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THE BEST OF BRITISH FILM-MAKING
on 16 March 2007
As fine a collection of British movies as you'll find, here are all the great classics from the Archers - no, not the Ambridge mob but the matchless directing/writing team of Powell and Pressburger. A round dozen films, each of them a gem of the skill and craft of film-making, each of them distinctive and exceptional in its look, its content and its style.
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.