Michal Powell is a director beloved by many and yet a comparatively small portion of his filmography is ever discussed. His work with Emeric Pressburger is generally given the spotlight, with Peeping Tom and The Thief of Bagdad often added to the mix, but few reviewers explore his lesser-known solo films like Honeymoon and Age of Consent or even his post-1940s work with Pressburger, such as Gone to Earth and Ill Met by Moonlight. Fewer still dig into Powell’s early work, the so-called “quota quickies” and less ambitious films that predate his landmark independent film The Edge of the World from 1937. For this article, I’ve watched every available feature film by Powell from his earliest surviving film Rynox right through to his Children’s Film Foundation oddity The Boy Who Turned Yellow. The only available work I have omitted is Behind the Mask. This is the American cut of The Man Behind the Mask, which deleted about twenty minutes of footage and is not the film Powell intended (I’ve also left out David O. Selznick’s The Wild Heart, a recut version of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth, for similar reasons). In this second part, I’m looking at the top 20 films in my ranking of Powell’s work.

All entries contain spoilers. You can find part one of the article here.


I recall when I first bought my Powell and Pressburger box set, I was a budding young cinephile who had not yet exorcised the sort of simplified prejudices that kept so many different types of film from invading my spaghetti-slender horizons. During that wonderful time to be young and stupid, I had an extraordinarily dumbed-down vision of what an old British War film was like. I envisaged actors so stiff that the especial rigidity of their upper lips was barely discernible, I imagined archivally-enhanced action sequences in which you knew someone bombed something but couldn’t be clear on the details, and I imagined attempts at much-needed exposition being lost in waves of 40s slang, “pip pips” and “what ho’s” galore. Consequently, I put off watching Powell and Pressburger films like 49th Parallel and The Spy in Black because I’d erroneously assumed I’d seen them already in my head. Of course, none of these films turned out to be anything like the one I’d imagined. I’m not sure the film I imagined actually really exists. It’s just the perennial stereotype of the sort of thing your Granddad supposedly spends every Sunday afternoon watching, even though my Granddad was more likely to be indulging his surprising penchant for dance with Top Hat or self-validating his overt racism with Gone with the Wind.

The sort of film I imagined to encompass an entire genre may not be real but there are occasionally films that come somewhere close to it, at least in terms of the level of interest they inspire in me. I was surprised to find that Powell and Pressburger’s acclaimed One of Our Aircraft is Missing was such a film. From an interminably dull, muddily defined opening air raid sequence to a plodding mission through the Dutch countryside, it feels almost safe to assume that the titular missing vehicle is actually still back in the hangar because One of Our Aircraft is Missing never really gets off the ground. It picks up slightly at a very late stage with the arrival of the wonderful Googie Withers in a terrific role as “Queen of the Underground”, as the poster would have it. But until then the crew with whom we are stuck are not particularly well-defined or interesting. I have a feeling I’ve slightly missed a trick and that there is a subtlety to these characters that I didn’t spot first time round that perhaps makes their company more enjoyable on a second viewing. But their adventures themselves are honestly quite flaccid, with things just sort of working out in a strangely undramatic way. The story of a group of British soldiers stuck behind enemy lines is essentially the flipside of Powell and Pressburger’s previous film 49th Parallel, in which they foregrounded Nazis in the same situation, which made for a more interesting premise. But that film also felt more enthusiastically written and performed. Although it bagged another Screenplay Oscar nomination, One of Our Aircraft is Missing features a lot of banter and not a great deal of action.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing was the first film in which Powell and Pressburger billed themselves as “The Archers”, a pseudonym under which they took joint credit for screenplay, direction and production. But it feels like that distinctive Archers identity didn’t fully start to crystallise until their next film, the epic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. By contrast, One of Our Aircraft is Missing feels easier to lose amongst a plethora of other War films of the era, which can’t really be said of the three Powell and Pressburger War films that preceded it. Though it remains beloved of war enthusiasts and many Powell and Pressburger fans, One of Our Aircraft is Missing just isn’t for me.


Having very much enjoyed Powell and Pressburger’s debut collaboration The Spy in Black, I was really looking forward to their second film together, Contraband, especially since it reunites stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The consensus on Contraband seems to be that it is a Hitchcock homage/rip-off which many have charitably compared to The 39 Steps. While the abundance of eccentric characters, humorous asides and high stakes situations mean the Hitchcock comparison is not wholly unjustified, Contraband forgets to attach these accoutrements to a strong or particularly coherent central plot, which is detrimental to the film’s ability to hold interest. It ends up being closer to Hitchcock’s early Hollywood effort Foreign Correspondent, a tonally confused and narratively undisciplined picture. Veidt, despite being a vehement anti-Nazi, spent a chunk of his late career playing Nazi roles so it’s refreshing to see him play the hero, but the material here is so light and goofy that the contrast feels too drastic. Veidt still looks menacing and severe even when playing the comedic beats. Hobson, meanwhile, is given a much less satisfying role than in The Spy in Black and doesn’t get a chance to register that strongly. The romance that develops between the two is unconvincing and there was far more palpable tension between them when Hobson was rebuffing Veidt’s advances in their previous film together.

There’s a feeling that Pressburger, at his best a wonderful writer, is phoning this one in slightly. Contraband is filled with silly gags and vividly over the top characters, in particular Hay Petrie’s dual role of brothers Axel and Erik Skold. Axel is the First Officer on the ship run by Veidt’s Captain Andersen, while Erik is a passionate restaurant owner and chef. It is in this second role that Petrie mugs and bellows to a distracting degree, and I ended up spending most of his scenes focused more on how much he looks like Claude Rains. Contraband is that kind of film. It skips from situation to situation so quickly and with such negligible explanation that you end up amusing yourself by pondering little details like how miscast Veidt is or why they called this thing Contraband when the American title, Blackout, is so much more appropriate. There are nice distractions too. Powell displays a few visual flourishes here and there that betray his rapid growth as an artful director, in particular a shootout staged among a collection of porcelain busts. There are little suspenseful set-pieces that can be enjoyed in isolation but the main throughline is too weak and convoluted to support these concessionary baubles.

Contraband is a hard film to completely dislike. It has enough moments of excitement or flashes of wit to just about keep you watching. But its blacked-out metropolis crawling with spies is such a promising setting that it feels like a shame that it was squandered on such a thin, throwaway screenplay as this.


The title Crown v. Stevens sets up expectations of a Courtroom Drama but we never get near a court. In fact, the film is a nifty little proto-Noir Crime Thriller which begins as the story of the luckless Chris Jensen, whose fiancé runs off with an unpaid-for engagement ring, then shifts focus to follow the murderous endeavours of Doris (perhaps the first and last femme fatale to go by that name), a devious, manipulative opportunist who also happens to be the wife of Chris’s skinflint boss. When Chris discovers Doris at the scene of a moneylender’s murder, their lives becomes entangled despite Chris’s attempts to move on. Although Patric Knowles proves to be a singularly dull hero, his predicament is an interesting moral dilemma and as the film neatly changes protagonists to focus on Doris, Crown v. Stevens picks up considerably. Beatrix Thomson is delightfully cold and calculating in the role and though the ending she receives is a trifle anticlimactic, she makes the journey there enjoyable at the very least. Powell directs with appropriately sleek efficiency, with the only major flourish being a literal closing of curtains at the film’s finale.

While most of Powell’s early films benefit from their brief runtimes, Crown v. Stevens feels like it could’ve benefited from an extra twenty minutes or so. If given the time to properly explore both Chris and Doris’s stories and interweave them less abruptly, Crown v. Stevens could’ve evolved into a very effective little Noir. As it is, it is still an endearingly modest success, a cut above many of the Powell quota quickies thanks mainly to an interesting premise and a strong female lead.


The Small Back Room came off the back of an astonishing run of productions for Powell and Pressburger, characterised by opulent visuals, ambitious effects and unconventional narratives. By contrast, and as its title suggests, The Small Back Room is a much more modest affair, telling the story of the back room experts whose contribution to the war effort often went unacknowledged. Although they began their collaboration with several War films in a row, Powell and Pressburger hadn’t made an all-out War picture in over half a decade. Largely concerned with bureaucratic red-tape and meetings in offices and boardrooms, The Small Back Room takes a different approach from the adventures of 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and the fact that there was no longer a war going on when The Small Back Room came out allows Powell and Pressburger to get away with a heightened version of their trademark satirical attitude to sacred cows. Bumbling bosses and oblivious ministers pepper the film, with the back room boys having to juggle their resentment for their incompetence with the need to secure continued funding. At first the glimpses of the day to day minutiae of weapons evaluation tends towards the tedious but the way these scenes are sprinkled throughout the film ultimately recreates a sense of irritating drudgery with which most audience members can probably relate. This in turn enhances the power of The Small Back Room’s more dramatic plot strands, with a rare acknowledgement of the way life trundles on even when we’d really like it to stop for a while.

At the centre of The Small Back Room’s intermittent story is Sammy Rice, a back room scientist with a prosthetic leg and an alcohol problem. Driven to depression by the pain from his leg and his insecurities about his relationship with his secretary, Susan, Sammy struggles to resist the temptation of the whiskey bottle he keeps in his home and keep his mind on the daily grind and the potential threat from some newly discovered booby-trapped explosive devices being dropped by Nazi bombers. There are essentially four different story strands here and if The Small Back Room doesn’t seem to be pulling them together smoothly, it slowly becomes apparent that that’s because it is recreating the sort of jarring, chaotic existence that magnifies problems and makes temporary solutions seem so attractive. Sammy’s drinking problem feels like the most compelling thread for a while but ultimately it gives way to theatrics that explicitly take inspiration from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. A sequence in which Sammy is taunted by ticking clocks and a gigantic whiskey bottle is entertaining to watch but its brevity and incongruity make it feel like an unnecessary flourish that disrupts the progression of a film already wrestling with a tricky tonal balancing act. It’s important to remember that alcoholism was rarely taken seriously by cinema in this era, with clownish drunks providing comic relief more often than they were afforded sympathy. The Lost Weekend helped significantly to change that but it would’ve been fresh in audiences’ minds when The Small Back Room appeared just a few years later and this stylistic lift, brief though it is, probably seemed even more egregious at the time.

When he watched his film back years later, Michael Powell found The Small Back Room to be too cold. Given its grim subject matter and low-key approach, that seems to be partially necessary but Powell had a point. I could certainly have done with a little more humanity to balance the deliberate dreariness and though there is an attempt to introduce some warmth by way of the tempestuous central romance, the chemistry between leads David Farrar and Kathleen Byron has not increased since he rejected her back in Black Narcissus, although this time round she doesn’t turn into a feral nun-hunting beast every time he pushes her away. Ultimately, The Small Back Room recreates the dehumanising effects of work, war and depression a little too well, leaving this viewer feeling a tad disheartened even after the unconvincing stab at a redemptive finale. That said, The Small Back Room is still an often effective, deliberately paced and thoughtfully realised film which acts as a refreshing palate cleanser after the rich confections of The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. 


The Tales of Hoffmann, a film adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, was made three years after Powell and Pressburger’s more famous predecessor, The Red Shoes. The celebrated ballet in The Red Shoes was considered by Powell as something of a stepping stone towards what he ultimately wanted to achieve; a ‘composed film’, a cinematic marriage of opera music and celluloid imagery. With The Tales of Hoffmann, Powell and Pressburger surely realised this ambition in just about as spectacular a fashion as could be imagined. The film, in its rich three-strip Technicolor, looks absolutely sumptuous and its dreamlike power has not diminished one iota in the decades since its release. From beginning to end, The Tales of Hoffmann is a visual masterpiece in three distinct acts, each one utilising a different primary colour as its prominent theme. The vivid use of colour is astonishing and it is matched by the Oscar nominated art direction, sets and costumes, which sadly lost both awards to An American in Paris, a film which arguably only matches The Tales of Hoffmann’s visual mastery in its final ballet sequence. While watching The Tales of Hoffmann I was riveted on an aesthetic level, unable or unwilling to look away from the tremendous spectacle on screen. Not only is the design and execution of the movie exquisite but the minutiae is also wonderful. Powell and Pressburger have peppered the film, particularly its first act, with charming little visual gags and fleeting moments of the unexpected.

And yet, for all my enthusiasm for the film on a visual level, it must be admitted that The Tales of Hoffmann is not a film for everyone. For lovers of opera and especially those already familiar with this particular story, the film will be a treat through and through. But sadly for myself, not only am I not a fan of opera but I actively loathe the trilling, shrill caterwaul that unfortunately accompanies the majority of the film. In many ways I feel unqualified to review The Tales of Hoffmann since it is a film aimed squarely at opera lovers. For the first act at least I thought the sheer brilliance of the film’s imagery might overcome this personal problem, especially with the mesmerising dancing of Moira Shearer featured so prominently. This first act, which tells the story of Hoffmann’s love for a woman whom he ultimately discovers is a puppet, is the film’s best, stuffed full of cherishable moments and inventive grotesquery which makes a compelling counterpoint to the opulent beauty of the sets and costumes. The absurd story is not easy to follow and I confess that I had to turn on the subtitles in order to understand what everyone was shrieking about but ultimately it mattered little and I drew the conclusion that plot is the least important element of the film and need not have a detrimental effect. For Act 1 this held true, but the following two acts, though still visually striking, largely dispense with the dancing that brought the first act to life, and instead the music and singing are pushed to the forefront and there are increasingly lengthy periods of time when little changes on screen and the mind of the non-opera fan will likely begin to wander.

Doing his damndest to keep the whole thing together is Robert Helpmann, whose brilliant turns in the roles of no less than four different grotesques give the film some of its most memorable images. His continued presence is a blessing in the face of the less interesting central performance of Robert Rounseville in the title role of Hoffmann. Rounseville, to his credit, is one of only two cast members who did their own singing (the other being the sweet but equally bland Ann Ayars as Hoffmann’s third love Antonia) and, despite his central role, he is often reduced to an observer, as in the first act when he is given a pair of enchanted glasses. But Helpmann thoroughly upstages him with his wonderful acting that combines the traditions of stage and silent cinema to magical effect. The other star of the show (aside from art director Hein Heckroth) is Moria Shearer, who previously starred in The Red Shoes and whose dancing and joie de vivre once again bring the screen to life.

Although revered by many filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and George A. Romero among them (the latter naming the film as his favourite of all time and the reason he got into filmmaking), The Tales of Hoffmann is currently still a less celebrated work by Powell and Pressburger. This is perhaps due to the fact that they have so many other classics in their canon to overshadow it but it is more likely the divisive nature of opera itself that has made it seem inaccessible to many. Although it is sometimes hard work for the non-opera fan, I would encourage anyone to watch this remarkable film as it is powerful enough in its visual invention to break through the barrier and make me wish I didn’t loathe opera so as I’d dearly love to recommend it more highly.


The Edge of the World is generally seen as Michael Powell’s first major film. While there are plenty of his earlier films that I enjoyed a great deal, it’s definitely true to say that The Edge of the World immediately feels like an artistic step up and a much more personal work. The idea of making a film about the depopulation of Scottish islands had long been a passion project for Powell and, freed from the demands of the quota quickies that only allowed his personal touch to occasionally shine through, Powell finally made a film that was uniquely his own. Powell’s location work in the Shetland Islands yielded breathtaking results and the slow, thoughtful melancholia of the film allows plenty of space to delight in the visuals. Like Powell’s subsequent I Know Where I’m Going!, The Edge of the World benefits from black and white cinematography which reflects the chilly, forbidding majesty of its remote location.

The Edge of the World is strongest on atmosphere. Powell captures a sense of time and place, of a lifestyle fading away forever as generations begin to seek a more modern existence elsewhere. The flashback structure instantly evokes a sense of loss, which Powell heightens by presenting the audience with a procession of ghost-like memories marching through the now-deserted island. The story itself is sparse, favouring a semi-documentary feel over a strong narrative. The pace changes for one extraordinary sequence involving a race up a cliffside between two men, but largely The Edge of the World is a mournful, languid experience. Amongst an adequate cast, John Laurie stands out as a stubborn, old-fashioned islander watching his family and his whole way of life fall apart. Rarely gifted a lead role and forever known to latter day TV viewers as Dad’s Army’s Fraser, Laurie dispels all thoughts of his catchphrase “We’re dooooomed!” with a rich, moving performance that gives the film its melancholy heart.

The Edge of the World is a remarkable film in many ways but it’s not an experience I’d rush to repeat. Important for Powell’s progression as an artist, it is an easy film to admire but a hard one to love. Powell’s screenplay has an astute humanism and his strong direction successfully connects this with the environment and its community, but The Edge of the World is missing a sense of warmth and wit that came in abundance in his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. Then again, perhaps warmth and wit are the last thing a film like The Edge of the World needs, so firmly a part of its character is its austerity.


Her Last Affaire is another early Michael Powell film I enjoyed very much. Like The Night of the Party before it, Her Last Affaire feels a little stagebound but it uses its handful of locations well and the far-fetched details of the rather strange plot are well suited to such a small, unassuming production. The quality is elevated by the smart dialogue of Ian Dalrymple, who would go on to contribute to Pygmalion’s Oscar-winning screenplay, and some colourful character work in supporting roles by John Laurie as a puritanical landlord and Googie Withers as a playfully flirtatious maid. While Hugh Williams and Viola Keats are the nominal stars, Withers in particular walks away with the film as she had in Powell’s previous The Love Test and would again in the later One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

Powell’s early films tended to vacillate between light comedies and efficient little crime pictures, while the likes of The Night of the Party and The Phantom Light had a bash at combining the two. Her Last Affaire finally sees Powell achieve this tone successfully, with the drama and humour both proving effective. There are a couple of chances for Powell to add some directorial flourishes, notably when the protagonist envisages the fallout from a death on which he has stumbled as a series of superimposed scandalous headlines. But mostly Her Last Affaire is testament to Powell as a director of actors and he has some good ones here (as well as Gerrard Tyrell, whose screen career understandably ended soon after this) with Francis L. Sullivan, Cecil Parker and the aforementioned Williams, Laurie and Withers all becoming well-loved figures for connoisseurs of British film. If you were attempting to illustrate to a sceptic why the early Powell films are worth watching, Her Last Affaire would be one of the better starting points you could choose. 


One of Powell and Pressburger’s more modest films, I Know Where I’m Going!’s reputation has grown over the years as interest in the duo’s work increased, to the point where it is now often held up as being the equal of their great masterpieces. While I wouldn’t go that far, I Know Where I’m Going! remains a pleasing little picture with frequent flashes of brilliance and a perfectly concise runtime. It is atmosphere that shines above story in this film, with the weather-beaten Isle of Mull making for an evocatively remote location and the relentless wind and rain making the viewer pull their blanket tighter around them against the imagined deluge. Amidst this impeccably realised ambience, we witness the growing relationship between Joan Webster, a strong-willed Englishwoman trying to reach the Isle of Kiloran in order to marry an old, wealthy industrialist, and naval officer Torquil MacNeil trying to reach the same destination to enjoy his shore leave. Although she fights against it and even tries to outrun it, Joan finds herself falling for the impulsive Scot. The basic plot is so familiar to modern audiences that I Know Where I’m Going! is sometimes miscatergorised as a Rom-Com but it has always seemed more of a Romantic Drama to me. There are a handful of quirky islanders who bring a comedic edge to the narrative but overall the expected lightheartedness is quickly usurped by a passionate fatalism that hangs over the film like those persistent storm clouds and makes it far more interesting than the whimsical romp into which it might’ve otherwise devolved.

I Know Where I’m Going! begins like a comedy with a striking opening credits sequence in which a droll omniscient narrator talks us through scenes of Joan’s early life which establish her determination and ability to get what she wants. At first it seems like a wonderful introduction but as the film develops it quickly becomes apparent that there is a tonal clash between this opening and everything that follows and it starts to feel awkwardly peculiar and ultimately a bit lazy. The purpose it serves is that of speedy exposition, handing us the protagonist’s defining character trait on a plate rather than allowing it to naturally develop. While this does help to keep the runtime appropriately concise, it feels a bit cheap. This misstep is quickly forgotten however, with the exceptional sequence in which Joan’s overnight train journey from Manchester to the Hebrides is represented in an extraordinary collage of images, dreams, hopes, sounds and memories. It’s a bravura scene which not only impresses on a surface level but also surreptitiously introduces the hazy dreamlike quality that overtakes the film from hereon in.

Whether you rate I Know Where I’m Going! amongst the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s films may depend on how captivating you find the central romance. While Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are both great actors and both give decent performances here, I rarely felt the required level of chemistry between them to make this work as well as it could have. There is one notable exception, in which a request for a kiss is met with such immediacy and passion that you can practically feel the pent up restraint splurge out all over the screen. One thing I Know Where I’m Going! does nimbly avoid is the notion that a strong woman needs taking in hand. Given the emphatic declaration of the title, complete with its potentially facetious exclamation mark, I thought this might veer into a plot that suggested independent women deserve punishment and humiliation, as George Steven’s Woman of the Year had a few years earlier. There are conversations in I Know Where I’m Going! about “taming women” and the like, but it is all accurate representation of popular contemporary attitudes which, in typical Powell and Pressburger fashion, refuses to validate them. Pressburger’s screenplay goes to several unexpected places, largely for the good, but never once does Joan get chastised for her strong will. Her materialism is questioned and challenged but her independence never is. Torquil openly says he doesn’t want her to change and when they inevitably give in to their mutual attraction, it is not dependent on the loss of face for either party. If the flame of desire is rarely visible here, at the very least we get a laudable depiction of an uncliched adult relationship.

Though its small island setting is often mentioned in conjunction with Bill Forsyth’s 80s gem Local Hero, I Know Where I’m Going! feels less like a whimsical comedy and more like an effective, if flawed, and surprisingly gloom-tinged film. Its major set-piece, involving a stormy sea voyage, is grippingly moody and the overall tone, in keeping with Powell and Pressburger’s pioneering strangeness, is entirely its own. If there is a slight sense of dissatisfaction at the film’s end, that is heavily influenced by the high expectations engendered by the masterpieces that surround it. Taken on its own merits, I Know Where I’m Going! is not only a solidly good film but a rather unique one.


The Love Test took me off guard. I’d definitely been enjoying these early Michael Powell films and quota quickies for their easy-going watchability but there weren’t many I could honestly say were good films. The Love Test, with a couple of caveats, is not only a good film but a very unusual one in terms of gender dynamics and era-specific expectations. Of course, when a film from the 1930s starts examining such subjects, you expect a certain amount of outdated attitudes to be on show but The Love Test balances those with a genuinely surprising critical angle about misogyny in the workplace. What’s more, the films own moments of sexism come by way of tropes that survived well into the next century: the idea that intelligent women need to be made-over to become attractive, the notion that someone who is complicit in a humiliating covert plan to sabotage a woman can still be their romantic lead. So far, so She’s All That.

But there’s an edge to The Love Test that is equally evocative of the more vicious satire of Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, in which two toxic males attempt to exact revenge on the entire female gender by destroying a vulnerable woman’s life. In the case of The Love Test, the premise is a bit less visceral, as Thompson, an entitled bully of a scientist, sets out to undermine Mary, the female candidate for the job he covets, by deploying one of his colleagues to romance her, thereby distracting her from her work and exposing her as not suitable for the pressures of the position. As Thompson and his colleagues complain about the indignity of answering to a woman, their more sympathetic colleague John repeatedly points out that she is an excellent chemist and this ought to be all that matters. The plot’s credibility is somewhat undermined when it is John himself who is tasked with seducing Mary and he never once mentions it even when he falls in love with her for real. It seems highly unlikely that John’s obvious opposition to the plan would not prevent him being chosen for the job or that he wouldn’t just expose the whole plot from the off, and the fact that he doesn’t do that makes him a difficult leading man for whom to root. Things are made worse when, at the film’s climax, it is Mary who ends up apologising to John and not vice versa.

These are the narrative problems you have to be willing to swallow in order to enjoy The Love Test and honestly most of us are probably well practiced enough from making allowances for far more recent Rom-Coms, most of which are equally or more problematic than The Love Test. Powell’s film emerges as something of a prototype decades before the genre became wildly popular and it offers a counterbalance that is not close to being a given for films of its era. The villains of the piece are blatantly the men in the lab, whose problems with a female boss are depicted as bigoted and immature, despite how many members of The Love Test’s contemporary audience probably agreed with them. There’s also an interesting layer that comes by way of Googie Withers’ character, a man-hungry secretary who helps in the attempts to undermine Mary. There’s no time to fully explore this notion of female complicity in misogyny but it is interesting to see it in there, and Withers has a whale of a time in the role, emerging as the film’s highlight. A surprisingly raunchy sequence in which she helps to “train” the passionless John in kissing by offering herself as a test subject manages to largely avoid the obvious potential for problems by making the whole thing her idea, an experiment which she enters into willingly and enthusiastically. Although the fact that the screenplay is written by a man arguably makes this an example of a torrid and unlikely male fantasy, the emphasis placed on Withers’ part also makes it feel like a rare moment of decisive female sexual agency. Rather than being used by the men, she manipulates them skilfully to obtain the gratification she’s been angling for throughout the earlier scenes.

While there’s plenty of ideological issues to bat about, The Love Test is easily enjoyable simply as a light comedy and it contains several moments in which Powell shows off his increasing directorial skills. A simmering beaker is intercut with the face of an increasingly angered John. A late night escapade is swathed in Noirish shadows. The voice of a trapped man emanating from a boiler room is enhanced by quick edits of images of cockeyed vents. For a quota quickie, it’s really impressive stuff and the plot remains taut and focused, rather than meandering like Powell’s previous Hotel Splendide or Something Always Happens. As with several of Powell’s early films, The Love Test was long considered lost but fortunately it was unearthed in 2000. I’m so pleased it was because it’s something of a small gem and a fascinating and rare example of the tropes of modern Rom-Coms shaping a film that predates them by over half a century.


Given how much I’ve been enjoying digging through Michael Powell’s early work, I felt sure that at some point I would stumble across a film that was actually as good as it was entertaining to watch. That gratifying moment came sooner that expected with The Fire Raisers, a gripping little Crime Drama that occasionally skirts the edges of Noir and demonstrates an upturn in quality in nearly every respect. The film opens with a memorable close-up shot of a fire alarm being triggered, a sign of Powell’s increasingly developing visual style, and subsequent scenes involving various blazes are effectively realised on the modest budget. There are a few obvious model shots here and there, particularly one of an exploding ship, but if you’re willing to buy into the story in spite of artifice then there’s a certain charm to these money-saving solutions. The screenplay is by Jerome Jackson, who wrote Powell’s previous peculiar productions Hotel Splendide and His Lordship, only this time Powell himself collaborated on the screenplay which seems to have helped immeasurably. The dialogue is much slicker, with the film starting out like a sharp-tongued Comedy before plundering much darker territory as it progresses. Only once did I find myself laughing at it, when the supposedly enraged protagonist attacks the subject of his ire with the vicious declaration “Get out, you!”

There’s a tendency to claim that all of Powell’s early films were “quota quickies” but in some instances it seems like that was not the case. Though it may look basic to those who’ve never seen an early sound film, The Fire Raisers is noticeably higher quality than Powell’s previous work, with a much more fluid editing style and superior acting from a solid cast. In the first of four films he would make with Powell, Leslie Banks strikes the perfect note between oleaginous villainy and comparative heroism. He plays Jim Bronton, an insurance investigator who specialises in pinpointing inside jobs and blackmailing the perpetrators into using his services at an increased rate. There’s a brilliantly established, layered moral complexity here and when Bronton falls in with a gang of arsonists in an attempt to increase his take, suddenly the hierarchy of evil becomes apparent and things turn deadly. The superb, imposing Francis L. Sullivan, whose booming voice and tremendous girth were put to memorable use in David Lean’s Dickens adaptations, steals The Fire Raisers in a terrifying turn as Stedding, the head of the arsonist gang. A scene in which he repeatedly asks the same question to a terrified hostage is a dramatic highlight. Also great is Carol Goodner as Bronton’s streetwise secretary Helen, whose virtuous character is offset by how damn stylishly she smokes a cigarette. A few of the supporting performances, notably Lawrence Anderson as the annoying lawman Twist, are more in keeping with the quota quickie misnomer, but the trio of central performances are more than enough to compensate.

Although there are stretches of The Fire Raisers that are primarily composed of a lot of talk in various offices, the film keeps moving at a good pace and is punctuated by bursts of action, while the talk itself is often riveting enough. Increasingly, the film veers towards a grim fatalistic tone that keeps shading into Noir and while it initially seems that it might cop out at the eleventh hour, the unforgiving finale does not disappoint. Though many seem contented to begin their Michael Powell journey with 1937’s The Edge of the World (the first of his so-called “major films”), I can now happily testify that The Fire Raisers is well worth picking through the rubble to uncover.


Positioning The Thief of Bagdad in the Michael Powell canon is a difficult task because the film does not technically feel like a Michael Powell production. Although he directed some of the more spectacular scenes, including a celebrated moment when a massive genie is released from a tiny bottle, Powell was actually one of three credited directors of a film that eventually had six. That such a coherent, flowing Adventure film emerged from this troubled process can likely be attributed to the fact that, like Gone with the Wind before it, The Thief of Bagdad was more of a producer’s vision than a director’s one. Alexander Korda oversaw this production with a sometimes heavy hand where his creative collaborators were concerned but it ended up having the desired effect, creating an instantly popular and acclaimed Fantasy that never once feels like the hotch-potch collage in which its bumpy creation could easily have resulted.

For me, The Thief of Bagdad will forever live in the shadow of its predecessor, the Douglas Fairbanks silent epic of the same name from 1924. But while I’ll always prefer that masterpiece, the sixteen years that elapsed between the two films do give the 1940 version several benefits. The ravishing, Oscar-winning colour cinematography by Georges Périnal makes this Thief of Bagdad feel like an old storybook come to life. Vincent Korda also won an Oscar for art direction and the glorious matte paintings which make the film’s world seem huge are every bit as impressive as the humongous sets that Fairbanks’ film had to erect. A third Oscar went to Lawrence W. Butler and Jack Whitney for visual effects, which is an element of the film about which I feel more torn. Obviously, there are blue screen moments that appear dated to modern eyes but I’m entirely willing to go with these and see them for the technical marvels they were in 1940. I’m fully invested in the flying horse, the giant spider and especially that first emergence of the malevolent genie. But there are other moments that fall way short and pull me out of the experience. There are very obvious model shots of the thief riding the magic carpet and the genie flying over the mountains. In the case of the magic carpet, the offending shot (right at the end of the film) feels totally unnecessary since the illusion of the carpet has previously worked effectively before this addition. But the genie moments are the worst and I can’t imagine that even audiences of the time, who would’ve been aware of the technical innovations of King Kong, could possibly have been taken in by what looks like an action figure lobbed down a corridor. There are other issues with the genie too. Close up shots of his face reveal an incredibly slapdash makeup job in which the join of his bald cap is blatantly visible.

Fortunately, the bald cap’s edges are the only visible join in The Thief of Bagdad, which flows beautifully through its various enchanting episodes. There’s a terrific storm at sea and various delights involving a childlike Sultan and his mania for fantastical toys but for me the highlight is the thief’s recovery of a magical jewel from a perilous cave, which ultimately pits him against a menacing spider. The effects here are great but the sequence owes just as much to the admirable physicality of Sabu’s performance. In all honesty, The Thief of Bagdad has no great performances (and a few bad ones) from an acting point of view. While Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar and Sabu’s thief Abu (both character names used by Disney’s Aladdin decades later, which took considerable influence from The Thief of Bagdad) are often singled out, their performances are probably better described as apt rather than great. They capture that storybook excitement, with Veidt nailing exaggerated villainy and Sabu bringing a nimble heroism to his puckish protagonist. The romance between John Justin’s Ahmad and June Duprez’s princess is unfortunately quite flat, but the film wisely sidelines it in favour of its swashbuckling delights. One of the 1940 Thief of Bagdad’s best decisions was to split the prince and the thief, who were the same character in Fairbanks’ film, into two separate entities, which frees up Sabu to put the emphasis on adventure.

The Thief of Bagdad’s screenplay was co-written by the great British character actor Miles Malleson, who also gets the scene-stealingly goofy role of the manchild Sultan, and in both instances he helps the film achieve a simple, good-humoured core on which to build its astonishments. While it doesn’t quite trigger that full-blown, moist-eyed childhood adventurer in me, I can certainly feel a vicarious thrill from those who are transported to their youth by this film. Among them was Roger Ebert, who put The Thief of Bagdad on a par with The Wizard of Oz, a comparison that, while I don’t agree with it myself, has subsequently been validated by many other commentators. Then again, Ebert also compared Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can’t win ‘em all, eh Rodge?!


The first collaboration between director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black may play as a more modest wartime Thriller in comparison with their lavish later masterpieces, but you can immediately see what a dream team is in the making. Powell and Pressburger were separately experienced in their fields already but the collaboration seemed to bring out the best in both. Powell’s tight, efficient and playful directorial style highlights all the best qualities of Pressburger’s cracking screenplay, from the intensity of a small, confined location to the simmering tensions of power dynamics and unrequited lust, to the humorous character beats of the unfortunate interlopers on this exceptional situation. In a highly unusual move, The Spy in Black’s protagonist is a WWI German U-Boat commander, played with a layered subtlety by Conrad Veidt. Although he emerges as the villain of the piece, Veidt’s Captain Hardt is a recognisable human being rather than a two-dimensional monster, a typically controversial angle for the Powell/Pressburger team which would see their critical stock fluctuate throughout their careers as their preoccupation with emotional depth rankled with proponents of a more black-and-white propagandist approach. While it’s easy to see how a wartime audience might object to being asked to see the human side of the enemy, a dedication to such complexity has helped Powell and Pressburger’s films hold up much better than many of that era’s one-note character assassinations on an entire nation.

Based on the novel by Joseph Storer Clouston, The Spy in Black follows Captain Hardt’s experiences on the Orkney Islands where he rendezvous with his contact Fräulein Tiel (a marvellous Valerie Hobson), a spy who has usurped the position of local schoolteacher by assuming the identity of the kidnapped Anne Burnett. Her remote cottage is ideally situated to orchestrate an attack on the British fleet but there are surprising difficulties to deal with at a local level, including the arrival of the real Anne’s jovial fiancé and the constant interference of the controlling local reverend. Hardt’s unwanted carnal interest in Tiel also poses a problem for her, but her solution of repeatedly locking him in his room eventually gives way to Hardt’s wily plotting. This deceptively simple story is spiced up by numerous twists and turns and all the while Powell, only recently having graduated from directing quota quickies, relishes the chance to showcase his brilliance at directing actors and utilising location to create an immersive experience. The Orkney Islands, enhanced by Bernard Browne’s crisp black and white cinematography, look equally beautiful and forbidding, while Veidt and Hobson have an incredible ambiguous chemistry which Powell draws out in prolonged looks and jittery body language. This is exemplary showing in an era when melodramatic “unhand me, you beast” telling was far more prevalent.

With Veidt and Hobson creating a more than solid emotional centre, only Sebastian Shaw as a disgraced British officer aiding the Germans is comparatively bland, failing to capitalise on the handful of good moments Pressburger’s script gives him. But the rest of the supporting cast are great, with Athole Stewart’s Reverend proving to be an infuriating pain in the neck (a real Athole, you might say!), Agnes Lauchlan delightfully spirited as his mismatched wife, Cyril Raymond hilariously affable as the unwitting fiancé wielding an enormous gramophone, and future Powell and Pressburger stalwart Marius Goring’s German Lieutenant establishing a realistically moving relationship with Veidt which pays dividends in the film’s ironic climax. Some of these characters, Stewart’s and Raymond’s in particular, seem to have walked in from an Ealing comedy and bring a welcome sense of levity to the overall tone of grim fatalism. This tonal balance would prove to be one of the key characteristics that distinguished Powell and Pressburger’s work, with serious situations rarely rendered stale through colourless characterisations.

It is sometimes said that The Spy in Black controversially asks audiences to sympathise with the enemy but it’s not quite that simple. Rather, the film helps us to understand the Germans as human beings instead of demonising them. So the film’s set-up includes light-hearted scenes of Hardt and Lieutenant Schuster returning from months in a submarine eating nothing but sardines, only to be frustrated in their attempts to obtain some decent food. Though easy to mistake as trivialities, these opening scenes are crucial in showing us the German officers engaged in everyday activities, rather than constantly plotting atrocities as they were in other films of the era. The subsequent scenes of Hardt opening his sealed orders and setting out on his mission could, with small tweaks in dialogue and casting, easily be scenes of a British officer doing the same. The Spy in Black is keen to establish that wartime context and understand the perspectives of those whom most cinema of the time was reducing to stereotypes or nonentities. By making the nominal villain the protagonist, this increased empathy is achieved organically. Hitchcock was a master in using tense set-pieces to make audiences inadvertently switch allegiances, as he memorably did in Rope and Frenzy, but Powell and Pressburger maintain this difficult ambiguity throughout the whole runtime of The Spy in Black, and while the dominant ideological sympathies of the filmmakers are underlined when the story inevitably ends badly for Hardt, this climax is also met by tears from his enemy, acknowledging the humanism that drives the film above all. Wartime deaths are not depicted as a victory for one side but rather a defeat for humankind. It’s a refreshingly modern take for a film released in 1939.

The Spy in Black takes the sort of wartime story that could’ve resulted in a bog-standard schedule-filling piece of propaganda and imbues it with themes and ideas that transcend its era and setting to emerge as a piece of satisfying, humanistic storytelling for audiences of any era. Both Pressburger’s delicately judged screenplay and Powell’s riveting direction play a large part in establishing The Spy in Black as a gem, ensuring that, to cinema’s great gain, these two artists would inevitably be paired up again in future.


When Powell and Pressburger made 49th Parallel, their intention was to create a propaganda piece so powerful that it would inspire the then-neutral USA to join the war against Germany. In retrospect, it’s easy to be sceptical about propaganda, with its abundance of stiff-upper-lip sentimentalism and nationalistic exceptionalism, but 49th Parallel largely avoids both. By focusing primarily on a group of German soldiers, an unusual angle which Powell and Pressburger had already used successfully in The Spy in Black, 49th Parallel ends up highlighting the despicable Nazi ideology then undermining it from several different viewpoints, none of them presented as the one truly virtuous path but all of them shown to be a preferable alternative to racial hatred and Aryan supremacy. Cynics may roll their eyes at some of the speechifying but when the film was released in America, it was cut down by 19 minutes including the removal of a racist and anti-Semitic speech by a fanatical Nazi commander, not to avoid offence to the subjects of the rant but to appease Southern segregationists who might not want to acknowledge that their own values aligned with those of Nazis. This alone is illustrative of why such pointedly didactic films were and still are something of a necessity.

Not only is 49th Parallel ideologically laudable, it is also a ferociously entertaining Adventure film, punctuating its moral lessons with plane crashes, shootouts and punch-ups aplenty. While The Spy in Black was presented on a small, contained canvas, 49th Parallel takes place across swathes of glorious, mountainous Canadian landscape, beautifully captured by legendary cinematographer Freddie Young, who would later win multiple Oscars for his work with David Lean (Lean himself also serves as editor on 49th Parallel). The film follows the plight of six stranded German soldiers as they attempt to make their way across the border and seek refuge in the neutral US. Their quest takes the form of a series of extended episodes, each one introducing one of the film’s big name stars: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Anton Walbrook and Raymond Massey. While it is these four names that are played up by the poster, it is clearly Eric Portman as the relentlessly fascistic Lieutenant Hirth who is the true protagonist. Portman’s icy turn is measured and at times terrifying. His performance creates a believable human being corrupted by horrendous dogma, rather than a one-dimensionally monstrous cipher. In his big speech extolling Nazi philosophy, you see the light come on behind his eyes, with hateful rhetoric now being the only driving force behind his chilling version of happiness. He is contrasted with Niall MacGinnis’s Vogel, a German soldier strongarmed into service who feels his every misdeed deeply and longs for a way out. It was this kind of character that often made Powell and Pressburger’s films controversial amongst those who favoured a more black-and-white propagandist view, but if you eliminate the possibility for change from your narrative then what hope is there in the long term?

The performances of the star names themselves vary in quality, although they all serve the film’s deft mixture of drama and comedy well. In the case of Olivier, his vignette is often funny by accident, thanks to the overly-effusive hamminess of his performance. His stab at a French-Canadian accent is often derided, although there are some who say that it is actually quite accurate. Either way, the explosively enthusiastic thesping he displays here renders the performance ridiculous, and yet it also enlivens the film at just the right moment, after a sober stretch of standard wartime setup. Whether you like Olivier’s choices, he is wildly entertaining to watch here and I can’t imagine the film having been better for a more restrained performance (such a thing is also present in a delicately judged counterbalance from Finlay Currie). Instead, Olivier opens the door to eccentricity, setting up the film’s invigoratingly varied tone. Walbrook gets the most serious and best written segment, taking the role of the leader of a Hutterite community who brings out the best in one of the soldiers and the absolute worst in another. This taut little tragedy is where you’ll find most of the overt messaging, but the big speeches are elegantly written by Pressburger and delivered by Portman and Walbrook with a sense of genuine authenticity, which must’ve been especially difficult for Portman given the hateful words handed him. The last two sequences are more humorous, with Howard as an eccentric British writer and Massey as a wise-ass AWOL Canadian soldier, and they bring the film to an excellent close. Though Massey is a tad over-the-top and Howard is firmly in his comfort zone, both are welcomingly recognisable types and their fundamental differences are rendered superfluous in the face of encountering Nazis.

49th Parallel is very cleverly structured, layering in its message at the midpoint so that it has time to percolate while the audience are cheering multiple Nazi-punchings at the tail end of the picture. The film won Pressburger an Oscar for Best Story, although it lost Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture to Mrs. Miniver. While Mrs. Miniver is the better of the two, its one scene featuring a German soldier was hastily rewritten to make the character more one-dimensionally hateful as America prepared to join the war effort. This makes it an interesting double feature with 49th Parallel, which refuses to oversimplify to that extent, even as it knows a good fist to some Nazi chops will win over an audience. Still, if we’re going to talk contradictions, you can just imagine the Academy slapping itself on the back for its progressive attitudes at the same time one of its nominees was rewritten to fulfil stereotypes and another was heavily edited to appease racists in their own country. In a world still riddled with these messy hypocrisies, we’d probably all do well to stop rolling our eyes at films like this. That may sound terribly maudlin but if I could just get Anton Walbrook to say it for me…


Although I’ve owned them on DVD for nearly two decades, I’ve never got round to watching Powell and Pressburger’s 50s War films, The Battle of the River Plate and Ill Met by Moonlight, until now. In a detrimental repeating pattern that I really should be over by now, I let my expectations be driven by majority opinion, which tends towards suggesting this pair of films are dull, run-of-the-mill affairs. Not only is this not the case, I don’t think the tendency towards mentioning them in the same breath does justice to how completely different they are from each other. The Battle of the River Plate, though hardly run-of-the-mill, was also not my cup of tea at all, leaning heavily into excessive military details and fetishistic adoration of sea vessels. It was serious, methodical and stiff. By contrast, Ill Met by Moonlight is a fast-paced, event-packed Comedy-Adventure that is emphatically up my street. The premise of a group of British officers and Cretan partisans teaming up to kidnap a German officer and smuggle him through the mountains sounded ripe with potential but after the dry experience of River Plate I didn’t expect a fun romp. To my surprise, Ill Met by Moonlight was everything I wanted it to be: lively, fun, warm, fast-moving, engaged with human characters rather than mere gameboard pieces. It has good performances and lovely, crisp black and white cinematography by Christopher Challis that brings its mountainous setting to vibrant life. Its playful, comedic tone is established immediately, which meant I settled into the film right from the start and loved every minute.

Ill Met by Moonlight’s poor reputation seems to rest on the fact that it is a breezy, straightforward Adventure film by a writer-director-producer team known for their numerous 40s masterpieces. The majority of bad reviews I’ve read, and even some of the good ones, focus more on saying “This isn’t on a par with The Red Shoes or A Matter of Life and Death” than concentrating on Ill Met by Moonlight’s own particular personality and achievements. It’s as if because Powell and Pressburger have made masterpieces, they are held hostage against creating something more lighthearted and less ambitious. But Ill Met by Moonlight is exactly what it needs to be. To add more dramatic weight would be to derail its fleet-footed, invigoratingly uncomplicated appeal.

Pressburger’s screenplay is filled with great exchanges between Dirk Bogarde and David Oxley’s British officers and Marius Goring’s coolly devious German General, not to mention the ragbag team helping to smuggle the prisoner through the mountains to the boat waiting to take him to Cairo. The film is based on a real incident but Powell and Pressburger imbue it with the fantastical derring-do of a Swashbuckler and the sprightly suspense of a Hitchcock Thriller. In keeping with their humanistic approach, Goring’s General is depicted with respect, much as Peter Finch’s battleship Captain had been in The Battle of the River Plate, rather than turned into a cackling, villainous stereotype. There’s no apologism for the hateful ideology of the regime of which the General is part but there is an implicit acknowledgement of the complexity of international wartime relations that is refreshingly delivered without the need to delve into specifics. Powell and Pressburger had already covered this ground in 49th Parallel, so Ill Met by Moonlight wastes no time on political arguments that would clash with and slow down its infectious forward drive.

Ill Met by Moonlight was released in America under the less poetic title of Night Ambush. Although that’s a terrible title (and the U.S. version also had eleven minutes hacked out of it), it does reflect the film’s Action/Adventure style more accurately. Ill Met by Moonlight is still replete with the stylistic excellence associated with Powell and Pressburger but it is a slightly different beast from their better-known films. If you go into Ill Met by Moonlight expecting an efficient, fun experience rather than a tragic ballet or a philosophical fantasy or whatever other expectations the creative team behind it might inspire in you, you could just go away with a hidden gem rather than a sense of disappointment.


Michael Powell referred to Black Narcissus as an “erotic” film. It’s an interesting and not inaccurate description but it is rare to find a film like this one, which is erotic without being remotely titillating. Instead, this is a film that dwells on, and even to some extent revels in, the dark side of sexual desire, repression, disappointment and jealousy. Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, there is plenty in Black Narcissus to which audiences might object. As well as a couple of instances of brownface, the depiction of mental illness is hardly nuanced, the attitudes to sex are curiously slippery and the depiction of religion upset the Catholic Legion of Decency, who said a religious life was depicted as “an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic and the frustrated”. Aside from the brownface, a grotesque remnant of the era, none of these complaints bothered me because Black Narcissus is so strangely and utterly captivating in its ambiguous narrative, its measured performances and particularly its extraordinary cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Astonishingly for a film with such a powerful sense of place, Black Narcissus was shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios. The gloriously mountainous Himalayan scenery was achieved through exquisite matte paintings by W. Percy Day, which have an unbelievable depth and evocative atmosphere to them. Powell commented “We decided to do the whole thing in the studio and that’s the way we managed to maintain colour control to the very end. Sometimes in a film its theme or its colour are more important than the plot.” Black Narcissus is that kind of film. It takes your breath away with its unprecedentedly beautiful aesthetic at every turn. Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay delivers a largely restrained experience, its oblique neuroses fuelled by the vibrancy of the images, with colours that are both luscious and nauseating at exactly the moment they need to be.

Black Narcissus is the story of a group of nuns who are sent to a disused Himalayan palace atop a mountain from which they attempt to establish a school and hospital. They are led by Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, whose resilience and chances of success are doubted by her Mother Superior and a local agent named Mr. Dean, who has already seen a group of monks fail at a similar endeavour. Dean’s bluntness and irreverence rankle with Sister Clodagh and a strange tension develops between them, which in turn provokes the wrath of the mentally ill Sister Ruth, whose well-known volatility is exacerbated by the challenging assignment and her growing obsession with Mr. Dean. With its indelible depiction of an unsettling environment and its tightening grip on the psychological stability of its apprehensive inhabitants, Black Narcissus has been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While its horrors are less overt, I would argue that Black Narcissus is even more disturbing than Kubrick’s film. The malevolent forces in The Overlook Hotel are much more tangible than Powell and Pressburger’s perfectly elusive influences on their characters’ states of mind.

Powell and Pressburger’s collaborations had always been a little off-kilter right from the start but by the time of Black Narcissus they had become downright strange. I mean this in the best way. The duo managed to maintain a unique personality to their productions without them ever feeling stale or samey. Black Narcissus was their follow-up to A Matter of Life or Death, itself a very odd film but with a heartwarming outlook. By contrast, Black Narcissus is forbidding and chilly. It is clearly the work of the same filmmakers but the film’s are completely different from one another. Cardiff’s eeriely ravishing cinematography connects the two pieces but the warm rays of A Matter of Life and Death seem to have acquired an alienating frostiness, their touch being like a hybrid of those of King Midas and Jack Frost. Black Narcissus is bathed in this cold light throughout and any attempt to break free from it just seems to make things worse. When Sister Clodagh escapes briefly into a memory of happier times, the daydream ends with her being literally consumed by darkness. It’s one of the film’s most haunting moments, putting paid to the viewer’s desperate hope for some vicarious relief and trapping them once again in that inhospitable, remote palace with its severe drop that you know is just waiting to gobble someone up in the same way the symbolic black of night ate Sister Clodagh.

Although Black Narcissus is more of a film of atmospheric intensity and visual splendour than a traditionally-told story, the actors generally acquit themselves admirably. Kathleen Byron is often rightly singled out for praise as the troubled, and eventually feral Sister Ruth while Flora Robson’s Sister Philippa goes through a quieter but no less disquieting mental collapse. But the film belongs to Deborah Kerr, who turns in an exceptional performance as Sister Clodagh. Powell and Pressburger had wanted to work with Kerr again since her memorable trio of performances in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp but she was understandably in high demand. Sister Clodagh is the sort of role at which Kerr excels, with scant opportunity for grandstanding but ample chances to display inner turmoil through facial expression and body language alone. It is an elegant, anchoring performance that provides a crucial degree of control amidst tempestuous emotional surroundings. Given that in a film like Black Narcissus the technical achievements are always going to upstage the actors, Kerr’s work here remains underrated to this day.

It becomes apparent the deeper I get into the Powell and Pressburger filmography that their work is completely without a comparable touchstone. They were ploughing their own furrow in a way that seemed to eschew influences and confound imitators. Black Narcissus continues to wow audiences because they’ve never seen anything quite like it, and that includes those who have watched other Powell and Pressburger works. It might take a few watches for Black Narcissus to fully register but its enigmatic allure should ensure that the process of repeat viewings happens quite organically.


As a low-born philistine who felt guilty about enjoying playing golf, an acclaimed film about the world of ballet can’t help but raise concerns in me about class snobbery which trigger my own inverted inclination towards the same. But while links to so-called “high art” (a term I shudder to use even with commas inverted) are surely inclined to make the Academy’s ears prick up more than realistic depictions of council estate living, there is usually far more to films about art than a mere desire to revel in the art itself. Certainly, in the lauded seventeen-minute ballet sequence that appears in the middle of The Red Shoes, the film is celebrating the beauty and power of dance, but it also examines the dangers of obsessive perfectionism and of prizing the art-form above life itself. Michael Powell was quoted as saying that The Red Shoes was “about dying for art, that art is worth dying for.” At the risk of being overly bold here, I’d suggest the director himself was either misremembering his own film or else never fully understood Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay. In our tendency to favour a convenient but reductive auteurist model of film criticism, we often place the director way above a film’s other contributors. But in filmmaking there are, or should be, no prima ballerinas and, with its layered screenplay, sumptuous art direction, spellbinding dance choreography, brilliant acting, glorious music and impeccable editing (as well as many more technical contributions about which I don’t have the comprehension to properly rhapsodise), The Red Shoes is as vibrant an example of film as a collaborative art form as I can imagine.

The Red Shoes was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story about a woman who is forced to dance herself to death by a pair of enchanted shoes. The story is adapted within the film as the masterwork of impresario Boris Lermontov (another riveting performance by Anton Walbrook), composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring, fresh from his scene-stealing performance as Conductor 71 in A Matter of Life and Death) and ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer, whose occasionally wobbly acting is more than compensated for by her exquisite dancing), the three creatives at the centre of the story. But even as their adaptation is a major success, so Lermontov and Craster vie to possess and control Page, until her own shoes seem to take control themselves and drive her to a grisly fate. Was she killed by a pair of shoes or just a pair of heels? Whichever way you interpret the film’s symbolism, I can’t imagine anyone deeming the tragic finale a convincing argument for the ends justifying the means. As the ballet is performed without Vicky, there’s a smattering of hope in the notion that the art lives on but, moving though the gesture is, without its central figure the art has become severely diminished. There is no way to reclaim it without factoring in the haunting memory of what it did to the artist.

The Red Shoes ostensibly breaks from its central storyline midway through to present a breathtaking seventeen minute ballet sequence based on Andersen’s story. From Hein Heckroth’s jaw-dropping art direction to Jack Cardiff’s sensational colour cinematography (by now a familiar element of Powell and Pressburger masterpieces) and Robert Helpmann’s magical choreography, it’s a show-stopping moment on which a good deal of The Red Shoes‘ reputation as a classic rests. But the ballet, while rightly celebrated for its visual achievements, also ties in thematically with the narrative and Powell and Pressburger underline this fact by not only incorporating elements of what an audience member’s imagination would add to a stage production but also flashes of the inner concerns of the dancer herself. These thematic ties ensure that this astonishing sequence can never be written off as a self-conscious flourish or mere showing off. It is integral to the plot and enhances the emotional impact of what could have easily descended into boneless melodrama. But even for those who don’t make the connection between what happens on and off the stage, the ballet sequence is still an astonishing and beautiful experience. Danced impeccably by Shearer, Helpmann and Leonide Massine among many others, the ballet is presented as a stylised step through the looking glass, with the performers appearing as painted grotesques like nightmare marionettes brought to life. The scenery is wilfully artificial but mesmerisingly magical and visual tricks such as items disappearing and reappearing or Shearer’s character visualising herself in the red shoes and appearing as a ghostly image in front of her own eyes remind the viewer that we are not just seeing what the audience watching the ballet is seeing but are being granted a vision of what is happening inside their imagination as it is stimulated by dance.

It wasn’t just the prejudices of filthy oiks like myself that were piqued by The Red Shoes’ dabblings in the ballet world. The film’s central set-piece triggered the wrath of disapproving ballet experts who felt that its surrealist flourishes, abstraction and symbolism corrupted the integrity of ballet. This specific criticism may display the perspective of a passionate ballet purist but it also betrays a lack of understanding about adaptation and filmmaking, or else an implicit dismissal of the more popular art form. Such elitist responses seem to have been foreseen by Powell and Pressburger, who inserted a satirical depiction of rigid, joyless audience members who resent the presence of the students whom they have clearly deemed too unrefined for the ballet on sight. It’s a nice little jab at snobbery in a film that mostly has a reverence for the art of ballet, letting both the ballet fans in the audience and the dance-novices know that Powell and Pressburger consider such stuffy reactions to be the resolve of a sniffy, easily-parodied minority. You don’t have to be a ballet fan to love The Red Shoes. I’m certainly not a devotee of tutus and pirouettes (and there goes my right to accuse others of reductivism!) but I found the dancing here mesmerising and was thrilled by the glimpse into a fictionalised version of a world that is, and will likely remain, alien to me.


Gone to Earth is a comparatively buried film in the Powell and Pressburger canon. Very much considered a post-peak production, its troubled road to the screen is often more widely discussed than the film itself. After falling foul of a couple of overbearing studio bosses during the making of The Elusive Pimpernel, Powell and Pressburger were once again forced to deal with a troublesome collaborator on Gone to Earth in the shape of Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick. Selznick’s amphetamine-fuelled interferences are well documented and were amplified when a film happened to also star his wife, Jennifer Jones. Disliking the finished film but unable to successfully sue for final cut, Sekznick instead assembled a vastly different American cut of the film called The Wild Heart, with new footage shot by Rouben Mamoulian, a runtime that was 40 minutes shorter, essential scenes cut for time and shots of Jones stumbling around with a very obvious toy fox under her arm. Though neither version of Gone to Earth was a hit, Selznick’s antics essentially killed the film’s chances of making any impact in America, which in turn prevented it picking up any kind of long-term international traction. Although a BFI restoration in the 80s was well received, at the time of writing Gone to Earth remains a largely underseen film that tends to only be dug up by Powell and Pressburger completists.

All of this is a terrible shame, because Gone to Earth is easily up there with the Powell and Pressburger classics and, with its absolutely sumptuous colour cinematography by Christopher Challis, it could have seamlessly followed immediately in the wake of The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus without anyone batting an eyelid. As well as its rocky production process, Gone to Earth is also sometimes vilified for the very American Jennifer Jones’s attempts to play a Shropshire lass. Although the accent is at times bizarre, Jones is a physical presence to be reckoned with, capturing the body language and passionate intensity of her character astutely. Gone to Earth is such a strange, dreamlike film that Jones’s oddness in the lead often adds to its disquietingly otherworldly quality. Even the title, based on a cry from fox hunters when their prey heads underground, seems to suggest the protagonist beamed in from another planet. It is heard bellowed by a hunter at the beginning and end of the film. By the time that second cry of “GONE TO EARTH” rings out, its meaning has changed in several ways, for Jones’s Hazel, the fox she rescues and the clergyman whose love for Hazel seems to drive him further from God.

It’s a bold statement to make about a filmography that includes Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes but visually Gone to Earth may just be Powell and Pressburger’s most beautiful film. The gorgeous images of the Shropshire countryside are enhanced by that unreal colour palette and the vibrant direction creates a constant feeling of off-kilter disquiet. The story of Gone to Earth itself is actually very simple, as a free-spirited nature-loving woman who feels closer to animals than people is trapped in a love triangle in which either choice comes at the cost of her dignity or her passion. But the heart of Gone to Earth is in its underlying psychological examination of three very different protagonists: Jones’s indefinable Hazel, David Farrar’s cruel, impulsive Squire and Cyril Cusack’s kindly but naïve clergyman. While Farrar’s moustache-twiddling personification of sexual abandon makes an instant impact, it is Cusack’s quietly moving performance that most impresses as it becomes clear just how far he is willing to go for a love that is not necessarily reciprocated. The cast is filled out by brilliantly-drawn local characters with caricatured idiosyncrasies that beautifully offset the air of imminent tragedy that hangs over the whole film. Stalwarts of British cinema Sybil Thorndike, George Cole and Hugh Edwards all have nice supporting roles, while Powell and Pressburger regular Esmond Knight gets one of his greatest parts as Hazel’s wheezing, eccentric harpist father.

With its themes that equate the upper class pursuit of fox hunting with basic human cruelty, Mary Webb’s 1917 novel proves to be perfect material for the iconoclastic Powell and Pressburger and the rich, gothic atmosphere they create has latterly reminded many of the work of Kate Bush, whose Hounds of Love surely soundtracks a montage of Gone to Earth scenes somewhere in the depths of the internet. I was surprised by just how strongly I responded to Gone to Earth. On a first watch, there were moments where I was wondering quite what to make of it but I found it oddly mesmerising throughout and by the end everything came together perfectly. The beats of the plot and the climactic twist are not hard to predict but once again the experience of a Powell and Pressburger film proves to be about much more than story or performance. This is a film I already can’t wait to watch again.


Did Peeping Tom destroy Michael Powell’s career as legend would have it? Certainly, the original reviews it received were savage in the extreme, feeling more like a mass vomiting session than a considered round of critical assessment. And yet, there are those who maintain that Powell’s cachet in the industry was always petering out at this point and that his inability to find work in his home country might have come about even off the back of Honeymoon and The Queen’s Guards alone. Still, whether you can pin Powell’s career downturn on one film or not, being compared to the Marquis de Sade by those paid to evaluate your work on the public’s behalf was not likely to lead to box office success in 1960, even if it might have done several decades later. In the case of Peeping Tom, it took about a decade and a half for the hip young filmmakers of the next generation to facilitate a re-evaluation of what is now considered one of Powell’s masterpieces. It must have been gratifying for Powell, who fortunately lived long enough to see this turnaround of consensus opinion, but by that time his filmmaking career was pretty much over. It has since baffled many that Hitchcock’s Psycho, released the same year as Peeping Tom, had immediate commercial success and received several Oscar nominations, but Hitchcock was on more of an upswing than the faltering Powell and his control over the luridly sensationalist marketing of Psycho allowed him to whet audiences’ appetites before any weak-stomached critics could stomp on its chances. The Observer’s critic C.A. Lejeune walked out of Peeping Tom in disgust. Months later, she not only did the same with Psycho but she tendered her resignation into the bargain. In a world where someone who hasn’t even seen your film in full can presume to tear it apart in a fit of self-righteous indignation, we need films like Peeping Tom and Psycho to wrest control from conservative claws. While Hitchcock‘s film was more successful in this regard at the time, the groundwork laid by Powell was also a crucial factor.

While Psycho quickly became regarded as a classic, Peeping Tom has grown in stature over the years. While the two films are frequently mentioned in relation to each other, they are actually very different beasts. Peeping Tom has an intense psychological flavour throughout, whereas Psycho provides most of the psychological insight in one big, clunky information dump at the end, revelling instead in the shocks and old dark house atmosphere of the Bates Motel. There’s no need to pick a favourite as both films are adept at what they do but Peeping Tom is arguably the more stimulating in terms of subsequent debate. Psycho’s faintly ludicrous examination of a parent/child relationship is a far cry from Peeping Tom’s distressing and ultimately intensely sad depiction of abuse and its long-lasting effects. Perhaps what most distressed critics was just how sympathetic they found themselves feeling towards the sort of characters who would’ve previously been unambiguously depicted as monsters, on the rare occasions such a character was depicted onscreen at all. Looking for someone to blame for this, it was obviously the directors of these films who would have to carry the can. Powell seems more than aware of this in his casting of himself as serial killer Mark’s abusive father. Even though he’s mostly only seen in out of focus film footage, Powell is instantly recognisable in the brief clear glimpse we get of him, and there is surely some intended subtext to be gleaned. Powell might not have foreseen the sheer force of the bile about to come his way but he seems to symbolically and preemptively be taking full responsibility.

I’ve long contended that Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is one of the finest performances not nominated for an Oscar. By contrast, Karlheinz Boehm’s Mark is not as superficially entertaining to watch but his haunted intensity makes him absolutely right for the role. His permanently fright-filled eyes are an indelible image, apt in a film in which eye-related symbolism plays a big role. It is also notable that Peeping Tom is told entirely from Mark’s point of view, as opposed to the switching protagonists of Psycho. So famous is Psycho’s plot that it’s easy to forget that the original audiences were not immediately privy to the fact that Norman was the killer. In Peeping Tom, the first thing we see is Mark murdering someone. We are then asked, nay forced, to spend the rest of the film by his side. Other characters come into his world but we regard them as Mark does, rather than piggybacking on a more obvious point of entry that would push us further from the understanding necessary to appreciate the humanism Peeping Tom conceals beneath its cold, troubling surface.

Another factor that arguably makes Powell’s film more visceral than Hitchcock’s is the use of colour. Psycho’s black and white cinematography, apparently as much a financial decision as an aesthetic one, is perfect for the film but Powell’s use of colour has far reaching effects even outside of Peeping Tom. Powell’s films had often been celebrated for their vibrant colour palettes and Otto Heller’s cinematography makes Peeping Tom look just as vivid as its predecessors. Arguably, this vibrancy makes the material feel more lurid than Hitchcock’s monochrome nightmare, even though the famous shower scene in Psycho is more violently evocative than any of the suggested barbarism in Peeping Tom. The effect this late entry into Powell’s colourful catalogue had on me was to instil a certain sense of unease in his early work by association. When I’m watching A Matter of Life or Death, for instance, it has a new sense of underscoring disquiet by association since I saw Peeping Tom. To me, this speaks of a thrillingly complex director whose growing oeuvre becomes intertextually linked through something as seemingly arbitrary as colour. Perhaps to some of Peeping Tom’s vocal opponents, the same experience merely ruined other films of which they had previously approved.

Despite the hyperbole, we shouldn’t be too instantly dismissive of those who found Peeping Tom problematic. Beyond the scuppered expectations of their era, there are things you could read as questionable in Peeping Tom’s approach to its subject matter. The victims are all female: a prostitute, a soft porn model and a free spirited actress. By contrast, Anna Massey’s kind but dangerously inquisitive children’s book author is almost childlike herself, her innocence perhaps being the thing that saves her in the same way that slasher films generally select the sexually active teenagers for speediest slaughter. But the gender of the victims is not purely coincidental and Leo Marks’ excellent screenplay manages to connect Mark’s fetishisation of fear with a warped sexuality without having to overstate the matter or deploy an eleventh-hour psychologist to explain in detail. Peeping Tom’s deft ability to show rather than tell prevents it from going to much nastier places, the like of which Hitchcock’s Frenzy (a film in which Anna Massey didn’t manage to outlive the runtime) would explore a decade later. The main problem with Peeping Tom seems to have been that it was considerably ahead of its time, something that makes it all the more fascinating and laudable now but which inevitably saw it reviled in its own time. With the benefit of hindsight on my side, it’d be presumptuous to be too judgemental of initial reactions to a film that came out over two decades before I was born. But to take Peeping Tom for nothing more than an irresponsible source of cheap, lurid thrills, you’d have to be watching with your eyes closed.


A Matter of Life and Death opens with a voiceover from an omniscient narrator introducing us to the world and its characters. It was a technique that seemed cheap and incongruous in Powell and Pressburger’s previous film, the more grounded I Know Where I’m Going!, but A Matter of Life and Death is such a magical, wide-ranging bag of tricks that here it feels entirely fitting. In the former film, the voiceover had merely been there to provide some easy exposition. In A Matter of Life and Death, this godlike narrator establishes a whole mood, his words overlaid on images of galaxies in a way that immediately implies the comparative triviality of the issues of the small handful of humans we’re about to meet. The film’s major achievement is to then build up the importance of this ostensibly small story to suggest that, even in a cavernous cosmos, the symbolic problems of a death-evading airman and his radio operator lover can amount to a hill of beans. I found the central romance of I Know Where I’m Going! a little hard to buy into but the one in A Matter of Life and Death, though superficially more preposterous, absolutely won me over because it is ultimately not just the story of two lovers but an assessment of the monumental value of love itself to the entire human race. As usual, Powell and Pressburger weren’t skimping on their thematic gravitas.

With its towering sets, Jack Cardiff’s mixture of black and white and Technicolor cinematography (with colour scenes for Earth and black and white for Heaven), a range of eye-catching visual effects and a screenplay that flits between Earth and Heaven itself, A Matter of Life and Death was Powell and Pressburger’s most ambitious film yet. This is the story of airman Peter Carter who bails out of his plane as it goes down in flames, only to miraculously survive when the celestial chaperone Conductor 71 misses his incoming charge in the thick fog over the English Channel. It seems like an easy mistake to rectify but for the fact that Peter has fallen in love with the radio operator he spoke to from the plane when he thought he was about to die. The heightened emotions of this exceptional situation spill over into instantaneous passion when the two meet in person, and now the last thing Peter wants to do is leave Earth and his newfound beloved. In typically iconoclastic style, Powell and Pressburger set the promise of Heavenly bliss against the complex Earthly ups and downs of flesh-and-blood love and romance, and conclude that perhaps the latter is preferable or, at the very least, that once true love has been experienced, no place that would tear us away from that love could plausibly call itself paradise.

Although its scope, romanticism and title may make A Matter of Life and Death seem more comparable to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the preceding Powell and Pressburger film of which A Matter of Life and Death most reminds me is the wartime adventure 49th Parallel. Like that film, A Matter of Life and Death uses a changing collection of protagonists in order to make its points. While David Niven’s Peter and Kim Hunter’s June are pivotal to the plot, these two romantic leads disappear from the screen for long stretches and their talismanic function makes them more compelling symbolically than they are as characters. As the story shifts into a courtroom drama between Heaven and Earth, the focus also shifts almost entirely to Roger Livesey’s droll Dr. Reeves and his legal opponent, Raymond Massey’s Abraham Farlan, the first American casualty of the Revolutionary war. Killed by a British bullet, Farlan is prejudiced against the British and reviles the relationship between Englishman Peter and American June. At this late stage, Pressburger’s scrumptious screenplay uses this wrinkle in order to introduce a whole other layer about the complex history of the Anglo-American relationship. Alongside this merry-go-round of protagonists, Marius Goring repeatedly steals scenes as the flamboyant Conductor 71, a magical enough creation that, after appearing resplendent in colour on one of his visits to Earth, he even get away with the fourth-wall breaking line “One is starved for Technicolor up there” when contemplating his return to the monochrome Heaven.

One thing this rewatch of Powell and Pressburger’s films has made abundantly clear is just how unique and strange they are. A Matter of Life and Death goes out of its way to sell its incredible story by way of astonishing visual effects. As well as the contrast between Technicolor and black and white, Heaven is differentiated from Earth by way of monumental sets, in particular a gigantic escalator connecting the two worlds. A pull back from the image of a Heavenly congregation sees it transform into a swirling galaxy. A ping pong game is frozen in time with the ball hovering in mid-air. Dr. Reeves regards the world through his Camera Obscura, the distorted images mirroring the film’s off-killer outlook. And a moment in which Peter is sent to sleep is portrayed from his point of view, with a giant eyelid creaking down to cover the whole screen. Such a range of effects so impressively achieved is astonishing in a British film from 1946 and they all contribute to making A Matter of Life and Death one of the most magical experiences cinema has to offer.

In terms of mood, it would be easy at a glance to mistake A Matter of Life and Death for light whimsy but it is actually quite weighty and sometimes brutally unforgiving in its story beats. Dr. Reeves, for instance, has to die in order to become Peter’s defence counsel, and this plot point is polished off quickly and tragically with a mid-film motorbike crash. The news is then delivered to his friend June as she sits by the bedside of her also-dying lover. The fact we can immediately see Dr. Reeves again in Heaven doesn’t soften the blow, for those whose minds run to these things, that June is watching her world torn apart before her or that there is no deliverance-by-mist available to Reeves himself. The opening sequence in which Peter essentially signs off his own life by way of a poetic radio communication is also replete with a wistful fatalism that proves to be an emotional peak that no further scene between Peter and June can really top, with further grimness added by the image of Peter’s dead comrades lying beside him in the cockpit. There are also some impishly satirical stabs to be found in Powell and Pressburger’s Heaven. For instance, a cocky Captain, newly arrived with his slaughtered squadron, states his demands to be provided with Officer’s Quarters, to which he is told “We’re all the same up here, Captain.” In its refusal to assign a particular religion to its vision of the afterlife, as well as its refusal to depict the patently grotesque notion of a Hell, A Matter of Life and Death sets up an ideal world in which all races, creeds and genders are afforded eternal peace, a point which softens the apparent brutality of the film’s mortality rate while reinforcing its advocacy of love and compassion above spiritual or Earthly exceptionalism.

Even all these years later, there’s never been anything quite like A Matter of Life or Death. The few attempts to ape it have generally been missing its unique atmosphere which combines all the best qualities of Powell and Pressburger’s films, from their witty humour to their heartwarming humanism, the ravishing visual aesthetic to the idiosyncratic performances. It’s a true original and an endlessly rewatchable oddity, the existence of which astounds and delights audiences new and old to this day.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is recognised as a masterpiece now, sometimes even as the greatest British film ever made. But the controversy surrounding the film’s original release prevented it from becoming the garlanded classic of its era that modern viewers might reasonably assume it would’ve been. From its breathtaking Technicolor cinematography to its eloquent, witty screenplay, its intelligent direction to its captivating performances, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp feels like it should’ve been nominated for every award going. The clue to why it wasn’t lies in the films Powell and Pressburger made leading up to this one. Films like The Spy in Black and 49th Parallel eschewed the accepted wartime practice of depicting the enemy forces as one-note monsters, favouring instead a modern humanism that attempted to analyse and understand how human beings are overtaken by such evil ideologies, or how those who are not susceptible to such bigotry struggle to exist within the jaws of tyranny. There were many critics of Powell and Pressburger who didn’t want to see the enemy humanised, so when The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, their most iconoclastic work yet, arrived, it was widely castigated by the old guard including Winston Churchill who, despite having not seen the film, worked hard to disparage and suppress it. The right wing sociologists E.W. and M.M. Robson wrote an entire pamphlet called The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp, while the film was refused an American release until two years later, and only then in a truncated, re-edited form which removed the crucial flashback structure and glorious Technicolor. It wasn’t just sympathetic attitudes to the enemy that rankled Colonel Blimp’s detractors though. This is a deeply complex film which questions and deconstructs an entire ideology and way of life, exposing as outdated some values to which many immovable traditionalists still cling.

Despite the contemporary reaction, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is far from unsympathetic to its protagonist and his beliefs. Although the idea for the film and the look of its protagonist are inspired by the satirical cartoons of David Low, that is as far as the similarities go. While Low’s comics pointedly satirise the reactionary opinions of the British establishment, Powell and Pressburger have created a human being rather than a symbol. Although the film’s introduction presents us with a bald, bloated blowhard attacking modern values, his rage is partly derived from the correct observation that his opponent has made assumptions about him based on the most limited of evidence. Although the young soldier who so angers him is shown to have ideas more appropriate for the changing times, he is also shown to be cocky and obnoxious. Powell and Pressburger refuse to hand us everything on a plate, and while the message is clear by the end of the film, it is delivered without relying on one-dimensional divides. In keeping with this sympathetic approach, their film strips the protagonist of the humiliating Blimp moniker, instead giving him the sweeter name Clive Candy. Alert viewers will also notice that, despite the Life and Death portion of the title, Candy is still standing by the end of the film. This suggests that the Colonel Blimp of the title is not Candy himself but rather an allusion to the Blimp-style attitudes that were dying off in the face of a society that couldn’t plausibly continue to support them.

While elitism, jingoism and exceptionalism are at the heart of the Blimp stereotype, they are not the qualities with which Powell and Pressburger are reckoning here. It would be easy to take down a buffoonish xenophobe with relative ease but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp doesn’t oversimplify in this fashion. It is not out to humiliate its protagonist nor even devalue his beliefs. Rather, this is a film that is critical of immovable philosophies so rigid that they fail to take into account the changing face of the world around them. Candy’s governing belief in fair play is actually quite laudable, it just isn’t practical in the face of an enemy that doesn’t practice the same theory. Candy may equate fairness with Britishness, an issue of identity that Pressburger’s exceptional script recognises as central to Candy’s rigidity on the subject, but he is also readily accepting of his German friend Theo, between and even during wars in which they are on opposing sides. It is not by accident that Pressburger has the two characters meet in a duel in which Theo has been picked as a symbolic defender of the entire Imperial German Army after Candy inadvertently insults them during a heated argument. Here are two characters whose first encounter is a battle in which neither is known to the other, the faceless abstraction of wartime violence boiled down to a microcosmic one-on-one encounter.

Even more interesting is a scene in which, in the aftermath of WWI, Theo snubs Candy when he finds him at a prisoner of war camp. When Theo apologises on the eve of his repatriation, Candy invites him to his dinner table where he is dining with a group of British officers. Though viewers may expect them to return Theo’s earlier snub, they welcome him in with open arms. But it is in the discussion of the long term effects of the war on Germany that their delusional attitudes become apparent. To this breed of old soldier, war is a game and once one side wins everyone reverts to just being people again, rather than opposing forces. But for Theo, who foresees the devastation awaiting him back in Germany, it is not that easy to move on. What appears on the surface to be a refreshingly friendly gesture on the part of the hospitable dinner guests reveals itself to be born of a naïve and blinkered view of the world. War simply isn’t a game, which is why Candy’s continued wielding of the rules for fair play looks increasingly misguided in the face of the rise of Nazism.

Amidst its nuanced exploration of national identity and contemporary philosophies, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is also extremely entertaining. Although he is often erroneously described as “buffoonish”, Clive Candy is generally an affable and likeable character and makes for enjoyable company across the film’s two and a half hours and the story’s four decades. Though his attitudes are thoroughly examined, they are rarely satirised with any ferocity. The exception is a terrifically grotesque running gag in which he lets off steam between wars by going to South Africa and blasting any number of now endangered species. This is represented by the image of a wall upon which various mounted animal heads appear, each accompanied by the sound of a gunshot. The sequence ends by homing in on a German helmet on the mantelpiece, aligning a wartime kill with Candy’s own skewed notion of “sport.” This is the one time The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp steps outside of its own subtle boundaries. Elsewhere there are also moments that some deem sentimental, but they are thoroughly earned and movingly portrayed. While Pressburger’s screenplay must again be cited in this respect, the impeccable actors and Powell’s restrained direction of them are just as important. In the role of Candy, originally intended for Laurence Olivier, future Powell and Pressburger regular Roger Livesey could scarcely be better. He is able to create a vivid character whose entertainingly caricatured traits are never achieved at the expense of counterbalancing realism. Candy is both believable and larger than life in a way that you can’t imagine Olivier having essayed without tipping over into hamminess.

Anton Walbrook’s Theo, by contrast, is sometimes almost painfully real. There’s a gentle humour to his early scenes in which he struggles with the language barrier, which are endearing without toppling into patronising Mind Your Language malapropisms. By the end of the film he has mastered the English language to the extent that he delivers the most moving monologue. It’s a remarkably touching performance of a laudably unshowy piece of writing as he relates the tragic details of his life to a British Immigration official. Walbrook is exceptional in this moment but he is never less than superb elsewhere, walking the delicate line between his love for Candy and his contempt for his naïve assessments. There’s an especially great moment in which, having spoken to Candy about his fears about repatriation, he reveals his true feelings about the exchange to a train full of his own countrymen. Completing the exemplary trio of leads, Deborah Kerr is fantastic in three different roles of key women in Candy’s life. Although the similarity of their looks is a crucial plot point, Kerr is able to make each character as distinct from the others as Peter Sellers did with his characters in Dr. Strangelove, and without the extra crutch of comedic exaggeration on which to lean. Kerr was barely in her twenties at the time but through performance alone she appears much older in her first role as Edith. By contrast, in her lively turn as Candy’s driver Angela she seems several years younger than that. This was an early role for Kerr but you can immediately see how she went on to be nominated for six Oscars. Had The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp made it to America on time and in uncut form, I can well imagine this performance having made it seven.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of those long films that flies by, although it retains the heightened gravitas afforded films that use their extended runtimes to properly engage with plot, characters and themes. While Powell and Pressburger had made several interesting War films leading up to this, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp easily trumps them all, delivering a masterpiece of intelligently analysed attitudes and relevant contemporary commentary in a film that barely makes it onto a battlefield (the one we do see is the film’s stagiest set and is the backdrop for further talk rather than action). Despite being a dialogue-rich production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is also consistently lively, with a colourful, sparingly used supporting cast (John Laurie and Roland Culver stand out) and Powell’s ravishing flourishes, with a justly celebrated duelling scene forsaking the swordfight itself for an amazing pan through the ceiling and out into a picture perfect winter snowscape. There is so much to enjoy here on every level, from ravishing visuals to riveting performances to extraordinary writing. At this stage I’m prepared to say that this is not only my favourite Powell and Pressburger film but one of my favourite films of all time. Screw you, Churchill!

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.