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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Cinema of Enchantment
The Films of Michael Powell

By Douglas McVay
Films and Filming; December 1981

Following on from last month's interview with Michael Powell, Douglas McVay commences a two-part survey of this illustrious director's career, omitting the apprentice works (which William K. Everson will write about later). The major films are all discussed this month, except for three somewhat critically neglected achievements that will be analysed in our next issue.

The Edge of the World (1937), which Michael Powell both directed and scripted, is a beautiful film, and anticipates many characteristics of the other major pictures that follow it during the next twenty-five years; the fondness for primitive locales, the sense of "Celtic twilight" in several of the milieux, the pervasive concern with destiny and death, the feeling for sensuousness and sensuality, and the delight in music and dance. Set on the Shetland isle of "Hirta" (the word itself means "death"), and actually shot on Foula, the piece is full of treasurable sequences. A procession of mourners passes growing flowers, viewed from a low angle, with solemnly lovely singing on the soundtrack. A complementary episode celebrates a baby's birth, close-ups of mother and child intercut with the gnarled faces of a row of black-clad old women seated knitting out of doors, while the exquisite ballad "Dream Angus" is softly sung. Also staged in the open air is the carefree, communal dancing of the Hirta Reel, with Finlay Currie breaking irresistibly into a little private jig as the camera tracks his walk; this scene has a flavour worthy of John Ford. When a storm brews, the weather is reflected not only in majestic, minatory images of landscape and seascape, but in the ominously growling score. And the movie finishes with a leading character plunging to his doom, his passing recorded in the euphemistic, symbolic phrase "Gone over", his name called out with a toiling melancholy. The contributions to The Edge of the World made by the cameramen Ernest Palmer, Skeets Kelly and Monty Berman, and by the editor Derek Twist, are plainly substantial. Yet they do not disguise the personal, presiding hand of the director at the helm.

This personal touch is less marked, less clearly definable, but still fitfully in evidence, in The Spy in Black (1939); a modestly engaging .,melodrama, it nevertheless shows Powell revelling once more in a Scots isle as a setting, and possesses stray flashes of macabre, sub-Hitchcockian invention (a respectable-seeming old lady chloroforms a girl with a scarf). Most importantly, though, this film finds Powell working for the first time with the scenarist Emeric Pressburger, who is to collaborate on so man of the director's finest achievements. Tricky questions of authorship inevitably arise when one considers the work of a partnership as durable as this; but, while immediately recognising the invaluable part played by Pressburger in much of the Powell canon, and saluting also several other regular members of the pair's creative team, one may remain convinced that the director's own artistic personality is the primary influence. Admittedly, this view of Powell as an auteur isn't exactly made easy once we turn to his nebulous involvement in Korda's marvellous 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, on which two other directors also receive official credit (with two more lending an unofficial hand). Certain aspects of the film seem very typical of Powell in their exotic style, their sense of terror, their use of glowing colours and rococo sets, their ingenious employment of dance; yet it has not been conclusively determined to date just which sequences may be regarded as his.

49th Parallel (1941), which reunites Powell with Pressburger, is however "all his own work". Not a major work; its story of U-boat survivors hiding in Canada is too crammed with enjoyable but faintly absurd narrative contrivances. The compensations, all the same, are sizeable. There's a splendid sequence of a sea-plane's hair-raising dive towards earth and ocean, deserving of a place beside the similar episode in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent . The Canadian landscape - finely shot by Frederick Young - arouses in the director a predictably strong response. Vaughan Williams's musical score is impressive. And two actors who are to appear with even greater distinction in Powell movies make rewarding entries into his work. Eric Portman invests the Nazi leader with a perverse, disturbing blend of ruthlessness and resourceful courage which points the way to a long line of unsettlingly paradoxical Powell protagonists. Even more striking is Anton Walbrook as a dignified religious pacifist from pre-Hitler Germany: in one lengthy speech of opposition to the Third Reich, the actor attains an affecting quality of restrained fervour.

The speech foreshadows Walbrook's portrayal in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); but this film as a whole is far more ambitious and stimulating than 49th Parallel. The script's fond mockery of the old fashioned "gentleman soldier" brought Powell and Pressburger under fire in certain quarters as anti-British, even fascistic in their attitudes. And no-one could deny the strain of right-wing sentiment in Powell's oeuvre, sometimes expressed as patriotic (or jingoistic) military devotion, sometimes in terms of aesthetic individualism, sometimes in the extreme form of psychopathic deviation from the accepted "norm". To my mind, though, the equivocal morality and philosophy sometimes detectable in Powell movies cannot in the end damage the formal excitements of the films themselves. This is surely true of Colonel Blimp, the first Powell-Pressburger production shot in colour. The movie's consistent elegance stems as much from the deployment of Alfred Junge's décors and Georges Périnal's Technicolor camerawork as from the script's complex construction and the polish of the. playing. Powell maintains an untypically subdued chromatic palette, emphasising yellows and greys and whites; certain scenes possess a memorable mood of stylish emotion - notably the eponymous hero Clive Candy's taunting of a German agent in a restaurant, the concern at the British Embassy over the resultant duel (black-clad figures hurrying in a medium-long shot across spacious, empty beige corridors), and the duel itself, filmed in a huge, echoing military gymnasium, with long shots of the opposed groups, and a high angle crane back from the initial crossing of the combatants' sabres, which dissolves into a further crane shot of the building in the failing nocturnal snow. Roger Livesey as Candy, Deborah Kerr as the several lookalike loves of his long life, and Walbrook as the duellist who becomes Candy's rival in love but also his life-long friend, are all admirable. Walbrook, especially, delivers with muted skill a monologue of post-Hitler anguish, grey-haired and grey-faced in a long take in close-up, Powell framing the speech with occasional medium-long shots of the character seated wearily in a chair in the middle of the room.

Colonel Blimp signals the start of Powell's (and Pressburger's) period of supreme achievement, stretching from 1943 to 1951. Nine films follow Blimp during this period (if we discount the short piece The Volunteer ). Several of the nine remain savagely underrated; several more, while faring better (either critically or commercially), still arguably have not yet received their just due. In the next issue I will discuss in some detail thee pictures which seem to me to fall into one or the of these categories: A Canterbury Tale (1944), loathed at the time of its release, and even now only partially rehabilitated by Powell commentators; Black Narcissus (1947), rightly awarded an Oscar for colour photography, but always rather grudgingly treated by Previewers, and conceivably Powell's most perfect film; and Gone to Earth (1950), surely the supreme film maudit in the director's career. Complex in style and content alike, this trio of works demands more extended scrutiny than has so far been forthcoming.

I Know Where I'm Going (1945), though a modest movie by comparison, is perhaps the most purely appealing of all Powell's offerings. The Scots-island ambience is magical, even by his standards of evocation; and the screenplay is a beguiling parable: confident heroine, about to marry a rich man, has her attitudes changed by the hard-pressed but resilient islanders, and marries one of them (even if - with characteristic Powellian individualism - he is a laird). The treatment of the material could scarcely be bettered: a lyrical yet comic love story, imbued with affectionate respect for the customs of the region, and for its wonderfully windy, craggy, heathery terrain. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are exceptionally engaging as heroine and laird; Erwin Hillier's monochrome camerawork is a joy throughout; and there are some cherishable episodes. One recalls the early scene of a girl travelling by train towards her marriage, her dreams of luxury accompanied by attractively lilting renditions of the title-ballad by a soundtrack chorus; and her arrival on the mist-shrouded island, with its figures still and silhouetted, and the noise of seals humming. Allan Gray's ravishingly soft and romantic musical theme forms a flawless background to the development of the central love relationship - which reaches its key point, memorably, during a ceilidh, as Livesey quotes "The Nutbrown Maiden" gaily to Hiller, but ends with a sudden intense gaze into her eyes, and a quietly heartfelt emphasis on the line "You're the maid for me." A similar unexpected poetry is apparent at their parting ("Will you kiss me?" she asks; instantly he does, and then they walk off in a high angle long shot, in opposite directions, down the cliff path), and again at their final reunion (he hears bagpipes, and sees her marching back behind three pipers).

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), though it ranks among the most famous Powell-Pressburger productions, now appears one of their few major works at which the charge most often made against them - that of pretentious, arty whimsicality - may legitimately be levelled. Even the opening reels attain no more than a sub-Cocteau mood of deathly romanticism, and the later episodes in Heaven decline into an intolerably jocose debate on English and American cultural values. The virtuosity of Jack Cardiff's Technicolor camerawork is undeniable; but it is put to infinitely more creative service in his next two associations with the team, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. These two films, indeed, for me stand as Michael Powell's richest movies. The Red Shoes (1948) is not quite faultless (unlike Black Narcissus). Yet in some ways it can claim to be the director's most intoxicating exercise in enchantment.

The fashionable critical condemnation of the movie has principally hinged on the "high camp" of its backstage ballet world melodramatics. But as a formalised, evocative portrait of theatrical aspirations, frictions and gratifications, The Red Shoes transcends any suspicion of chi-chi: its dazzling mixture of visual and musical pyrotechnics with recognisable, touching human emotion (of career ambition, of artistic obsession, of sexual passion) is the nearest British cinema has ever come to matching the mastery of the best American stage and screen musicals. The blemishes - obscurities and showy excesses in the "Red Shoes" ballet itself; over-acting by Marius Goring at some points; vocal inarticulateness on the part of Massine and Albert Bassermann at other times - pale into nothingness when set against the bravura command of Walbrook's performance as the impresario Lermontov, and the histrionic sensitivity and dancing grace of Moira Shearer in her screen debut as his protégée Vicki Page; not to mention the generally scintillating assurance with which Powell and his collaborators (Pressburger, production designer Hein Heckroth, art director Arthur Lawson, editor Reginald Mills and, of course, Jack Cardiff) evoke the ballet life both on-stage and behind the scenes.

The texture of the piece is so finely woven that one may only indicate a few of the felicities it contains: the symbolically ensnaring net-patterns cast over the faces of Lermontov and Vicki by curtains or hat veils at three separate, crucial stages in the narrative during which he seeks to make her embody his aesthetic visions as a ballerina; the motif of train smoke, pointing ominously to Vicki's final death on the railway line; the similar symbolic touch of the newspaper which catches at Vicki's feet, and is revealed to possess an article about Lermontov and the Company (adumbrating both her entrapment in the troupe, and also possibly her actual dance with an animated paper in the title ballet). The rehearsal and first night sequences find Powell at his most adept in capturing the atmosphere of the vast, stretching stage, full of bustle, with dancers trying out steps (either glimpsed on the edges of compositions, or executing fast flamboyant moves in the centre of the frame). Again and again, too, a sense of dedicated artistic effort is conveyed in groupings of company personnel watching performances or planning new works.

The sequence where Vicki learns that she is to dance the lead in the "Red Shoes" ballet carries an operatic panache reminiscent of some of Visconti's films, or (more relevantly) of Bertolucci's La Luna. Wearing a pearly-grey evening dress, she is taken by limousine along the Corniche, and then dropped to walk bemusedly through the huge wrought-iron gates of Lermontov's villa. She moves up leafy, grassy, brown steps; past tall, elegant, green trees; and beneath pink stone arches. A siren-like sound of wordless singing on the soundtrack suggests her mystified excitement, and her surrender to a fatal lure. Moira Shearer is given her purest dancing opportunities in the ballet when Heipmann's choreography is simplest and most lyrical: in her opening pas de deux, her ensuing solo, and her final duet. In all these passages, she brings off captivatingly lissome arabesques, pirouettes, lifts and leaps. The more baroque stretches of choreographic invention in the ballet resemble Minnelli's more outré collaborations with Eugene Loring (in Yolanda and the Thief), Robert Alton and Gene Kelly (in Ziegfeld Follies, The Pirate and An American in Paris), and Michael Kidd (in The Band Wagon). While they don't ultimately equal the brilliance of these Hollywood counterparts, they nevertheless generate an electricity of image and sound unique in British movies. And the doomed love affair and marriage of Shearer as Vicki and Marius Goring as the composer-conductor Julian Craster is crystallised in at least two rapt, tender sequences: the lovers' idyllic, slumberous embrace in an evening carriage-ride along a tranquilly deserted Mediterranean beach; and the small hours sleepy harmony of the married pair as she sinks to her knees beside him while he drowsily composes at the piano.

The serviceable screen version of Nigel Balchin's novel The Small Back Room (1949) appears something of an anti-climax; but Gone to Earth , and then The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), revive much of the panache that makes The Red Shoes so endlessly revisitable. The Elusive Pimpernel is yet another unfairly dismissed Powell piece, even if David Niven lacks Leslie Howard's rightness as Sir Percy Blakeney. Margaret Leighton as Marguerite and Cyril Cusack as Chauvelin are excellent. And Powell's mise en scène is often sumptuous. One might select at random the opening images of French Revolution rioters flaunting vividly-tinted banners; the superb shot of glowing flowerbeds in the foreground of the frame, meadows stretching away beyond, the flowers trodden under the feet of the rampaging rebels rushing into the composition; the intricate tracking shots and cuts in the sunny outdoor sequence where the amorous rift and repressed regret of Blakeney and Marguerite are communicated by their separate movements and half glances, as they slowly walk down stone steps, or stand gazing out on the heat-hazed landscape from a balustrade. Above all there's the almost overpowering opulence of the extended episode depicting Lord Grenville's ball, full of couples in pastel costumes performing languorous minuets; travelling shots past candles (the film is replete with flames, lamps, torches, candles of every sort); and two passages set in an arbour of latticed screens, blooms, bronze lights, parrots and cockatoos on perches, with Leighton's scarlet hair-ribbons rounding off the exquisite mosaic. As in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell also deploys mirrors as a potent pictorial element during this film, which is finely shot in Technicolor by Christopher Challis, with ornate production design and art direction from Heckroth and Lawson.

These three trusted partners contribute again to The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Here Powell, moving from Baroness Orczy novel to Offenbach opera, intermittently recaptures the glitter of his vintage work (in Shearer's lithe dancing as Stella and Olympia, and the luxurious visuals of the Venetian section). And Oh Rosalinda!! (1955), a version of Johann Strauss's operetta "Die Fledermaus", is at least worthwhile for Challis's Technicolor lensing, Heckroth's designs, and Walbrook's urbane mischief as Dr. Falke. But Honeymoon (1959) provides greater pleasure. In its plot premise - a ballerina torn between her husband and a male ballet mentor - the piece is an agreeable if minor echo of The Red Shoes. But the resemblance extends to Powell's characteristic use of colour harmonies, as well as to the atmospheric ballet world evocation. In one rehearsal episode, Ludmilia Tcherina practises at the barre and executes sinuous point-work in front of a tall mirror reminding us of the beautiful long shot of Vicki Page reflected in a similar mirror when, after her stage triumph, she still arrives to practise alone next morning. Tcherina's black leotard and green headscarf chime chromatically with the costumes of watching coryphées ; and in his pas de deux with her, Antonio's white garb matches the dress of some of the watchers and parts of the decor. Other hues are likewise rhymed (for instance, the pale pink of the theatre wall -to one girl's rosy blouse). We recall the comparable colour parallels in The Red Shoes (such as the harmony between Lermontov's wine-red jacket, red chair-plush and red curtains); elsewhere in Honeymoon, during a tavern flamenco duet, Antonio flourishes a red scarf, while his female partner wears a red flower in her dark hair. The ballet "El Amor Brujo" is memorable for the eerie, cadaverously green glow on the face of Massine in the role of the phantom (reflected on cavernous walls); for the flame-hues in the Ritual Fire Dance, keyed to the gypsy scarlet in a sorceress's costume; and for the climax, as Antonio in white dances for Tcherina (in a white-and-rose gown) with her jealous off-stage husband (Anthony Steel) also clad in white, whilst an ensemble of swirling figures in multi-coloured costumes wafts vibrant-hued scarves in a slow but pulsing rhythm. The ballet sequence finishes on a note of galvanic tension, as Tcherina - thrilled by the dance - impulsively hurls a white flower to Antonio in tribute, with Steel trying to shepherd her away; Antonio instantly throws the bloom back towards her - but Steel angrily snatches it before it can reach her ...

The film's most enchanting scene, however, is a duet for Antonio and Tcherina amongst the columns and fountains of the Alhambra in Granada. Against the crenellated, honeycomb surface and tint of the walls, the ballerina's pale blue dress, mauve shoes and lozenge patterned violet kerchief entrancingly glisten (the violet lozenges echoed in one mural design), with her fluidly sensuous movements heightened in power by the settings and clothes. In the rest of the picture, also, Périnal's photography (in Technicolor and Technirama), and lvor Beddoes's art direction and costuming, frequently bewitch.

In Honeymoon, then, Powell - without Pressburger is still unmistakably Powell. And the same is true of Peeping Tom (1960); and even, if to a lesser degree, of Age of Consent (1968). The psychopathology of Peeping Tom has been thoroughly dissected by previous students; let me instead celebrate the dance qualities of the Moira Shearer episode, in which Powell applies all his instincts for colour, music, choreography and cinematic rhythm to a modern idiom, demonstrating just how well he might have directed a popular screen musical. Age of Consent can't begin to approach the psychological subtleties and dramatic force of Tom; yet the artist hero's wish to paint and sculpt the heroine in the nude has at least a little in common with the psychopathic cameraman's desire to film his prey. The heroine, too, is a "child of Nature" somewhat akin to Hazel Woodus in Gone to Earth. And the death of a supporting character who falls over a precipice - has links with not only Gone to Earth but also The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Edge of the World . Pictorially, furthermore - from Foula in 1937 to Australia's Great Barrier Reef thirty years later - Michael Powell's way with a primitive, unspoiled vista remains inimitable.

(As mentioned in the article, Douglas McVay will reappraise A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus and Gone to Earth next month.)

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