Friday, July 02, 2010

TWO FROM POWELL & PRESSBURGER

"One is starved for Technicolor up there!"

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic wartime fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH centers on a romance between a British fighter pilot (David Niven) and a young American WAC (Kim Hunter) stationed in England. The pair have bonded over the radio one night, when the pilot's badly damaged plane gets lost in a fog and he has to bail out, and she is the last voice he hears over his radio headset. His survival after bailing out minus parachute is, it turns out accidental. The heavenly spirit sent to collect him (Marius Goring) also got lost in the fog, causing all kinds of problems with the Celestial Bureaucracy, when the pilot declines to correct the error by dying, especially now that he has found love.

I don't want to give away too much, as a good deal of the fun of the movie is watching the story unfold. Make no mistake, there's a lot to like and admire about the movie, especially the really fine performances and the really delicious use of Technicolor. God this film is gorgeous to look at. Your TV isn't used to showing you pictures like this. The greens are greener, and those reds are really red: you've never seen fire like you see it in this film. The pictures just jump off the screen.

There's also certain playfulness to the film that is really engaging. The story may not feel entirely fresh to 21st Century audiences, but there are lots of neat little details to keep the attention engaged. At one point in the film time stops short, and a table tennis game is halted with the ball hanging in space.

I'll admit though that I can't quite make up my mind about the film. I have to say that I find the love relationship to be rather unconvincing, there doesn't really seem to be a lot of chemistry there between David Niven and Kim Hunter. And the overt propaganda elements of the film get frankly tiresome. A big scene toward the end about British/American relations (you'll know what I mean when you see it) just brings the film to a screeching halt, and the love conquers all ending (not a spoiler, trust me, there's never any doubt where the story is heading) feels kind of tacked on, somehow. I'm not sure I believe it. Bureaucracies, celestial or otherwise, aren't known for being accommodating. This is either a serious flaw or a niggling complaint, as you please. I'm feeling kind of churlish bringing it up. I guess I'm saying that the film bites off more than it can really chew: the filmmakers expect a charming romantic wartime fantasy about the Power Of Love to carry more metaphoric and thematic propaganda weight than it can really bear. It doesn't really detract from the movie, I guess, but it doesn't exactly help either.

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP

"Very much. Not so much."

Having seen this film at various times over the years, I just don't understand the wild praise the film continues to get. BLIMP, made in 1943, is the story of uber-Brit soldier Clive Candy (the great Roger Livesey) and his adventures in the years between 1902 and 1943. His assorted romantic relationships are gone into, and his deep friendship with the German officer Theodor von Kretchmar-Schuldorff (the great Anton Walbrook) is really the core of the film. There's a lot about German British relations in the film, understandably, and some rather solid home truths are spoken on both sides, pro-British and anti-British as well as pro-German and anti-German. Apparently Winston Churchill tried to have the film stopped because of the positive depiction of a German officer.

COL. BLIMP is clearly aiming at being about England and the English the way that MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is about America and Americans. There's no doubt in my mind as to which is the superior film (MR. SMITH wins by many many light years) but it could just be one of those weird nationalistic things: maybe I'm just too American to understand COL. BLIMP. And that's a shame, because I don't think that's what they had in mind. COL. BLIMP is not an easy film, by any means, there are a lot of complicated ideas floating around in it, most especially and currently relevantly about the proper way to deal with a war: how does a country that prides itself on fair play and a particular brand of decency deal with the very real threat of an enemy that just keeps refusing to co-operate? How dirty can a nation fight without compromising itself? The film never really gets around to answering these questions, as far as I can tell.

There's an uncharacteristic technical clumsiness to the film, which I really find unbelievable in a Powell/Pressburger production. At least two transitional moments in the film are handled what was probably intended to be an interesting and cinematic manner, and you can see what they're wanting to do, but it doesn't come off at all well. The most disturbing is the first flashback transition from from 1943 to 1902 (there's a framing device whereby the film opens in 1943 and goes back to 1902 to start Clive's story at the beginning). I won't bother describing it, but you'll know what I mean when you see it. It is the clumsiest bit of bad filmmaking a fine director ever put into a film, and I just can't believe they left it in -- surely they could have done another take or two or nine.

I'd be ready to forgive it a lot more if I didn't consistently find myself thinking that the film could be a lot tighter, that 20 minutes were being taken to establish what really could have been set up in less than 5. An extended sequence set during WWI just goes on and on, and even winds up with one of the lamest cliches ever put on film: two characters notice that the guns have stopped on Armistice Day, and the sudden silence is actually augmented with birdsong and the clouds actually lift a bit allowing some sunshine. No, really, that's what happens. Maybe I need to do some more reading on the film. Maybe I'm just missing something.

There are good things, in the film, of course. Roger Livesey's performance as Clive is most impressive, and Deborah Kerr, in her film debut, is admirable in her three roles. But the film comes most incredibly alive whenever the great Anton Walbrook graces the screen. There's none of the mad intensity of his work in THE RED SHOES or THE QUEEN OF SPADES in BLIMP; he's very quiet and restrained, for the most part, particularly in an extended single-shot monologue that is simply the most moving scene in Powell/Pressburger's filmography. If I continue to see the film time after time, banging my head against the wall trying to get a handle on it rather than dismissing it as a failure, it is because of Walbrook. I'd watch and listen to him read the goddamn phone book.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for turning me on to this film. I agree with you 100% - I was 2/3 of the way through it and loving every gorgeous second, and then - blam! - a total halt from which the film never recovers. And you are also right on target about the ending: maybe I'm more of a pessimist than you, but I somehow thought the one of them - most likely David Niven - would end up dead. I kind of thought he'd die on the operating table and/or somehow come to the realization that his whole experience after the airplane jump was imaginary, or that Kim Hunter would indeed take his place. Can't decide now if it's a film I want to own or not. The last 1/3 of it (especially the incredibly unpleasant performance by Daniel Massey) negates so much of the pleasure of the first hour.

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