Posts Tagged ‘Michael Powell’

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.


It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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Let us cast our minds back to 1960 and survey the state of the horror movie as a genre in the English-speaking world: in the USA, Alfred Hitchcock is making Psycho, and in the process inventing the slasher movie, while in a slightly less opulent office Roger Corman is skimming through his copy of The Bumper Book of Edgar Allen Poe and thinking about calling Vincent Price’s agent. Meanwhile, across the pond, the top brass at Hammer Films have recently completed their first wave of well-behaved Gothic horror adaptations and are wondering what to do next – some sequels, perhaps? Maybe a film about the Spanish Inquisition with rising star Oliver Reed? (If the Church complains they’ll have to rewrite it – and they haven’t done a werewolf movie yet, come to think of it.) Elsewhere, and most pertinently for us today, Michael Powell is making his own take on the horror movie formula: the resulting film, Peeping Tom, will effectively destroy this celebrated and brilliant director’s career. It is the horror movie which is, in many ways, just too horrible to watch.

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On its release, respected critics made declarations that Peeping Tom was more nauseating than a leper colony and should be thrown into a sewer, but – wouldn’t you know – the film has received a significant reappraisal, as surely befits the work of a director like Michael Powell – surely one of the two or three greatest film-makers working in Britain in the middle of the last century. Think of Powell and your mind is irresistibly drawn to the romantic fantasy of A Matter of Life or Death or I Know Where I’m Going, or the affectionate, thoughtful character study of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But all of these films had a touch of darkness around their fringes, the threat of something shadowy lurking just out of frame. In Peeping Tom the darkness is given free reign and the results are still quite shocking.

Carl Boehm gives a really astonishing performance as Mark Lewis, a young camera enthusiast working as a focus puller for a small British film company. He aspires to be a director himself and is seldom without his handheld camera. However, he also has a sideline as a photographer working for a small-time pornographer. And he is also a killer: as a boy he was experimented on by his biologist father, a man interested in the nature of the fear response, and the results unfailingly recorded on film. This has left Mark very, very messed up: he has an almost-fetishistic interest in cameras and film, and an obsessive fascination with fear and its effects.

The film opens with Mark committing his first murder, and it’s instantly clear why this film provoked such strong reactions on its release. This story does not take place in the glamourised world of many genuine exploitation movies, but somewhere much less idealised: it is a tawdry, grubby place, uncomfortably realistic. And, even more significantly, from the start of the film many key sequences are shown through the viewfinder of Mark’s own camera: we are seeing the world from his point of view, and the result is that we are encouraged to empathise with him, despite everything he does. The film is quite honest about this: Mark is presented as being almost as much a victim as any of the women he kills (it is perhaps telling that his father, in his very brief appearance in the film, is played by Powell himself), and he is not some cold, dead-eyed psychopath – he is moved by the affection of a young woman (Anna Massey) who tries to initiate a romantic relationship with him, and desperately wants to avoid hurting her – ‘don’t show me you’re afraid,’ he begs at one point. A tacit parallel is drawn between Mark’s own issues with voyeurism and the socially-acceptable interests of a man visiting a tobacconist’s to buy pornographic postcards (bagged as ‘Educational Books’, of course) – the difference, the film seems to be saying, is not one of substance, but simply of degree.

The film doesn’t pull many punches, therefore, in suggesting that there is some degree of kinship between Mark, maker of his own very authentic horror movies, and the audience, who are also obviously partakers of horror movies (why else would they be there?). This level of knowingness is sustained throughout the film – everyone involved, even the police investigating Mark’s murders, seems to be terribly cine-literate, while the sets of When the Walls Close In (the film Mark is working on in his day job) are as garish and slightly stylised as those of Peeping Tom itself. A key sequence has Mark preparing to despatch Moira Shearer’s character (unbeknownst to her, of course), and you can’t help but think that all his meticulous work with tape measures, lenses, and so on must have been closely duplicated by Powell and his crew for self-evident reasons. The film is partly about the dangers of obsession, and the inability to deal with reality except through the mediating device of a film camera: one could also probably argue it’s about what happens when one loses the ability to distinguish between film and reality itself.

Certainly, Peeping Tom displays a confident familiarity with many of the standard tropes of its genre – it has a sympathetic monster, distinguishes quite clearly between ‘bad’ girl victims (prostitutes, models, actresses) and ‘good’ girl heroines, features a vulnerably blind supporting character, and so on. Sexual desire has the shadow of death upon it. And yet it goes further, by suggesting that the film-making process itself is somehow complicit in the act of horror. The weapon with which Mark commits his killings is part of his camera – the symbolism is not laboured, but neither is it difficult to discern. In a similar way, Mark has hit upon a method where he can film his victims while they witness their own death agonies: it is this, he suggests, which is the most frightening thing of all.

It’s the recursiveness of Peeping Tom which makes it such a complex and demanding film to try and think about, and one is inevitably left with questions of one’s own. To what extent is Mark really tempted by the redemption offered by Helen? It’s almost with relief that he discovers his particular problem – which he identifies as scopophilia, a morbid fascination with looking – will take years to cure: much too long. Have all his actions in the film been a protracted attempt at forcing his own suicide? Parts of the film don’t make much sense otherwise – it’s difficult to understand why Mark chooses to kill someone in a place where he works, which he knows to be under police surveillance, unless he actually wants to be identified as the murderer.

Michael Powell orchestrates the movie with his usual consummate skill, even if it lacks some of the more bravura stylistic and visual flourishes which distinguish the best of his collaborations with long-term partner Emeric Pressburger. The central performance from Boehm is, as mentioned, truly remarkable, but Massey is also strong, as is Maxine Audley as her mother. The film is clearly a mid-range British production being made for a fairly modest budget, but this never feels like it is a problem. The fact that the film’s score largely consists of a solo piano is not a problem, but something truly distinctive: the relentless nature of the music perfectly matching the driven nature of the film’s protagonist.

As censors of the day would have insisted, the film ends with the world restored to a state of virtue, and the monster despatched: and yet as the film finishes, the atmosphere of helpless despair it has generated doesn’t really lift. Perhaps this is because it has been too successful throughout in presenting Mark as the victim, as a surrogate for the audience. Mark gets off on watching frightened people being killed – but then so do we, or why else would we want to watch this kind of film in the first place? Powell doesn’t seem to be morally censuring anyone, but even so, he forces the audience to ask itself some very uncomfortable questions about the very act of watching a film. This is surely why the film was so reviled on its first appearance: whether its critical appraisal since then is due to people becoming more willing to confront their own dark sides, or simply because we are all too steeped in horror in recognise it as such, is another question. I couldn’t honestly call this my favourite Michael Powell film – in truth, it’s a hard film to genuinely like at all – but its status as a brilliant British horror movie is unquestionable.

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As you may have seen, last week I inadvertantly lodged myself on the horns of a proper dilemma. I found myself with an unscheduled afternoon off for the first time in ages, and rather than watching Ikiru, or Station Agent, or that Tony Jaa movie where his elephant gets pinched, or any of the other movies I’ve been lugging around on DVD, I decided to spend it watching Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one of my very favourite films of all time.

Then, less than two days later, I found the weekend schedule of the local arthouse, and what should be showing, on the big screen, in a meticulously restored print? That’s right. Same movie. The one I’d watched a couple of days previously. So was I going to go and watch it again? I went back and forth on the topic for the next few days, and in the end decided that, what the hell, I was.

Partly this was because I had nothing else to do, but I suppose it was a statement of intent more than anything else – that I think a great movie is a great movie, and will always be more rewarding if you watch it in the proper environment. Especially when it’s a movie as wonderful as this one. And on the bus to the cinema I became certain I’d made the right choice, because I found myself looking forward to seeing all my favourite moments from the film again, even though it was only five days since the last time I’d watched it.

I watched it with my parents many years ago and told them it was one of my favourites, and they were clearly surprised and baffled by this news – they obviously think of me as Genre Boy as much as anyone else. Blimp isn’t really a genre movie; but so vast is its scope and ambition that it’s quite hard to say what it is. Made in 1943, supposedly as a propaganda film, the movie earned the enmity of Winston Churchill (who, the story goes, sensed a satire against him in the plot). For years it was only available in a cut-down version – but the Archers’ original vision has now been restored.

On one level this is a very odd sort of Second World War propaganda movie as one of the most likeable, and certainly the wisest character in it, is a German soldier, played by Anton Walbrook. But it is really the story of a British officer, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), and the changing world he grows old in.

The story opens in 1943 with the Home Guard due to engage in exercises with the regular army. Candy, an old man, is a zone commander in the Guard, and outraged when an ambitious young officer cheats in order to secure victory. The young man dismisses the elderly general as not living in the real world, and mocks his appearance. But Candy responds that he was once a young man too, and in the first of many brilliant transitions the film transports us back to 1902, when Clive Candy was an energetic young officer himself.

Outraged by anti-British propaganda about the Boer War, the young Clive finds himself caught up in a ticklish diplomatic situation in Berlin, and hotheadedly ends up insulting the entire German officer corps. He promptly finds himself fighting a sabre duel to settle the matter – a duel against a man whom he has never met, and one which neither man really wants to fight. (Such is the subtlety of Powell and Pressberger’s scripting that the brilliance of this metaphor could almost pass unnoticed.)

But the duel goes ahead, and in its aftermath Clive becomes firm friends with his erstwhile opponent, Theo (Walbrook). He professes delight when Theo announces his intention to marry the girl who originally drew him to Berlin (Deborah Kerr), only later realising the full extent of his own feelings for her.

This section of the film has a charming, almost fairytale quality, with the flamboyant uniforms of the soldiers and the Ruritanian qualities of the sets and staging – at one point the camera soars into the wintry skies above Berlin, just before dawn, and it’s like the interior of a snowglobe. But as the century progresses, the film’s tone darkens. We see Clive struggling to make sense of the more cynical realities of the First World War, and the strain it puts on his friendship with Theo. He marries a young girl who is the double of his lost love (Kerr, again), but it ends tragically.

And finally we see Clive and Theo caught up in the darkest days of the Second World War, a conflict Clive’s upbringing as a gentleman and a good sport has left him unable to fully comprehend. But Theo, reduced to the status of a faintly shabby refugee, understands it all too well and, in one of the film’s most urgent scenes, desperately tries to communicate this to his friend. ‘This is not a gentleman’s war,’ he insists. ‘This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain – Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years.’ Prescient indeed, given this film was made before much of the horror of the Nazi regime was widely known.

The brutal realism of the film’s approach to the conflict may be another reason why this film was not a success on its initial release. It does not connive with traditional English ideas about what it means to be English – rather, it exposes them as outdated and dangerous fantasies. And yet it does so with remarkable gentleness. It is unstintingly critical of the way in which Clive changes – or, rather, fails to change – with the passage of time, but at the same time the depiction of him is always sympathetic, always as a living human rather than a caricature.

Certainly, he is pompous, idealistic in the wrong way, with an absurd attachment to ideas of fair play and honesty in warfare – but he is also unfailingly kind and decent, a loyal friend, hopelessly romantic, and always utterly determined to do the right thing. One senses a deep regret on the part of the film-makers that the world is not the way Clive imagines it to be – but the fact remains that he is wrong, and dangerously so.

But this is a drama much more than a message movie, with moments of tenderness and comedy as well, all magnificently played by the cast. Roger Livesey – for some reason, third billed – gives a monumental performance, ageing forty years in an astonishingly convincing manner. Walbrook, with much less screen time, is, possibly, even better. Deborah Kerr handles her triple role (she also plays Clive’s driver in the final section) so deftly that it’s sometimes hard to tell it’s the same actress.

As I said, this film contains so many of my favourite moments and sequences, handled with typical audacity, wit, and playful invention by Powell and Pressberger. Martin Scorsese is a noted fan of this film and consulted on the current restoration, but many of its narrative innovations have been acknowledged as influencing Tarantino – most obviously, the tricksy out-of-sequence story structure. Beyond this there are such treasures as the duel between Clive and Theo, where, after a huge build-up, no sooner does the combat start than the camera floats off out of a window, losing interest. There is the desperate pathos of Clive and Theo’s wordless encounter in an English prisoner-of-war camp. There is Theo’s speech to immigration officials as to why he has chosen to leave Germany and come to England, virtually delivered straight down the camera lens in a single take by Walbrook, in one of the greatest displays of screen acting I have ever seen. And there are many more.

For all that there is so much that is great about this film, there is still something fundamentally conflicted about it, almost paradoxical: it’s a film about the dangers of decency and civility, but also one of the most decent, civil films imaginable. It’s a film about the great flaws in the English national character, that also happens to be one of the greatest love letters to the idea of Englishness ever made. Finally seeing it on the big screen has only made me more aware of what a masterpiece this is. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a film that will surely endure as long as the memory of England itself persists.

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