Saturday, July 3, 2010

#14: The Archers - Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

For those that have frequented Goodfella’s since the days of the annual countdown, this one will certainly come as a surprise. Not just the high placement will be a surprise, but the fact that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made the Top 30 at all. As some will undoubtedly remember from the yearly series, I noted that while I did enjoy the couple of Archers films that I had seen, none had really captured me as they had so many people whose tastes my own normally align with. What I also freely admitted at the time, though, was that the sample size I used to base my opinion on was tragically small – I had seen only The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and parts of The Red Shoes. Black Narcissus was the only one of the three that made me think that maybe, just maybe, I needed to delve deeper. Thinking that perhaps I was missing something, I felt that I owed it to myself to experience more of their work and see what all the hype was about. What ultimately won me over were two films from the classic P&P run, which surprisingly enough, neither of which occupy the top two positions in my rankings below.

Watching A Canterbury Tale for the first time was an experience akin to marveling at a more-charming, innocent Mulholland Drive. It’s a weird comparison, I know, but the indefinable allure of the film drew me in immediately. It is funny, beguiling, innocent, menacing, and haunting all at once. All together, it proved irresistible to me. After watching it, I moved on to A Matter of Life and Death, still reluctantly expecting a nice little bit of patriotic propaganda. Then came the opening ten minutes of what I consider to be one of the finest opening sequences ever put on film. That was it – I had to go back to the beginning and plow through as much of their work as possible. What I found was an unbelievably consistent, impressive body of work. Every film I have listed below is worth seeing, regardless of one’s taste. Keeping in mind that I still have not seen everything they made, I still maintain that there is not a bad film in the bunch.

It should be noted that I am in fact cheating a little bit, as I have listed films that are not actually Powell & Pressburger efforts, but are only films that Michael Powell himself directed. I thought that it was worth acknowledging that he made some worthy films on his own, but none of them for me equal anything that the The Archers did together. I include them in my list, but the true reason that either man has made it into this countdown is their unbelievable success as collaborators. The first eight are the real cream of the crop in my opinion.

What I like most about The Archers work is how the strengths of both men are allowed to be fully utilized – Pressburger supplying imaginative story ideas and tightly constructed scripts, Powell utilizing a fantastic visual sense that is both sweeping in outdoor scenic shots and intimate in tension-filled moments like the A Matter of Life and Death opening mentioned earlier. The two come together and create movies that are bubbling over with emotions – sad, jubilant, poignant, passionate, dark, humorous, and many more. One thing that I don’t see mentioned as much as it should be is the sheer playfulness on display. In much of their work, P&P are dealing with deadly serious issues centered primarily on surviving in the face of horrific warfare or obstacles. And yet, much like Hitchcock’s mischievousness while dealing in murder and mayhem, there is an inescapable sense of good humor dancing around everything. Not so much as to invalidate the seriousness, but enough to generate a definite charm that most other directors would be incapable of producing.

And before going straight to the ranking, I’ll put in a word for what I look to as possibly their most underrated film: 49th Parallel. Scouring the web for reviews and opinions on it, it seems to routinely be dismissed as mere propaganda fluff and just a warm-up to what would come from The Archers in the next few years. There’s no denying its propagandist purposes, but I don’t see this as reason to brush it aside. Many of the greatest films ever made have similar origins (Casablanca, anyone?). Not that I’m ready to anoint 49th Parallel an all-time classic – after all, I place it only at #6 below – but the first half of that film in particular is very strong. It might not manage to maintain that same level for the entire length, but I never tire of watching the camera of cinematographer Freddie Young take in the sweeping Canadian landscapes.

Those top two are unlikely to ever be unseated for me, but A Canterbury Tale pushes close… or perhaps once I get the courage to undertake The Tales of Hoffman, which I purposely have been putting off due to my complete antipathy toward the idea of filming an opera, I’ll be pleasantly surprised!

1. Black Narcissus (1947)
2. The Red Shoes (1948)
3. A Canterbury Tale (1944)
4. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
6. 49th Parallel (1941)
7. The Small Back Room (1949)
8. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
9. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
10. Peeping Tom (1960)
11. The Edge of the World (1937)
12. The Spy in Black (1939)
13. One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)
14. Contraband (1940)
15. The Battle of the River Plate (1956)


  1. "There is not a British director with as many worthwhile films to his credit," writes David Thomson of Michael Powell, and I think I agree. His closest rival is David Lean. Still this was a surprising choice to see here. A glance at the films you list clearly shows the man's versatility, with each one quite different from the rest. I haven't seen all of these, but of those I have seen, I would put "The Red Shoes" at the top followed closely by "A Matter of Life and Death" and (a particular favorite of mine) "I Know Where I'm Going." These would be followed by "Colonel Blimp," "Peeping Tom," "The Tales of Hoffmann" (I'm not a particular fan of opera or filmed opera, but this one unexpectedly captivated me), and "The Thief of Baghdad"--for me all masterpieces and a mighty impressive group of films. After these would come "Black Narcissus" (for some reason I don't rate this as highly as most--maybe its emotionalism seems a bit unrestrained to me for Powell) and "The Small Back Room." I liked "The Edge of the World," but as an early work it lacks the polish of the later films. I found "A Canterbury Tale" charming but slight. "49th Parallel" seemed to run out of steam about midway through (you noted the first half was stronger). But even these are good movies. I've heard good things about "The Spy in Black" and "One of Our Aircraft" and am looking forward to catching them one day. Now I'm asking myself if Lean will appear here too.

  2. Wow, you seem to be watching films at a feverish pace (I'm guessing that you're watching 4-5 films a day?!). I've only seen the two masterpieces that you put at no. 1 and no. 2. I can't disagree a bit.

  3. Wow, this caught me off guard! I have only two of their films and they are easy to rank.

    The Red Shoes
    Peeping Tom

    The Archers are favorites of Scorsese which I am sure your are aware. THE RED SHOES is a masterpiece, a fantastic study of the choices one has to make in this case between art and love. I love this film.

  4. R.D. - Great response, but you know I can't give anything away for future entries! (LOL) I will say though, that I think there might be some other entries that will surprise, as my taste and knowledge have slight changed/expanded since the blog first started.

    JAFB - I wish I was watching that many movies per day! Not all of these were watched during the buildup to this countdown, but over the course of the last year or two.

    John - Agreed, The Red Shoes really is great and I wouldn't argue with anyone who places it as their #1 P&P.

  5. Well, it seems like I'm doing retrospectives of half of the damn directors on your list, and when you finally get to a filmmaker(s) I could make a list for, I can't because any one of the P&P films I've seen could be no. 1. There are a few ones I still need to see (The Small Black Room, The Thief of Baghdad, I Know Where I'm Going, 49th P, Canterbury Tale), but all the ones I've seen are masterpieces except Age of Consent. I suppose a rudimentary ranking might look like:

    1. The Red Shoes (top 10 film for me)
    2. A Matter of Life and Death
    3. Black Narcissus
    4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    5. Peeping Tom
    6. The Tales of Hoffmann
    7. Age of Consent

  6. Michael Powell is easily one of my five favorite directors, so it's wonderful seeing him here. I totally agree with you on A Canterbury Tale, it's such a magical, lyrical film, and takes me places no other movie has. It's could just as easily be my #1.

    I still really need to see Gone To Earth. I know some consider it a masterpiece but I haven't got my hands on it yet.

    My ten favorite:

    Black Narcissus
    A Canterbury Tale
    A Matter Of Life And Death
    The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp
    The Red Shoes
    I Know Where I'm Going!
    49th Parallel
    The Small Back Room
    The Tales Of Hoffman
    Peeping Tom

  7. Well, this pair is also among my own fsvorites of all time, and they are the darling of revival houses all year round. There is so much I can say here, but I'll let the list speak for itself.

    1 Black Narcissus
    2 The Red Shoes
    3 A Matter of Life and Death
    4 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    5 The Tales of Hoffmann
    6 A Canterbury Tale
    7 The Thief of Baghdad
    8 Contraband
    9 I Know Where I'm Going
    10 The 49th Parallel
    11 The Small Back Room
    12 Peeping Tom
    13 The Battle of the River Plate
    14 One of Our Aircraft is Missing
    15 Age of Consent
    16 The Spy in Black
    17 The Elusive Pimpernel

  8. I've had the pleasure of watching about half of these movies over the last year or so, without knowing anything about them beforehand. It gets a bit frightening after a while, because the only thing you can expect from them is that they'll burn themselves into your mind.

    To me, my first "Archers" moment, (those unforgettable moments that happen in most of their movies when you realize you're watching something astonishing), was actually the motorcycle scene at the beginning of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I can't describe why, and I won't try. Just - unforgettable.

  9. Dave:

    1. 'I Know Where I'm Going!'
    2. A Canterbury Tale
    3. A Matter of Life and Death
    4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    5. The Red Shoes
    6. Black Narcissus
    7. The Small Back Room
    8. 49th Parallel
    9. One of Our Aircraft Is Missing
    10. The Elusive Pimpernel
    11. The Spy in Black

    I was enthralled by the tale of your conversion to Powell and Pressburger, empathetic to your initial resistance, and elated by their inclusion herein. I am a newcomer to your endeavors and did not know the background of your journey to Canterbury, to Killoran, and to those other magic regions of the Archers. It is no easy matter to describe well the magic of such artists. But you have accomplished it.

    Few, if any, were ever better at mastering that perfect blend of sound, music, language and cinematography. But the Archers also had something else: heart and passion. Never was this more evident than in my first two choices.

    A special moment occurred in film history when Emeric told Michael that he (Emeric) had always wanted to make a film about a girl who wants to get to an island -- but does not. Michael asked why the girl wanted to go in the first place. Emeric smiled “one of his mysterious smiles” and said “Let’s make the film and find out.”

    'I Know Where I'm Going!' is my favorite. A Canterbury Tale is a very close second here and your appreciation of it greatly pleases us. (By us, I mean my wife and I, because in this love affair we are one.) These two Archer endeavors were beautifully served by the score of Allan Gray and the exquisite cinematography of Erwin Hillier. Gray furnished a sense of the land through music. Hillier gave us the look of the land – and translated Powell’s love of the sea. Great Britain has rarely been better served by its artists.

    My wife and I sought out Archer terrain in a lengthy trip through the Highlands and the Hebrides. We wanted to experience the feel and the call of the Islands. We have sailed aboard the ferries, dealt with midges, and seen the Highland dances. But more often in recent years, we can be found in that lush section of Kent around Canterbury. This, to retrace the steps of those three wartime pilgrims, each seeking some special need: two soldiers and a land girl. It is familiar country to us -- to our eyes, and in our minds. The bells of the Cathedral resound, both in the beginning and the end of the film and invariably whenever once again we walk those old streets. It is a most atmospheric place.

    We were children during the war and later made friends while working in England. Given that all of us were mostly the same age, a number of those friends remember the war as children. Their tales, if not of Canterbury, but of like places, brought their wartime experiences closer to us. And the values of England that are so beautifully stressed, particularly in the Portman lecture, have reached deeply into us.

    The order of AMOLAD, Red Shoes and Blimp is irrelevant. They change with any viewing. They are all masterworks. Music, color, and language prevail. Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook excel. And there are always the Foula regulars.

    Similarly the next four. The women come to the forefront. Kathleen Byron, Deborah Kerr, and the glorious Pamela Brown, whose eyes and strong voice haunted us earlier in IKWIG. And finally, I rather like the Niven Pimpernel and my wife is partial to The Spy in Black.

    And let us not forget that vast array of stage and screen talent that was always a part of any Archer endeavor. Michael and Emeric proved time and time again, that there are no small parts – only good parts and bad. They mastered the former and eschewed the latter.

    Given your posting, I suspect that part of our Fourth of July will be spent in reverie for places far from Pennsylvania. Thank you and best wishes.

    Gerald (and Enola)

    Postscript: Around our home you might think my wife had been the script girl for A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going.

  10. Jake - Hah, sorry, didn't realize we were mirroring each other! I look forward to your future thoughts on some of these though because you have some great films left to watch for the first time.

    Doniphon - I obviously haven't seen Gone to Earth either, but I absolutely agree with what you say about A Canterbury Tale - really a unique experience.

    Sam - Seeing The Tales of Hoffman that high on your list makes me look forward to finally watching it. Although, I dare say you're a bit more cultured than me and can appreciate opera far easier than I can! (LOL!)

    Bjorn - Glad to hear that you became enamored with The Archers as well... thanks for checking out the series!

    Gerald - Another Hall of Fame worth comment and it really makes me happy to hear that this entry is enough to push you and your wife toward an Archers binge! I Know Where I'm Going was one that I had trouble placing in the rankings, as it has never immediately grabbed me like the other favorites (Narcissus, Red Shoes), but it has a staying power that makes you want to investigate it again. Ultimately, I didn't move it ahead of other favorites, but it's an outstanding film, no doubt.

  11. Dave, as an Archers fan let me warn you: Tales of Hoffman was a botch the same way Oh Rosalinda! was. I had the mixed fortune of seeing the latter and Elusive Pimpernel on a double bill and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts during a stay in that city, and they are the only Archers films I've seen on the big screen. Neither is really a characteristic work. What impresses me the most about Powell and Pressburger is their merger of the fantastic and the authentic. Films like A Matter of Life and Death and Red Shoes have a remarkable lived-in quality that gives their flights of fantasy additional power.

    1. Black Narcissus
    2. The Red Shoes
    3. A Matter of Life and Death
    4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    5. Peeping Tom
    6. 49th Parallel
    7. A Cantebury Tale
    8. The Elusive Pimpernel
    9. The Small Back Room
    10. The Tales of Hoffman
    11. The Battle of the River Plate
    12. Oh Rosalinda!

    As you see, I still have plenty to see. Thanks, Archers.

  12. Samuel, I dare say Offenbach and Powell and Pressburger are a perfect match in more ways than one, and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN is finally beginning to receive the respect it has long deserved. Check this clip from the Cinerarium blog:

    "A couple weeks ago I rented The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the best films from their glory period of working together. Apparently it is a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who used to constantly compete to rent the single copy out from their local movie rental shop in Manhattan. For a movie that’s based on an unfinished, nineteenth-century opera, it definitely packs a surprisingly powerful visual punch and draws on a lot of the best elements of the horror, fantasy, and adventure genres in weaving its spell."

  13. Sam, I could throw a clip from the Mondo 70 blog back at you, but that might look like special pleading while admittedly not being an argument from authority. Suffice it to say that what works for ballet doesn't work automatically for opera and in the Archers' two cases didn't.

  14. 1- A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
    2- Black Narcissus (1947)
    3- Peeping Tom (1960)
    4- The Red Shoes (1948)
    5- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
    6- The Small Back Room (1949)
    7- The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
    8- I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
    9- A Canterbury Tale (1944)
    10- The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
    11- One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)
    12- Gone to Earth (1950)
    13- Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)
    14- 49th Parallel (1941)
    15- Contraband (1940)
    16- The Edge of the World (1937)
    17- The Battle of the River Plate (1956)
    18- An Airman's Letter to His Mother (1941)
    19- The Spy in Black (1939)
    20- Ill Met by Moonlight (1957)
    21- Age of Consent (1969)
    22- The Phantom Light (1935)
    23- They're a Weird Mob (1966)
    24- The Fire Raisers (1934)
    25- The Wild Heart (1952)
    26- The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)
    27- Red Ensign (1934)
    28- The Lion Has Wings (1939)

  15. lol...I only popped over to see the screen caps for 'The Haunting' and couldn't resist...

    The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
    I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
    A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
    Black Narcissus (1947)
    The Red Shoes (1948)

    2 TIER
    49th Parallel (1941)
    Contraband (1940)
    The Spy in Black (1939)

  16. whooops, that was in chronological order

  17. 1 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    2 Black Narcissus
    3 Red Shoes
    4 A Matter Of Life & Death
    5 I Know Where I'm Going
    6 A Canterbury Tale
    7 Tales Of Hoffman. I don't feel much toward the film but technically it is extraordinary.
    8 The Small back Room
    9 49th Parallel
    10 One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing