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The Powell and Pressburger Collection [DVD]
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Collection of eleven classic films from influential filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. 'The Battle of the River Plate' (1956) tells the true story of the famous 1939 naval battle. Hans Langsdorff (Peter Finch) is captaining the crack German battleship Graf Spee through the South Atlantic, unaware that a small number of lightweight British battle cruisers are hot on his trail. When the British cruisers manage to trap the powerful German ship in the Uruguayan harbour of Montevideo, they attempt to trick Langsdorff into believing that an entire battle fleet is waiting to destroy his vessel at sea. In 'A Canterbury Tale' (1944), a British sergeant, a land girl and a United States Army officer arrive at a Kent village on the same train. The newcomers are brought face to face with the bizarre menace causing bewilderment in the tight-knit community: someone is pouring glue onto the hair of girls who dare to venture out at night with visiting servicemen. Powell and Pressburger offered this 'propaganda' piece as their contribution to the war effort, but the authorities were unsure how its oddball tone would go down with the Allies. In '49th Parallel' (1941), Laurence Olivier and Leslie Howard are among the stars who try to prevent Nazi sailors, from a sunken U-Boat, reaching neutral USA through Canada in this classic war film, which was intended to persuade America to join World War II. Pressburger won an Academy Award for the story and the film was directed by Powell. In 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945), a woman (Wendy Hiller) has always known what she wanted in life, and now she is about to marry a millionaire. But when she ends up stranded on a Hebredian island due to a storm, she begins to see things a little differently. 'Ill Met By Moonlight' (1957) was the final film created by Powell and Pressburger together. Set on the island of Crete during the Nazi occupation, the film stars Dirk Bogarde and David Oxley as British officers assigned to kidnap the German commander-in-chief General Kreipe (Marius Goring) and spirit him back to Cairo. If successful, the morale of the Germans would be weakened and the resistance would be stronger. But once he is captured, the British officers have to get him past German patrols at almost every turning. In 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' (1943), stuffy ex-soldier Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) recalls his career which began as a dashing officer in the Boer War. As a young man he lost the woman he loved (Deborah Kerr, who plays three roles) to a Prussian officer (Anton Walbrook), whom he fought in a duel only to become lifelong friends with. Candy cannot help but feel that his notions of honour and chivalry are out of place in modern warfare. The film's title comes from 'Evening Standard' cartoonist David Low's satirical comic creation, Colonel Blimp. In 'The Red Shoes' (1948), ballet impressario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) hires up-and-coming ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and talented young composer Julian Craster (Goring) to work with him on a new ballet, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story 'The Red Shoes'. The show is a great success and Victoria and Julian fall in love, but Boris is jealous and makes moves to spoil their happiness. 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) is a classic wartime propaganda movie, commissioned by the Ministry of Information, but turned into a fantastical allegory by the Archers, aka Powell and Pressburger. David Niven plays an RAF pilot who is ready to be picked up by the angels after bailing out of his plane. But an administrative error in Heaven leads to a temporary reprieve, during which he must prove his right to stay on Earth. A tribunal in heaven ensues to decide the case. In 'They're a Weird Mob' (1966), Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) is an Italian immigrant who arrives in Australia with the promise of a job as a journalist on his cousin's magazine, only to find that when he gets there the magazine has folded, the cousin has done a runner and the money his cousin sent for the fare was borrowed from the daughter of the boss of a local construction firm. 'The Tales of Hoffman' (1951) is an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera and follows Hoffman's (Robert Rounseville) tales of his love for the doll Olympia, the courtesan Giuletta (Ludmilla Tcherina) and the frail diva Antonia (Anne Ayars), and of how his quest for the eternal woman was always thwarted by evil. Finally, in 'Black Narcissus' (1946), a group of British nuns are sent into the Himalayas to set up a mission in what was once the harem's quarters of an ancient palace. The clear mountain air, the unfamiliar culture and the unbridled sensuality of a young prince (Sabu) and his beggar-girl lover (Jean Simmons) begin to play havoc with the nuns' long-suppressed emotions. Whilst the young Mother Superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), fights a losing battle for order, the jaunty David Farrar falls in love with her, sparking uncontrollable jealousy in another nun, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).
The Powell And Pressburger Collection contains eleven Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell films. Titles in the box set include:1. “A Matter of Life and Death”
2. “The Red Shoes”
3. “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”
4. “A Canterbury Tale”
5. “I Know Where I'm Going”
6. “49th Parallel”
7. “Battle of the River Plate”
8. “I’ll Met by Moonlight”
9. “They're a Weird Mob”
10. “The Tales of Hoffman”
11. “Black Narcissus”
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What was it that made Powell and Pressburger so special? It would be easy to dismiss films like A Canterbury Tale or I Know Where I'm Going as dated sentimental tosh. Yet they are both anything but - moving, involving, strong on characterisation, visually stunning and evoking an intense sense of place (Rural Kent in the former, the Western Isles in the latter). 49th Parallel? Just blatant propaganda! But then there are those stunning Canadian landscapes, the moving characterisations superbly acted by Anton Walbrook, Leslie Howard and, at the other extreme, Eric Portman. Are Ill Met by Moonlight and Battle of the River Plate just a couple more British War Movies, typical of their period? No, both take a different slant on their reality-based material. In Plate, for example, the big battle scene is over before 2/3 of the film is done and yet the potentially anticlimactic scenes in Montevideo harbour and the final scuttling of the pocket battleship are just as exciting, just as fulfilling an ending as any shoot-`em-up finale. What's Black Narcissus but a high-camp melodrama about nuns going potty with sexual frustration in the Himalayas? No, as a study of women isolated by climate, culture and celibacy as well as topography, it's masterly. (OK, Kathleen Byron in scarlet dress, a slash of lipstick across her mouth and rolling eyes is a bit OTT - but I wouldn't swap her for the world.)
Are these, then just comfortably and quintessentially British films? The truth is that there is much that is technically groundbreaking about their work. Kubrick's famous time-travelling jumpcut from bone to spaceship in 2001 was there a quarter of a century earlier in the cut from hawk to Spitfire in A Canterbury Tale. The integration of music and dance with narrative in The Red Shoes paved the way for much of Gene Kelly's best work, not least an American in Paris. Long before the days of CGI Powell and his technical team were conjuring magic on celluloid. Think of A Matter of Life and Death with its endless stairway to heaven or the amphitheatre court which is actually the Andromeda nebula - as well as all the tricks with colour, with freeze-frames and so on. The Himalayas of Black Narcissus are a glorious tribute to the masters of glass-painting and backdrops, to the imagination of set designers, to the physical skills of cameramen working with false-perspectives where an inch or two wrong on the camera can ruin the illusion - all shot on the soundstages of Pinewood!
They also brought out the best in their actors. One of Niven's finest pieces of acting (at least before Separate Tables) in Matter of Life and Death: the endearingly human Roger Livesey in I Know Where I'm Going, Matter of Life and Death, but most of all as the wonderfully real, deep, touching Candy in Colonel Blimp. Anton Walbrook, too, touchingly proud then frail in that film as well as the strong Amish leader of 49th Parallel and the driven impresario in The Red Shoes. Eric Portman, so capable of conveying the ambiguities of Colpeper as well as the certainties of a Nazi U-boat captain. Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, Deborah Kerr, Peter Finch, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey and so many others produced some of their best work under Powell's demanding direction.
No wonder the likes of Scorsese, de Palma and the rest rate Powell & Pressburger so highly and learnt so much from them. These elusive, tantalising, moving, talented men are worthy testimony to British movie-making at its best. My only gripe is that there wasn't room for The Small Back Room and especially Peeping Tom in this collection.
Of the remaining 5 in the set, River Plate is solid, if also rather stolid, 49th Parallel is the afore-mentioned humdrum, Ill Met is neither outstanding nor awful, and Black Narcissus is a little like Red Shoes in that it's odd, albeit not quite as good. The only one in the collection that I'd rate less than 3* is Tales of Hoffman, and that's only because it's an "art" film, rather than a story film; it's dance, using two of the principles from Red Shoes, and it's not my cup of tea. Eleven films for £17 (at the time of writing); 2 5's, 4 4's, 4 3's & 1 depends-on-what-you-like, for less than £2 a time? How can you not buy this!
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