go along with that broadly patriotic premise (albeit executed without too much grandstanding insistence), then it’s a good film. It’s also — and this is perhaps key to my ultimate feeling of positivity towards the film in the end — absolutely gorgeously lit and photographed, with a deep focus and deep shadows, alongside shards of beautiful light punctuating each frame.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • When it was a box office failure in the UK, Powell re-edited the film heavily for the American market, dropping a lot of it, but also adding a prologue and epilogue with its American protagonist (Sgt Sweet) and his wife in NYC as he talks about Canterbury, then at the end, with her there, impressing upon her the closure he achieved in visiting. It’s a little heavy-handed, of course, rather eagerly over-explaining using stats why there was an American GI in England in the first place, which is probably why the distributor wanted it added.
  • It’s a packed double-disc edition, with a number of featurettes about the film, but one of the key extras that contextualises the feature film within its era is Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s short film Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic propaganda film, bold in its use of sound to evoke a sense of a country united in wartime. Of course, it’s a very particular sense of nationality (and watching this on Mubi, I get the sense in their programming that putting this the day after a more recent British short film in which British Pakistani identities are examined is a pointed move), but that doesn’t detract from the artistry. The sound comes from fragments of speech in social settings, from news broadcasts, songs, the sounds of nature and of course the background drone of the warplanes and of industry. It’s all very compelling and beautiful, in its way.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 28 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 173: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Powell and Pressburger were certainly at the height of their powers in the 1940s, judging from the glorious beauty of their finest works in this period. Blimp surely ranks as one of them, even if it were just for some of the eye-catching dresses modelled by Deborah Kerr, playing basically all the women in the two heroes’ lives. For a film made mid-war, it’s surprisingly lacking in jingoistic patriotism (which may account for some of the rather frosty contemporary reviews). Indeed, it has a ‘good German’ as a lead (Anton Walbrook), inveighing against the Nazis, and even hints that crippling post-World War I reparations may have driven Germany towards Nazism, as chummy Oxbridge types bray and laugh while making vague sympathetic noises towards the defeated Germans back home in Blighty. And whatever blustery old fuddy-duddy Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) may think constitutes English fair play when it comes to war, the film’s core tenet is that we need to get over that and learn to punch Nazis. Surely a timely message that we should all still get behind.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook; Length 163 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 31 March 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 September 2017).

Criterion Sunday 94: I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

This is a light, frothy and rather silly romance from Powell and Pressburger, made towards the end of World War II. It’s not exactly a comedy, but the way that the ceaseless forward momentum of Wendy Hiller’s middle-class Joan founders on the rocks of Roger Livesey’s unflinching Torquil is a comic scenario expertly mined by the writer-directors. Joan is marrying a wealthy industrialist on the remote Scottish island of Kiloran he’s leased, while Torquil is the Laird of Kiloran, not rich but happy for the income. He’s staying with a friend in a mainland port town where Joan has become stranded due to bad weather, waiting to get out to the island. Where the comic setup gets silly is in a local curse that’s been placed on the Lairds, which is invoked in the denouement. Still, that’s all of a piece with this snappy film, which really conveys a great sense of the windswept bleakness of this stretch of coast: the viewer really feels all that rain and wind, especially in a boat-set scene so churning one is happy for the camera to return to stable land.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 5 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016).

Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016).

Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is famous for ruining Michael Powell’s career due to the venomous rage with which it was received on its release, yet there’s a lot now to say about it. Certainly you can see elements within it that might not have endeared it to a filmgoing public (or critics) brought up in an era before this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho of a few months later had such a profound effect on what it meant to do film horror. It’s a tortured allegory about the role of the filmmaker, as Michael Powell’s stand-in Mark Lewis (played by German actor Carl Boehm, later to star in a number of Fassbinder movies) is obsessed with filming women while he kills them, one of his victims being The Red Shoes star Moira Shearer. Powell himself shows up in cameos as Lewis’s sadistic father, an academic whose specialism was the concept of fear, so clearly this story of filmmaker-as-torturer was one that appealed to him personally (whether or not Powell himself was a particularly tyrannical director, though surely he was no Hitchcock in that regard). In any case, the result is a beautifully-crafted film, filled with rich saturated colours, and largely taking place in the London rooming house that Mark owns and partially lets out to a family, whose daughter (Anna Massey) strikes up a friendship with Mark. (For connoisseurs of London, there are also some fetching street corner scenes in Soho and Fitzrovia.) It may have inspired no end of graduate essays for its deconstruction of the wall between filmmaker, actors and audience, it’s also a fascinating film to watch and one which exerts a real psychological hold.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell; Writer Leo Marks; Cinematographer Otto Heller; Starring Karlheinz Böhm [as “Carl Boehm”], Anna Massey, Moira Shearer; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 28 June 2001 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 October 2015).

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS at home, Wellington).

They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below. PS I’m on holiday at the moment, so that’s why you won’t see any new releases on review this week!


The English director Michael Powell and the Hungarian emigré Emeric Pressburger are remembered for many fine films over their long career, and justly so (I particularly like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943, though all film lovers should have their favourite), but this last collaboration is probably not one of them. Looking back almost 50 years later, it’s very much an historical curio from a time long gone, of a quite different Australia — for indeed, this is an Australian film and it is set in Sydney.

By all accounts it was a very popular film the year it came out, and no wonder, for on the one hand it was based on a best-selling novel, and moreover there were only 15 features made in the country during that entire decade. In essays about Australian cinema appearing in The Oxford History of World Cinema (ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) and The Cinema Book (ed. Pam Cook), the film is singled out as a notable production preceding the flourishing of Australian cinema talent the following decade. It also attracts academic discussions as a key Australian film of its era (such as this one in the Australian online film journal Senses of Cinema).

That said, for a casual viewer who is an outsider to Australian culture, it’s still a very likeable comedy of, well, being an outsider. As a tale focused around an Italian immigrant to Australia (Nino, played by Italian comedic actor Walter Chiari), the perspective of the outsider is one embedded in the film. Just as he is, so are we introduced to this strange country (with some, thankfully brief, obligatory flipping of the image to indicate ‘Down Under’) and its strange language and customs. This indeed provides most of the humour in the first half, as Nino stumbles through a series of encounters with Australians (a taxi driver, a man in a pub, a group of builders) and their colourful use of Antipodean slang. He eventually takes a job as one of the builders, and gains their trust and respect.

It’s all fairly basic stuff, illustrating what is at heart a chauvinist culture — “it’s a man’s world, sweetheart” the film’s final song cheerfully informs us as all the characters, male and female, crack open beers — though there is a (rather perfunctory) sub-plot of Nino finding love with business-like Kay Kelly (played by Clare Dunn), certainly no stooge of the men around her. The gender relations may not be particularly surprising for a film of this era, but it is at least quite sweet-natured about immigrants. Sure, there’s a lot of mildly derogatory slang (by all means correct my spelling, but “aye-tie” seems to be the most frequent one for Italians, though there are some uses of “dago” too), but there’s little actual discrimination against Nino, and the only really bitterly racist character is ridiculed as a drunkard who’s already shunned by his compatriots. There’s also a nice conversation near the end with Kay’s gruff and suspicious dad (Chips Rafferty, apparently an icon of blokey Australian-ness), where they are brought together in understanding by a picture of the Pope, of all people.

As a good-natured and well-meaning view of how one imagines the majority Australian culture of the 1960s liked to see themselves, it’s a pleasant enough ride. It doesn’t condescend to the labourers who are, after all, central characters in the story, and — at least with respect to immigrants from Europe — it shows an affably (if at times gruffly) welcoming people.


CREDITS
Director Michael Powell; Writer Emeric Pressburger [as “Richard Imrie”] (based on the novel by John O’Grady [as “Nino Culotta”]); Cinematographer Arthur Grant; Starring Walter Chiari, Clare Dunne; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 23 May 2013.