One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

The tale is obliquely rendered by critics then and now as lesser Powell & Pressburger for the war, ignoring the incommensurable strangeness of the telling. It resembles nothing so much as the code phrases broadcast by wireless during the Second Thirty Years War that figure so importantly in Cocteau’s Orphée. The work is signaled rather than conveyed, its elements are the forbidden tune of a Jewish composer and recordings of the Wilhelmus, the wedding at Cana and the greatest speech ever given by Godfrey Tearle, the Crucifixion explosively represented by the crash of a bomber against an electrical tower, felix culpa and the happy catch of the whole dilemma in a “lobster pot”.

The RAF airmen bail out into a Dutch genre painting, one is missing but turns up on the field at a football match where the Germans dismiss a portion of the crowd, all then depart en masse, only to be called back. Achilles among the women, De Profundis, Yorkshire sheep farming and The School for Scandal are among the indications given with careful schematization.

Kubrick remembers the rear gun-turret as the pods in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the painterly landscape on arrival. Altman’s MASH and Huston’s Victory no doubt recall that football match variously.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The second best line in the cinema,

BARBARA WYNNE: We’ve got the bishop for lunch.

CLIVE CANDY: I hope he’s tender.

The best line,

THEO KRETSCHMAR-SCHULDORFF: The honest citizens were having a hard job to put the gangsters in jail. Well, I needn’t tell you, Sir, that in Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail.


A Canterbury Tale

The Glue Man, though he is simply a harmless maniac pouring glue onto girls’ hair by night and known to the police as an active pest, is quite the mysterious figure Ibsen’s Button Molder is, for his avowed intention is to drive Englishmen into a knowledge of their history.

There they find Canterbury Cathedral and its stock of miracles, so does a young Englishwoman in the Land Army, and so does an American sergeant.

The precise meaning is a little bit obscure but radiantly intelligible over time. It does seem, however, that audiences in 1944 did not want to be told that Herr Hitler was making good British subjects of them. Certainly critics could not reconcile the plot to the filming.

The Times accused the filmmakers of lacking inspiration.


“i know where i’m going!”

A superbly British film down to the untranslated bits, and for all that “i know where i’m going!” is plainly an homage to Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, once Wendy Hiller is seen in her garb and hat en route to marry Consolidated Chemicals.

The Western Isles might as well be Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, not specifically American. And from that point, or any other point in the film, you can just take the storm all around and the voice on the radio (It’s a Wonderful Life) and the sea-green incorruptibilities of the cinematography and whatever else you can name, especially the Powell & Pressburger ear for music like their weather eye, for such a thing as merits the name of masterpiece, as Martin Scorsese says, beyond masterpieces.

Agee in The Nation charged The Archers with “bumptiousness” once again, and was subsequently answered with the close kinship of Gone to Earth.


A Matter of Life and Death

Hubris is to tragedy what meekness is to comedy. Powell & Pressburger have Baudelaire’s gift in spades, even false humility is put on the table for a counter to witless pride. This is a matter of showmanship, Americans have to be represented during the war, artistically the portrait is a good one. England has had a bad scare, a narrow escape. While it slept, Mitchell built the Spitfire. France went to church in 1940 praying for the miracle that De Gaulle the tank strategist had commended to his superiors.

Everything in the film rests upon the mind and manners of a squadron leader out of Oxford (European History), twenty-seven years old with a concussion. He is not England minus a parachute in a burning plane nor like Truffaut’s Bogart “calling all cars” over the radio with an American technical sergeant in the WAAFs, a title gives notice that any world represented herein must be matter of pure coincidence.


Black Narcissus

The monks who take over the House of Women for five months before the film begins were written by Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and a straggler appears as The Young General.

Godard, Hitchcock, Lean, Russell, and Fellini have analyzed the film six ways from Sunday as a central locus in the language of cinema.


The Red Shoes

A film made of many impressions, principally the Ballet Russe and Diaghilev, so as to establish definitive reasoning for Nijinsky’s collapse.

The invaluable participation of Massine is a testimonial. His colleague’s ballets are now known, so a certain slander has been silenced. For Powell & Pressburger, it was an urgent point to understand the enigma, and beyond that the crisis of the artist reflected in the film’s ballet.

They have terribly fancy tricks and a double abnegation at the close, Josette Day’s attire in La Belle et la bête for Shearer ascending, a means of filming ballet attended upon by Terence Young to a different purpose in Black Tights, and a highly-influential sort of structure (the scene at the church for Gilbert’s Alfie, and generally speaking Minnelli’s An American in Paris).

The unfinished ballet, La Belle Meunière (Die Schöne Müllerin), not only suggests Massine’s The Three-Cornered Hat but also bears the title of Marcel Pagnol’s film on a curious romance of Schubert’s, released the same year as The Red Shoes (the composer meets the title character on a sojourn in the countryside while wounded by Goethe’s rebuke, out of love for her he agrees to work for her father as an apprentice miller).


The Small Back Room

Behind all the offices of the Allied forces in London during the early losing stages of the war, the place where scientists and technicians and assistants work out problems and devise new ones for the enemy. They deal with bureaucrats and politicians and grubbers, and try to achieve a modus vivendi with the girl.

A curiously misunderstood film in wide circles, but now gradually coming into its own. The specific antinomy is bullshit, the Army needs something better than that. And then the fishwife’s riddle from Visconti’s La terra trema fits the German booby-trap. “Cut her head off, cut her tail off, now she’s a princess.” A prickly pear.

The alcoholic dispensation pertains to V-Day and looms large in the mind with a painful prosthesis and no other anodyne, but lining things up for the proper effort is “a drop to drink in a dungeon.”


Gone to Earth

A Shropshire lass, daughter of a gypsy with a book of spells, comes to grief between a dip of a parson and a rip of a squire.

The point was lost on critics, the conclusion indicates a return, as the title says, “to its den”.

And because the film could not be construed in London, New York, or Hollywood, it was rendered falsely in reviews that one blushes to read.

One of the most beautiful Technicolor films, and one of the most original in its dramatic workings well before the Hardy films of Schlesinger and Polanski.


The Elusive Pimpernel

Sir Percival Blakeney, Bart., the Scarlet Pimpernel and his own Dr. Watson.

Transmuted from Young’s original, the hallucinatory force of the drama subsumes Chauvelin as the tide sweeps away his regiment of Parisians outside Mont St. Michel, they vanish.

Numerous details have been commented upon, deservedly, in the lapse of time since the film burst upon the public and the critics, ahead of them by years.

To his critics at home Powell replied, “what do they know of England who only the West End know?”

The incomparable poem is aptly set by Powell & Pressburger not once but twice, The Archers’ Pimpernel.

“It does little credit to British film production,” said Variety.



The Tales of Hoffmann

The ideal compositions of Frederick Ashton are danced upon occasion by himself. The savagery of wit in the screenplay-libretto is manifest in color forms overall, Zhivago-yellow, Italian green and red, culminating in the richly composite picture of a Greek villa in the nineteenth century. It is not necessary to consider the gesamtkunstwerk (ask the average opera director), the ironic force of the text demands for its fullest expression just so much application.

The dual planes of A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes are a necessary preparation for the simultaneous views of Hoffmann, his loves and his milieu, to speak only of these. Wine and poetry are notorious impediments to knowledge of the Beloved, Hoffmann tells tales out of school to amuse his fellow students, he is a poor lover. His tales are sour grapes, or rather, they denigrate the object of his affection. Olympia the wind-up doll in a society of puppets, Giulietta the courtesan bedecked with candle-wax drippings pressed into jewels, Antonia the frail girl who sings like her mother and dies, are as ridiculous as Hoffmann, who drinks throughout and falls unconscious finally at his table, face down, while Stella ascends the heights with Lindorf, Hoffmann’s nemesis.

It’s Lindorf who produces the magic spectacles that give the puppets life in Hoffmann’s eyes (and who takes apart Olympia, removing her head), who presses the gems for Giulietta, and who fiddles Antonia onto the stage, he is the master artist behind the scenes.

Hoffmann’s crowd enjoy the evening immensely. Powell & Pressburger must meanwhile invent a style that registers all this in the strict flow of music for a “composed film”.

Every resource that can be found is put to use in keeping with Offenbach’s opera, the stage is treated as the necessary scenic element (the sound stage), heterogeneous utensils of the stage designer’s art are applied with regard to abstraction (Olympia) or dramatization (Giulietta) or evocation (Antonia), a composite matte in the latter instance so that as many as 72 or more frames are required to perceive the exactitude of the representation at first glance. And, in view of the overall structure, there is furthermore a tendency toward reconciliation with the picture plane that is derived from Hathaway’s boxed compass (realized more fully in Powell’s Herzog Blaubarts Burg, where the theme is related and the further abstraction a concomitant possibility).

The Boy Friend and Salome’s Last Dance show a direct appreciation of this style and its dynamic Cubist editing of aperçus out of autonomous fresh new perspectives. Ken Russell takes notice of Powell & Pressburger early on, the distinctive rapprochement with the camera, the shock value of the image, the dash, élan and verve.

The great Trio at Antonia’s villa nevertheless shows a calm, measured step where the paroxysm of scenic view gives way to clear musical analysis anticipating Powell’s Bartók film.

Hoffmann does not possess Olympia, Giulietta takes away his reflection (he gets it back by cracking the mirror), Antonia’s Marian transformation escapes him and his listeners.

The ideal is sought by Powell & Pressburger in painting, something like Le Mystère Picasso (in Bluebeard’s Castle, sculpture fills the bill). Méliès and Cocteau are progenitors aggressively acknowledged in the bonhomie of the troupe and the rapidity of effects. The hilarity of Olympia’s world might have inspired Kienholz’s great satiric Art Show. Young’s Black Tights is in the vein, Fellini is anticipated with a quick dolly-in to a veiled Roman mask, Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera are well-remembered. The Dalian obelisks and scarves are just ahead of Donen & Kelly, they become the runecarved doors and steles of Bluebeard’s Castle. The pas de huit suggests the British workmanship of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another film beyond the pale of criticism (Pauline Kael’s especially), hence the gold-leaf stamp, “Made in England”.

“The Dragonfly Ballet”, observe how it flickers from the camera movements on the painted stage disposed not to brook overmuch verisimilitude, passes into over-reaches of English connoisseurship and settles into ranges inhabited by Blake, the vanishing point being perhaps a tentative awareness of Hoffmann’s style as imprecision and fantasticality indulged as calculation. The great invention, to be sure, is Moira Shearer in tights.

The Film Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art cannot afford the rental fee and so is reduced to showing a Digibeta version. Your donations are requested, abstain.


Oh... Rosalinda!!

The critical difficulty is formidable, witness Halliwell’s absolute condemnation.

Die Fledermaus in Vienna, 1955, under the Four Powers, very much an answer to A Matter of Life and Death (the director of Yanks is a Gentleman).

Eisenstein is a French colonel, Orlofsky a Soviet general, Alfred in the USAF, the British are the arresting power.


The Battle of the River Plate

The film is in two movements, corresponding to the military engagement and the diplomatic maneuvering.

The detention of Capt. Dove begins and ends the first, the second begins immediately upon his release at Montevideo. In this, the main character is that of an American reporter who is first seen wrestling for the microphone jokingly with an Uruguayan songstress.

The film’s opening scene of Capt. Dove and his men in their lifeboat hoisted aboard the Graf Spee and lowered down into the hatch that slides shut over them has been emulated in more than one Bond film, starting with Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice.

The reporter is at least partly a caricature of Yankee radio journalists. “Paints it a bit thick,” observes a British naval officer.


Ill Met by Moonlight

Dirk Bogarde as the hero of Missolonghi actually identifies himself with the Byronic type and later recites some verses. The visual image is so striking because participants in this military exploit were on the set and even loaned articles of clothing. The film was made realistically as a representation of the event on the island of Crete and is, as Niels Bohr would say, just fantastic enough to be true.

That is the key to both criticisms of it, that it is frivolous (New York Times) and that it is not in the vein of Powell & Pressburger’s best work (Monthly Film Bulletin). No-one else could have made it, and the critique gives away very importantly an unmistakable impression received.

It’s in the pure Archers style, dazzled all the critics, and is rather more than the sum of its parts. When these are added together in the general mind, it will be recognized that Ill Met by Moonlight is a factual account of war rendered stylistically savvy by Powell & Pressburger’s adherence to the truth and beauty of it.