Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960) movie poster

director Michael Powell
viewed: 01/26/2017

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is a terrific film. Often cited in counterpoint to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (also 1960), it’s a dark portrait of a psychologically unbalanced cameraman who doubles as a serial killer. It’s all voyeurism, the male gaze, and a reflection of the art and act of cinema. It was also controversial on its release and was a huge hit on Powell’s career, stark contrast there with Hitch.

It’s creepy. It’s brilliant.

It’s all been said.

It’s also beautifully lurid in its hues. But then isn’t every Powell film gorgeous?

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (1947) movie poster

directors  Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
viewed: 07/17/2016

There is Technicolor, and then there is TECHNICOLOR!!!  And beyond that, there is TECHNICOLOR!!! in the hands of Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, and Jack Cardiff.  Especially if it’s been restored and presented by Criterion.

The lurid lushness of over-saturated color has never been as stunningly realized as in Black Narcissus.  Between A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948), Cardiff, Powell, and Pressburger created three of the most amazing samples of Technicolor on film.  The only other filmmaker whose Technicolor technique has knocked my socks off was Mario Bava, but this British trio were the tops.

Amazingly, this film about British nuns in settling a school and hospital in the Himalayas, which beyond its vibrant hues also creates an amazing sense of place and location, was shot entirely in England, and almost entirely at Pinewood Studios.  It’s a masterpiece of visual effects and cinematography, a completely artificial world so compellingly drawn and realized that it becomes more real than real.  As vivid as the most incredible dream.  If only we all had such production values.

The story of these repressed young nuns, opened by the exotic and majestic beauty of their home upon the mountain, is almost secondary by contrast.  But the themes of erotic awakening are aroused by the ever-present winds, swirling throughout the former seraglio.  Eventually it comes down to a dramatic confrontation between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) on the cliff where the bell rings.

This movie is stunning.  Utterly stunning.

I watched The Red Shoes a few years back and its images continue to flit through my brain to this day.  I’d seen Black Narcissus about 20 years ago on VHS, and while it failed to blow me away as it did this time, the images, too, have hung with me all along.  Now perhaps, for good.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) movie poster

directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
viewed: 02/09/2014

Another film in my march through “great films” that I have never seen (I am still hoping to come up with a more concise and catchy way of putting that).  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, of course are considered perhaps Britain’s greatest directors, maybe with David Lean, I don’t know.  And it’s a pretty shameful fact that I’ve seen so few of their films.  This one has interested me for a long time and I can’t begin to say why I never got around to seeing before now.

The thing that you always hear about A Matter of Life and Death is how present day (1946) real world England is depicted in Technicolor lushness, but that the film’s foray into “heaven” is done in succulent black and white.  And I guess that you can make of that what you will.  It’s a telling enough conceit to suggest that there is a lot afoot in this story about a WWII RAF pilot (David Niven) who jumps from his doomed aircraft without a parachute, upper lip fully stiffened after a brief radio correspondence with an American ally (Kim Hunter) who he had never met.

His sure death gets lost in the British fog and he winds up surviving the fall, washed up on a beach, strangely close to where Hunter is bicycling.  They fall madly in love.  Only, heaven wants him back.

Turns out, heaven is quite like a place on Earth, a bureaucracy, not all too heavenly, and this sort of thing just doesn’t happen.  But Niven fights his case to the high court of the place.  And the big drama takes place in a heavenly courtroom.

Only, back on Earth, it’s not clear whether this is really happening or if it’s just part of a mental fugue of Niven’s, a fight in his mind, which he must win, according to the 1940’s pop-psychology.

What really surprised me, and perhaps this is proof that I hadn’t read up further on the film beforehand, was how much the story is really about English/American relations post-WWII.  It was no doubt timely and the film’s propaganda is intentioned that this love affair between a Brit and a Yank is the bigger sticking point in all the red tape, rather than the strange technicality that gave the two lovers time to fall for one another.  The court case hovers far more on America versus England than makes more transcendental sense.  It places the film much more of its time, quite literally on the heels of WWII and set in the waning days of the European Conflict.

It’s a beautifully shot film, vastly interesting, quite romantic.  And it has some amazing set designs from its noted “escalator to heaven” or its heavenly modernity and superstructures.

I’m not big on courtroom dramas.  And so as great as the film is in many respects, the dramatic crescendo struck me less potent.  It’s marvelous in many ways, though.  Truly.

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) movie poster

(1940) directors Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan
viewed: 05/13/11

A couple of years back, we watched the 1924 Raoul Walsh-directed, Douglas Fairbanks-starring The Thief of Bagdad, which the children, then 7 and 5 respectively, met with great enthusiasm.  I’d long held this 1940 re-make in my film queue, planning to show it to them.  When asked recently if they recalled the earlier film, the older children, now 9 and 10, vividly remembered it with great enthusiasm, reiterating the success that the impression had made upon them.  I’d never seen this 1940 British production, though I knew it was considered a classic itself, presented on DVD by the Criterion Collection (a gold-standard if there is one) as it is, and co-directed by Britain’s greatest film-maker, Michael Powell.  What’s not to like?

The film riffs on the 1924 story, breaking the character of the thief into two roles.  The hunky hero is played by John Justin, who starts as a prince who is out of touch with his brutally-treated kingdom of Bagdad, led astray by his villainous Grand Vizier, Jaffar, played with great aplomb by Conrad Veidt.  Jaffar tricks the prince into pretending to be a pauper, to mingle with the regular people, but then imprisons him as a madman who claims to be the prince.  This is where he meets the “thief” of Bagdad, played by Sabu, an Indian child actor, the other half of the Fairbanks role, the low caste hero from the slums.

Shot in rich Technicolor, this Thief of Bagdad is awash throughout in lush design and some amazingly rendered special effects (though there are also some less potent effects as well).  The film’s greatest moments include a flying mechanical horse, a flying carpet, and most impressively the massive djinn.  The scenes with Rex Ingram as the Djinn are far and away my favorite; he’s a wonderfully crafty and bombastic character.  There is great adventure and fantasy, rich wondrous story-telling, and pure awesome cinema.

Felix and Clara both liked it a lot.   So did I.

From a more “meta” perspective, it’s easy to see how much the 1992 Disney Aladdin borrowed directly from this film for design and characterization.  It’s fascinating that so many great films arose from the same source material, The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights, including another silent masterpiece, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) which is an entirely amazing animated film done entirely with silhouetted puppets.  I highly recommend the 1924 Walsh-Fairbanks film as well as this lush 1940 Technicolor spectacle, but more than any, Reiniger’s gorgeous, sublime film.

It’s also easy to imagine what an inspiration this film must have been to Ray Harryhausen.  His Sinbad films, for all their glorious stop-motion animated creatures, overall still pale in comparison to this lovely masterpiece.

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes (1948) movie poster

(1948) directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
viewed: 09/16/10

Now, that is what Technicolor is all about!

Long on my list of films to see, I just missed the opportunity to see the new print of the film that was released about a year ago when it was playing in theaters.  But this new Criterion Collection disc features that same restored print, and I have to say, Technicolor never looked better.  And while the images look lustrous and wonderful, the film itself is a masterful work by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, England’s greatest film-making duo of the 20th century.  And yet, this was the first time I saw The Red Shoes, and sadly only one other of their films have I ever seen.

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson “fairy tale” about a girl who longs for a particular pair of red shoes, but once she puts them on, is bewitched, for the shoes dance and dance endlessly, first through pleasure and then to literal death.  In this case, the scene is the London ballet, with a Maestro who creates great ballet and great talents (Anton Malbrook), and his two latest proteges, a composer (Marius Goring) and a dancing ingenue, the lovely Moira Shearer.  Malbrook’s maestro leads them to create a ballet of Anderson’s story, which plays out a bit like a “film within a film” and leads them to great commercial and artistic success.  But when he finds out that they have fallen in love with one another, the maestro connives to bring about a tragedy much like that of the Anderson story.

The ballet sequence of the film is fascinating, starting out as a more naturalistic stage presentation featuring the characters in the diegetic narrative.  But then quickly it turns into a dream-like segment, with the ballet played out to the music on strange surreal settings, well-removed from the theater and the rest of the story.  The lush designs are still quite theatrical, but the ballet is a dream/nightmare, portraying and inner story as well as the surface story.

Shearer is quite the Technicolor effect herself with her luscious red hair.  The saturated tones of the now outdated color process offer a lurid and vivid visual world, nothing like any reality I’ve ever seen.  The film is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in the Technicolor process.

And the film is quite something indeed.