The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

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I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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I haven’t heard any intelligent female nonsense for months. Plucky and stubborn Englishwoman Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to the remote islands of the Scottish Hebrides in order to marry a wealthy industrialist many years her senior. Trapped by inclement weather on the Isle of Mull and unable to continue to her destination, Joan finds herself charmed by the place and becomes increasingly attracted to naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), who is also marooned in the house of childhood friend Catriona (Pamela Brown).  He holds a secret that may change Joan’s life forever and may make her want her to stay on Kiloran … We live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two. This Powell and Pressburger production has a kind of mystical aspect that has long made it a cult favourite and turned Mull into an unlikely tourist hotspot for the more discerning film fan. A romcom of a different order with an unexpected cast for such a story, and an appeal that lies directly in something almost erotic that seems to seep up from the very landscape and the misty air. Count them before you go to sleep and your wish’ll come true

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much

Gone to Earth (1950)

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Aka The Wild Heart. He put a spell on me, he did. Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) is an innocent child of nature in the Shropshire countryside on the Welsh borders in 1897. She loves and understands all the wild animals more than the people around her. Whenever she has problems, she turns to the book of spells and charms left to her by her late gypsy mother.  Local fox-hunting squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) sees Hazel and wants her, but she has already promised herself to the Baptist minister, Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). She brings up a fox cub (Foxy) and is mother to him, insisting that he be part of her bridal party in the church. A struggle for her body and soul ensues and she turns to superstition to deal with her problems… Adapted from Mary Webb’s 1917 bodice-ripper, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s odder films.  Given producer David O. Selznick’s involvement it’s no surprise that it stars his famously sibilant-averse wife Jones, who never seemed to age. She’s like a feral Scarlett O’Hara, feisty and strong-willed but ignorant in all essentials. Farrar makes a return to the P&P troupe, while Sybil Thorndike is excellent support playing mother to Cusack’s parson, a fine role for the Irish character actor. Hugh Griffith (as the wicked squire’s faithful man servant), Esmond Knight and George Cole get some good moments in the ensemble.  This is a stunning, full-blooded work in lush Technicolor with startling cinematography by the great Christopher Challis, relishing the opportunity to capture the strangeness and beauty of a very lovely part of the world which some readers might recall was the setting for some of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine series of books for adolescents. Narrated by Joseph Cotten.

 

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

Peeping Tom (1960)

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Michael Powell’s brilliant meditation on Oedipal bullying, voyeurism, photography, pornography, sadism and violence, all wrapped up in the psychosexual concept of scopophilia or the morbid desire to look. The story of a film studio’s focus puller and his need to kill women (mostly redheads) while photographing them basically destroyed Powell’s career at the hands of the middle class critics who despised it. It’s a masterpiece of British cinema and one can only wonder at what Powell would make of the narcissistic perverts who spend their lives photographing themselves doing all manner of vile things nowadays.