Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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With assistance from Marshall Deutelbaum
Gilbert Adair from London
Film Comment January-February 1981
In recent years, Michael Powell has so often been referred to as an undeservedly neglected figure that he is fast turning into one of the most widely discussed of all filmmakers, and anyone venturing into such well-trodden ground must ponder awhile whether he can significantly contribute to the debate. Yet his reputation is still mobile enough to make it irresistibly tempting for the critic to put his five cents' worth in before it settles. My excuse is that - concurrent with a season at New York's Museum of Modern Art. and the startling announcement that at 75 Powell had been coaxed out of retirement by Francis Coppola - BBC television was at last honoring him with a retrospective of his work.
The season was launched with a newly struck print of what has to be the most idiosyncratic of even his films, A Canterbury Tale (1944). For so long has this extraordinary brainchild been labeled "the one about the man who pours glue on girls' heads in the blackout" that I came to it wholly unprepared for its density of texture and theme; that mysterious glue was merely the stuff which holds it all together. It starts with shots of Chaucer's own pilgrims en route to Canterbury, sturdy beldams in wimples and elegant young squires with falcons draped negligently on velveteen sleeves. One of these birds is released on the sky to become, in a cut modestly predating 2001, metamorphosed into an RAF bomber, [Spitfire] over the image of which we now hear some very sub-Chaucerian shaggy doggerel.
It's only in the film's fourth quarter that the trio of modern pilgrims - an American GI, and English officer, [sergeant] and a land girl (a wartime agricultural laborer) actually reach the Anglican Church's "holy city" and their various, if inter-twined, destinies. Most of the running time they use to track down the identity of the Glue Man, while making the serendipitous discovery that everything is connected: past and present (the land girl seems to overhear atavistic echoes of medieval singing and laughter, also 'picked up' by the soundtrack), England and America (the GI delightedly swaps tree lore with a rustic timber merchant), high and low culture (the officer, a cinema organist in civilian life, is offered a chance to play at Canterbury Cathedral), and so on.
In this, as I've suggested; the Glue Man himself (a magistrate disheartened by the fact that the local soldiery prefer spending their evenings off in feminine company to attending his illustrated lectures on the region's history!) plays a largely incidental role. He is significant, however, as a symptom of the submerged but innate sense of decorum that acts as a brake on Powell's flamboyant assaults on the canons of good taste (aided by his collaborator Emeric Pressburger). Thus it never occurs to the amateur sleuths that there might be some dark sexual gratification behind such a uniquely peculiar mode of retribution that, for whatever reason, someone who pours glue on girls' heads might be sick. The question simply goes unraised. For a director famed for his kinkiness, Powell's cinema is fatally lacking in implications. However systematically he exasperates, even pulverizes, traditional British "niceness", it obstinately remains (except perhaps in Peeping Tom) the yardstick by which his most outre fantasies are measured. Powell and Pressburger were indubitably eccentrics - but eccentricity, not normality, is the enemy of the truly strange. A case in point is Black Narcissus (1947), based on a Rumer Godden novel about a group of hysterical nuns cloistered in the Himalayas. To be sure, the film does subvert most of the hallowed codes into which its woman's-picture subject matter would seem to have it locked; even the exotic title refers to a perfume purchased the the Army and Navy Stores in the Strand. But, disappointingly, the object of its much exaggerated eroticism turns out to be (foreshadowing Eric Rohmer's infinitely more pervasive essay on the subject, Claire's Knee) David Farrar's knees, of all unlikely things; as the Maharajah's agent he lolls suggestively around the virginal dovecote in khaki shorts.
Where Powell excelled was in belying François Truffaut's dispiritingly plausible claim that there is a fundamental incompatibility between England and the cinema; half Tory, half dreamer, he could hardly have been better equipped for the task. By subtly transforming cartoonist David Low's pompous, blinkered archetype into a choleric but lovable old fogey, he made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) almost an elegy for the British military caste, muddling through to eventual victory. Blimp's dogged progress (Roger Livesey giving the performance of a lifetime) through some exquisitely designed settings - London clubland, the War Office, a country estate, a Turkish bath, a bunkered BBC studio - abetted by his "ideal woman" (three generations of Deborah Kerr) and former foe Anton Walbrook (the theme of the Good German, present in his work from The Spy in Black to The Battle of the River Plate, would tend to surface, as with Blimp, at the most unpropitious moments) has something of the magical whimsicality of a Stanley Spencer mural. Winston Churchill tried to have the film suppressed, just as Blimp himself would have done.
But nothing, for Powell, was in its proper place unless one tripped over it. Commissioned in 1946 to make a propaganda film that might contribute to easing the then strained Anglo-American alliance, he came up with A Matter of Life and Death, in which a pilot (David Niven) falls headlong from his blazing aircraft and, despite already being booked into the hereafter, survives. Whereupon, an impassioned debate as to his destiny and, by a not entirely obvious extension, that of the two squabbling nations rages in a monochrome Heaven, the film wittily commuting between color and black-and-white. (Powell, rather like Oscar Wilde "living up" to his blue china, was one of the few filmmakers capable of rising to the occasion offered by Forties Technicolor.) And I Know Where I'm Going (1945) took a classic screwball plot - determined young woman, setting off cross-country to marry a millionaire, sees her plans happily foiled by the charm of a virile if penniless Scottish laird - to produce a wispily romantic comedy-drama bathed in Celtic Twilight.
Powell's early wartime thrillers, Contraband (1940) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) can stand comparison with British Hitchcock; the underrated Elusive Pimpernel is Richard Lester avant la lettre; and a taut little film noir about a bomb disposal expert, The Small Back Room (1948), proves that he could dispense with elaborate sets and color consultants in necessary. Only the ballet films seem to me, with the exception of The Red Shoes, unworthy of their (and his) reputation. A television viewing confirmed The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) as a ghastly travesty of a great opera; and given the feeble Ustonovian satire of Oh Rosalinda (1954), Johann Strauss updated to postwar Vienna, it should have been called Die Fledermaus That Roared. So Michael Powell, at the ripe old age of 75, is off to the States? Well look what it did for Hitchcock's career!
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