#117 (tie) – The Red Shoes (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

The Red Shoes (1948)

Why do you want to live? Powell & Pressburger pile on the visuals to create an extravaganza of music and dance in their final Sight & Sound film, The Red Shoes.

Ah, ’tis a sad day here in the land of Movie Yammers. Once upon a time (aka the beginning of 2014) S. and J. had a happy prospect ahead of them: six whole films by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Why, six films is almost an eternity of entertainment! And so we ventured forth through the dizzying days of Colonel Blimp to the Himalayan heights of Black Narcissus. But through it all we knew one day the Powell & Pressburger films (as well as our capacity for alliteration) would come to an end, and so they have with The Red Shoes (1948). And while we might no longer be dancing through Canterbury or Scotland — much less through the heavens themselves — The Red Shoes is a pretty grand way to end a run like no other on the Sight & Sound list. Loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the film recounts the story of three ambitious artists — a ballerina, a composer, and the director of a ballet troupe — as they struggle to balance love and art. Like the filmmakers’ Black Narcissus, plotting and character development are often a bit secondary in The Red Shoes, with the focus more on raw emotion and artistry than reason or sense. And through its kinetic ballet scenes and painterly blasts of Technicolor, The Red Shoes overwhelms with a torrent of visual splendor and daring quite unlike any other film. So, as David Bowie once insisted, “Let’s dance!” (135 min.) Continue reading

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#154 (tie) – Black Narcissus (1947), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus

Nun too difficult. You are almost contractual obliged to use a bell-ringing shot atop any article about Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. And there is little wonder why, as this movie about a group of nuns atop a mountain in India is a visual feast of extraordinary sumptuousness.

After four movies set firmly within wartime Britain, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger finally put World War II behind and look to the outskirts of Britain’s colonial empire for their fifth entry on the Sight & Sound list, Black Narcissus (1947). Though set in the mountains of northern India, the film sticks with a predominantly white, English cast (unfortunately even for a number of Indian roles), presenting the trials and tribulations of a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and clinic in a mountaintop palace. Few in number and living in isolation, the nuns (led by Powell’s beloved Deborah Kerr) struggle with their living situation, the local people, and among themselves as they try to cope atop the mountain. The film uses the nuns to delve into questions of faith, duty, colonial attitudes, lust, love, and madness. But the treatment of these themes is generally superficial, with the movie preferring to work more as an exercise in tone and image. And in that regard Black Narcissus is a thrilling work of art channeling the compositions of Vermeer, a liberal dash of Orientalism, and a sinister Technicolor palette to create an unreal world where enlightenment and derangement sit side by side. (100 min.) Continue reading

#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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He’ll take the high road. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey star in this charming romantic comedy from Britain’s great filmmaking duo as a social-climbing young woman and a down on his luck Scottish laird.

With “I Know Where I’m Going!” we yammerers are already through half of Powell & Pressburger’s six entries on the Sight & Sound list. But with our chronological approach that’s hardly surprising, given that the duo scored a list-worthy movie a year for six consecutive years. “I Know Where I’m Going!” is something of a departure from the previous films we have discussed, if only because it is much more straightforward and fast-paced than the epic Colonel Blimp or the genial A Canterbury Tale, but it is not without a serious dash of whimsy and visual flair — hallmarks of those earlier films. The story follows Joan Webster, an ambitious woman who has been working to rocket up the social ladder since she was a toddler. She is about to be married to a wealthy industrialist about twice her age, and heads up to the Scottish Hebrides islands for the ceremony. But stormy weather waylays her and throws her in the company of Torquil MacNeil, a Royal Navy officer and Scottish laird of little fortune. Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story, but what “I Know Where I’m Going!” lacks in unpredictability it more than makes up for with excellent humor, beautiful cinematography, and a playful surrealist streak that makes the most of its fairytale setting among the peaks and heather. Continue reading

#117 (tie) – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.

Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 min.) Continue reading

#93 (tie) – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Gad, sir, Major General Wynne-Candy is right. War starts at midnight in Powell & Pressburger’s warmhearted satire of British conservatism in the face of the German blitzkrieg.

In the 1930s, New Zealand political cartoonist David Low devised the character of an old school military blowhard as way to satirize the right-wing politics of his adopted country of Great Britain. Bald, red-faced, and walrus mustachioed, Colonel Blimp was meant to sound like the product of another era — out of touch but insistent; dimwitted but righteously certain. But when it came time for Blimp to make his debut on the silver screen, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to take the character in a rather unexpected direction. Sure, the beached whale we’re first introduced to in a Turkish bath is very much the man from Low’s comic, but the filmmakers decided not focus on the man that is.  They instead turn back the clock to show us how he became a caricature of conservative bluster. So from a one-panel, one-note joke of a comic we get a four decade exploration of honor, love, war, and true friendship as we follow the life of Clive Candy from vivacious young man to bloated relic. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) has been referred to in some corners as the “British Citizen Kane“, and while a bit too simple, that description is largely apt, as Powell and Pressburger contrived a multifaceted narrative that attempts to explain the life of an iconic man. And the duo manage to pull it off with a wealth of clever storytelling, hugely sympathetic performances, and some of the best color cinematography of the era. (163 min.) Continue reading