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The Greatest British Films ever?,
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This review is from: The Powell and Pressburger Collection [DVD] (DVD)
If you look through listings when any of these films are shown on TV you will see five stars more often than not. In this box are eleven critically-acclaimed masterpieces from the greatest production/direction/writing team in the history of cinema. There is more wit, intelligence and visual & verbal inventiveness in five minutes of one of these films than in an entire year of CGI blockbusters from the Hollywood Hype Machine.
Please don't be put off if the only P & P film you have seen is "The Red Shoes". As special as this film undoubtedly is, it is also a rather dated melodrama that has tended to deflect attention from many finer films by this team. To give just one example: Imagine you are a film maker in the middle of a major European war. You set yourself the task of exploring the questions: "What does it mean to be "British"? What exactly are we fighting to preserve? How is it different for each of us? How important is it?" P & P approach this in an oblique and personal way that you just couldn't anticipate. I could watch "A Canterbury Tale" every day for a week and still feel that I had not exhausted its funny, touching intricacies or its evocation of an era.
One or two "obvious" choices are not included and there are some that are not quite up to the stratospheric standard of the greatest. Nevertheless, the films chosen are all very fine and at least six of them are unequivocal masterpieces. I would rather see a second rate film from Michael Powell than a first rate film from almost any film-maker working today. Not only that, but the price for which this set is being offered on Amazon is astonishing.
To make a more complete collection, I would add "One of Our Aircraft is Missing", "The Small Back Room" and "The Edge of the World".
A few individual comments:
49th Parallel - As a wartime propaganda piece it ought to be outdated but remains a marvellously watchable thriller as Eric Portman and his fellow Nazis, survivors of a torpedoed U-boat, try to make their way out of Canada and into (at that time) neutral USA. Eric Portman has the unenviable job of making the "evil Nazi" a credible character and does so with great skill. There are some surprisingly awful performances as well as some wonderful ones. Anton Walbrook, as a Hutterite farmer, has the difficult task of delivering the only overt ideological attack on the Nazis and manages to do it with total conviction but most of the message is slipped in elliptically around the story. We also get a fine musical score by RVW and atmospheric black & white filming. (The set-bound interiors sometimes sticking out like sore thumbs alongside lovely location shooting).
A Canterbury Tale - I'd forgotten the awful performance by the American airman that nearly scuppers the film for me. He's particularly unfortunate because those around him (Portman, Price and virtually all the major and minor characters) are so good. Even the small boys act him off the screen. What were they thinking of? Even so, this is a film that transcends one minor irritation. A very fine, low contrast B&W print with good sound. This is a very special film and I found myself moved to tears at the end.
A Matter of Life and Death. Famous for it's high concept and the meticulous attention given to the medical details. The technicolor Earth sections tend to bleed a little when panning and there are some odd artefacts in the B&W "Heaven" section at the end. Even so, the overall visual imagination here is very special and the three main leads give perfectly judged and very affecting performances.
I Know Where I'm Going - A touching romance filmed in fine B&W that evokes the Scottish landscape and the character of its people in a marvellous way. There's a sharpness to its wit and a message that still seems remarkably modern. I love this film and challenge anyone not to be affected by its tone and a great and satisfying ending that feels really earned.
Black Narcissus - A wonderful technicolor print and the perfect demonstration of the brilliant skills of the great Jack Cardiff (Cinematographer). What a terrific film. All the cast are very good but Kathleen Byron's role could so easily have been ridiculous or unbelievable. Instead, it's terrifying because of her stunning performance and the wonderful writing in the earlier scenes that lays the groundwork with perfect pacing and tension. The whole cast is stellar (even the normally-dreadful acting of Sabu seems to fit).
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - One of the greatest films made in England; this picaresque, rambling, philosophically subtle film has the best perfomances of their lives from Livesey and Walbrook. Deborah Kerr is also suberb as the three women in Blimp's life. Deftly differentiating them without overdoing the contrasts. All of this glows within Jack Cardiff's superb technicolor filming.
The Tales of Hoffman - A complete unknown to me before buying the box and a revelation. No real attempt is made to synchronise voices and actors but the story is illuminated with visual tableaux of striking boldness and the colourful, stylish presentation is arresting. Musically, with Sir Thomas Beecham at the helm, the standard is as high as you could wish. Moira Shearer gives a tour-de-force as Olympia. Probably the most brilliant dancing I've seen on film and, having only seen The Red Shoes previously, a great discovery. A fine colour print.
The Red Shoes - I have a slight problem with this one because I think that it has worn less well than some other P&P films and is dragged up regularly as if it was the only worthwhile picture that the pair made. I find Walbrook and Goring rather unconvincing here but Shearer is marvellous as both actress and dancer. I have to admit that the film looks fantastic and the long dance sequence remains a cinematic landmark. Another fine colour print.
Ill Met by Moonlight - The sort of early WWII story trotted out on daytime television that you would probably ignore. This would be a mistake. A cracking script and performances, especially from Dirk Bogarde, are married to a real tension and a tone that will seem startlingly modern to many unfamiliar with the film. It's worn remarkably well. The location B&W filming is atmospheric and the true story is told with great style.
Battle of the River Plate - Another one of those remarkable wartime stories that P&P seemed able to imbue with a self-deprecating (and very British) wit. Fantastic performances from a large cast of some of our greatest actors. The script sticks pretty closely to the facts and is surprising if you are unfamiliar with the details. Can anyone tell me of a better wartime Naval story?
They're a Weird Mob - Absurd that Michael Powell had to withdraw to Australia to continue making films after the critical opprobrium heaped on to "Peeping Tom". (In what way was "Peeping Tom" more shocking or tasteless than "Psycho"?) In truth, this film is more of an extended Soap and rather lightweight. Even so, it's examination of the classic "fish out of water" foreigner in a strange new country has an easy going charm and a light touch. The eccentric Italian visitor is taken to the heart of the locals and proves to be a fine chap indeed but the tone is sufficiently sharp to puncture accusations of sentimentality and is played with skill by a fine cast. Rather sweet but not too sickly.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Jan 2010 17:55:11 GMT
Chris H says:
A shame that They're A Weird Mob was not replaced by One of Aircraft is Missing. And when will Contraband and The Spy in Black turn up on DVD?
In reply to an earlier post on 20 Jan 2010 00:36:39 GMT
Ian Richardson says:
Indeed, but I have to say that "They're a Weird Mob" turned out to be much better than I had anticipated and I would probably have made no effort to see it if it hadn't been in the box!
In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jan 2011 14:46:02 GMT
Kevin 'Bionic' Jones says:
'They're A Weird Mob' is my favourite Powell movie, though they're all good of course.
In reply to an earlier post on 25 Sep 2012 05:16:14 BDT
Very few people other than Australians would have been familiar with it, but the book on which it was based was a phenomenal success in the late fifties in its home country, if not in the UK and is several times as funny and entertaining as the film, the hero of which was sadly miscast.
In reply to an earlier post on 26 Sep 2012 01:31:23 BDT
Ian Richardson says:
Wow! I can't believe what you learn on Amazon. Thank you very much for the information. It sounds as if the book is well worth tracking down.
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