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 first part, I’m looking at the bottom 20 films in my ranking of Powell’s work.

All entries contain spoilers.

40. THE QUEEN’S GUARDS

Michael Powell thought The Queen’s Guards was his worst film. Michael Powell was right. Powell and I might share that opinion but there are likely different reasons behind it. After all, he took on the project because, in his own words, “I’m a sucker for stories about the services” and his intention was to make “an epic of military glory.” Neither of these notions particularly appeal to me but I’ve always felt that an essential part of film criticism is being able to appreciate a good film even if it clashes with your own personal politics. You don’t have to sacrifice your principles or completely disregard the cognitive dissonance caused by watching something entertaining with which you completely disagree. But there are plenty of films with a perspective far from my own which I’ve still enjoyed (my go-to example is always An Officer and a Gentleman, a strong piece of filmmaking with a horribly toxic view of masculinity).

There are certain issues that I find harder to put to one side however, one of which is my staunch opposition to the monarchy and the disgust their pathetic pageantry instantly triggers in me. So the fawning footage of the Trooping the Colour ceremony that opens The Queens Guards immediately put me on the back foot. However, the dreary conservatism of The Queens Guards isn’t all that makes the film unbearable. The screenplay by Roger Milner, a tired tale of a young guardsman struggling to live up to his dead brother’s precedent, crawls along with scarce dramatic potential and the clearly disinterested Powell directs the whole thing with an uncharacteristic lack of flair that makes it seem flatly televisual. At nearly two hours in length, The Queens Guards is a struggle to get through and it is no surprise that it has remained buried since it quickly flopped first time round. Royalists might find something here to trigger their elitist sentimentality but while they’re blowing their noses on twenty pound notes, the rest of us (especially bitter bastards like myself) had probably better leave this one to languish in monarch-licking obscurity.

39. BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE

Dear God, was I not the target audience for this?!!

That may seem like a very glib way to begin a review. Still, it’s important to make the distinction between a bad film and a film that is simply not for a particular viewer. You could say that the latter is always the case, that personal opinion is subjective and therefore to call anything a bad film is presumptuous and arrogant. But opinion is what makes film appreciation interesting and if we’re too mealy-mouthed about it then we get nowhere in discussion and debate. It’s perfectly valid to think something is a bad film and so long as you respect the rights of others to disagree, there’s no reason you should drape your condemnation in apologia. I think Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad film. Many people disagree. That doesn’t mean either side is wrong, although I concede that Bohemian Rhapsody did win the Oscar for Best Film Coasting by on a Reminder of How Good Live Aid Was, so it must’ve had something.

Again, glib, and I am sorry for that, but my ramblings are trying to reach a conclusion of sorts. I’m trying to make a distinction between thinking something is a bad film and thinking something just isn’t for you. I’ve just finished a rewatch of all of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations. Among them are some of the greatest films ever made. But also among them are a handful of filmed operas and, much as their visuals can be sumptuous, my personal distaste for opera makes them only tolerable to a certain level. I can see that The Tales of Hoffmann is a remarkable film and I even get some enjoyment from its visuals alone, but when the musical accompaniment which is equally important in telling the story feels like a sharpened icicle in the ear, I can only recommend the film to a certain degree or, more germanely, to a certain viewership.

Let’s cut to the chase here: I couldn’t stand Bluebeard’s Castle. The hour long film was made for West German TV, in the aftermath of the hyperbolic critical denunciation of Peeping Tom which made it nearly impossible for Powell to find work in his own country. Powell was brought in as director by his old friend Hein Heckroth, the talented art director who was a key collaborator on Powell and Pressburger films like The Red Shoes, Gone to Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann. Heckroth’s stunning work is immediately apparent in Bluebeard’s Castle, with abstract sets that are instantly evocative of a troubled psychological state. The film looks fantastic in this restoration, sparkling like a newly-polished gem. But against those jaw-dropping backdrops, Béla Balázs’ adaptation of Béla Bartók’s opera works its own special magic by making a one hour runtime seem like double that. Bartók’s original work was apparently seen as a challenging piece to stage because there was so little action. Balázs retains that characteristic, presenting a seemingly endless back and forth between Bluebeard and his fourth wife Judit, who repeatedly asks him for keys to open up his vast castle to her and reveal all his secrets. I’m guessing such repetition is not uncommon in opera but the amount of times we return to the request for keys starts to become comic, even though my mouth made no upwards inclination throughout this painful experience. Appreciation of the music probably makes more sense of this repetition as a sort of refrain but I’m so averse to opera that I just couldn’t pick out anything to cling to amidst the shrill warbling.

I’ve come down pretty hard on Bluebeard’s Castle, with the one star I’ve awarded it being entirely for production design, but I must end by returning to my original point (hopefully more succinctly this time). If you have a love of opera or even a potential but thus far unexplored inclination towards discovering one, give Bluebeard’s Castle a try. There are those who absolutely love this film and I’m sure there is much to love here for the right audience. That’s why it’s important to end by reiterating that I don’t think Bluebeard’s Castle is a bad film. In this case, I just don’t consider myself qualified to make that call. 


38. AGE OF CONSENT

Age of Consent, Michael Powell’s last major film, has a title that has always concerned me but I’ve often read that the film isn’t nearly as problematic as its name suggests. Its fans tend to use adjectives like warm, sweet and funny about it so I actually went into this one with high hopes. 108 minutes later, I emerged with a different phrase to describe it: as problematic as its name suggests!

OK, so there are sleazier films out there than Age of Consent, but this tale of a middle-aged artist whose passion for his work is rejuvenated by an underage muse feels like it shares a creepy outlook with similar films of its era which depicted the sexuality of young women as some kind of restorative elixir for much older men. While Age of Consent’s defenders regularly cite the fact that Helen Mirren was in her early twenties when she played the teenage Cora, the fact that the producers originally sought an actual seventeen year old to play the part suggests this was more a happy accident than a sign of adequate safeguarding. Mirren spends a good portion of the film naked, which would presumably have been a requirement for whichever minor came perilously close to falling into the hands of this film crew.

Other films had explored inappropriate attraction before, notably Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, which shared Age of Consent’s leading man James Mason (although he’s only doing the most intermittent Australian accent you ever heard in one of them), but which took a completely different approach to how the predatory behaviour is viewed. In Age of Consent, Powell and screenwriter Peter Yeldham try and get round the issue by showing Mason’s painter Brad to have no interest beyond how Cora’s body inspires his art, in the hope that that will make it entirely fine every time he tells her to pop her clothes off. But any possibility of selling this notion is undermined by a ridiculous and sickening ending in which Cora throws herself at Brad, the image freezing during their awkward, slapstick embrace. You could claim that there is sufficient ambiguity in Brad’s reaction, leaving the audience in doubt as to whether he reciprocates, were it not for the mind-bogglingly gross song that plays over the credits, with the lyrics “Cora, I loved you so, I watched you grow…. Now that you’re reaching the age of consent, love me, Cora, love me.”

Although uncomfortable, the subject matter here is not off-limits to those who can tackle it with insight. But Age of Consent doesn’t seem to know what it is or wants to say, until that ending which seems to be crying “Get in there, my son!” Occasionally Powell’s direction seems to reach for a poetic musing on creativity and the asexual admiration of aesthetic beauty, while at other times it seems satisfied to shoot for a Confessions of a Pervy Painter tone. The film is tedious during the former stages and ludicrous during the latter. There’s a subplot involving an opportunistic acquaintance of Brad’s who attempts to romance money out of a wealthy spinster and gets unwillingly ravished for his trouble which is especially over the top. The scene genuinely ends with the punchline “I’ve been raped!”

When it comes to attitudes to romantic and sexual relationships, it is sometimes extremely hard to countenance just how lax these attitudes once were towards subjects like statutory rape and sexual assault. Having mainly grown up in the 90s, I certainly can’t claim to have not been complicit in some attitudes of the era that now seem rum at the very best. But when we make these concessions to historical viewpoints, it is usually an attempt to salvage some work of art that has other redeeming features that balance its outdated politics. In the case of Age of Consent, there’s really nothing here to salvage.

37. OH… ROSALINDA!!

After my recent viewing of The Tales of Hoffmann, I evaluated my struggles with the shrill sound of opera and how the soundtrack of that film, which I couldn’t stand, clashed with the visuals that I loved to create a divided experience. Knowing that Oh… Rosalinda!! was itself an attempt to revive the long dormant phenomenon of the Operetta Film, I feared that I might be similarly split on this viewing experience. I needn’t have worried though, because I hated every part of Oh… Rosalinda!! equally.

If the 1940s films of Powell and Pressburger have become lauded as some of cinema’s greatest treasures, their 50s work generally receives a far more muted reception. Although its links to so-called “high art” (not so-called by me, I hasten to add) often see Oh… Rosalinda!! mentioned in the same breath as The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, the Powell and Pressburger film it most reminds me of is The Elusive Pimpernel, in that it is an empty, frivolous attempt at something more lighthearted that is missing the distinctive Powell and Pressburger personality and ends up failing on just about every level. But The Elusive Pimpernel, though not a film I’d rush to see again, was at least bearable for the majority of its runtime, while Oh… Rosalinda!! had tested my endurance considerably before the first half hour was over. I’m perhaps unqualified to review Oh… Rosalinda!! properly given that my intense dislike of opera immediately prejudices me against it, but with The Tales of Hoffmann I was frustrated that my personal musical preferences wouldn’t allow me to rate a clearly impressive picture more highly. With Oh… Rosalinda!!, I’m pretty sure what I’m watching is a very bad film supplemented with operatic interludes. Those familiar with Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, the 1874 operetta on which this film is based, may also have an advantage in that they might actually be able to tell what is going on. These merry romantic farces can be hard to follow if the characters and dialogue are as dreary as they are here but when key developments are delivered through unintelligible warbling it makes it even more difficult to follow, to care or to want to care.

The art direction on Oh… Rosalinda!! was by the great Hein Heckroth, whose work on The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and Gone to Earth had significantly elevated all those productions. Heckroth’s blending of the real and artificial had created exquisitely otherworldly realities in The Red Shoes and Gone to Earth, while The Tales of Hoffmann allowed him to lean into theatrical artifice to a greater extent. Oh… Rosalinda!! attempts to emphasise this staginess as well but the flat painted backgrounds and intentionally fake-looking sets just make the film feel like it was hurriedly produced on a standing set that a cash-strapped acting troupe stumbled upon. This particular acting troupe includes some big names, including Anthony Quayle, Dennis Price and Michael Redgrave, as well as dancer Ludmilla Tchérina who spends too little time dancing to justify the fact that she spends no time at all acting. Anton Walbrook, probably the greatest member of Powell and Pressburger’s stock company, is almost a saving grace in his droll central performance as the unscrupulous black marketeer Dr. Falke, but his obvious amusement at the bizarre proceedings is tempered by an equally palpable sense of embarrassment that is more than shared by this viewer. While some have delighted in the sheer lightness of Oh… Rosalinda!!, for those who are not fans of either opera or bedroom farce, the experience is a little like someone torturing cats while you’re watching the Ski Lodge episode of Frasier.

36. LAZYBONES

Despite rating few of them higher than 2.5 stars, I’ve been really enjoying Michael Powell’s early films and quota quickies. While not all of them have much to offer in the way of a decent story or good acting, there are flashes of invention that preface Powell’s emergence as a big hitter, and there’s a great watchability inherent in the short runtimes and breezy delivery. All that ground to a halt however, when I arrived at Lazybones. It’s probably fair to say that only the most curious of completists tend to dip into Powell’s early work and if they happen to choose the wrong starting point it could put them off immediately. Lazybones is definitely not the place to begin. It has everything that the derogatory term “quota quickie” suggests and if it’s your first early Powell film then few would blame you for making it your last as well. In truth, there’s a pleasing variety across this group of films so if you happen to have seen Lazybones and found little to enjoy, don’t let it deter you from giving The Fire Raisers or The Love Test a go.

There’s exactly one thing I enjoyed in Lazybones: a cameo of about a minute by British cinema stalwart Miles Malleson. His character is billed as “Pessimist” and he beautifully undermines a wedding scene with his cynical attitude to matrimony. It’s a genuinely funny, fleeting performance but elsewhere Lazybones delivers none of the same wit or charm. The only other notable thing about it is how it plays like a forerunner of My Man Godfrey, although given the year gap between the two I can’t imagine that that very good film was influenced by this rather terrible one. Lazybones is so mind-numbingly boring that I can’t even really recount the plot… something about the idle rich, marriage, misunderstandings and a villainous cad with a boner for his own cousin. It took a lot of effort to stay focused on the tedious proceedings as they drizzled past and after watching it I just sort of let it all go from my brain rather than let its unnecessary drabness clutter up my lobes.

Amongst the small handful of people who have seen the early Powell films, there seems to be an encouraging consensus that Lazybones is the weakest. Apparently certain studios used to work throughout the night during this era and both the lead actors in Lazybones were in stage plays at the time of production, so they would come straight to Twickenham after their performances to start work on the film. I can’t imagine this approach was conducive to getting the best from performers, although it was suitable for creating quota quickies, the quality of which was less important than their mere quota-filling existence. Still, elsewhere Powell managed to make several films that transcended the money-making potential of these quick and cheap productions. With Lazybones, he turned out the sort of hurried product that would contribute to “quota quickie” becoming a derogatory term.


35. THE LION HAS WINGS

As is the case with The Thief of Bagdad, The Lion Has Wings is a difficult film to place in a Michael Powell ranking because he is only one of three credited directors here. Producer Alexander Korda also did some uncredited directorial work and if you include the use of footage from 1937’s Fire Over England that brings the director count up to five. The reason for this proliferation of helmsmen was that The Lion Has Wings was hurriedly produced in order to fulfil Korda‘s promise to his friend Winston Churchill that he would have a propaganda film in cinemas within a month of war being declared. Directors were pulled from other productions, including Powell from The Thief of Bagdad, to ensure a speedy production and the result, though a trifle tedious for modern audiences, seems efficient enough for its intended purposes.

The Lion Has Wings combines a plummy voiceover narration and documentary footage with dramatised scenes about a married couple played by the mismatched Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon and how the outbreak of war affects them. The scenes of the Richardsons, as they are imaginatively named (they only had a month, remember), were directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, while Powell was entrusted with the crucial recreation of RAF bomber raids. By all accounts he did a pretty good job, although these kind of wartime air mission sequences have always bored me so I’m not best equipped to confirm or deny this. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about The Lion Has Wings is how it clashes with Powell’s subsequent films. A heightened simplicity is to be expected in propaganda but it’s amusing to think in 1939 Powell was making a film to please Churchill and by 1943 he was making one that enraged him. The humanistic iconoclasm of Powell and Pressburger’s subsequent films was often controversial but their ability to portray the complexity of war beyond the need to inspire is part of what has made their work stand up far better than other films of the era. Powell would later look back on The Lion Has Wings as “an outrageous piece of propaganda, full of half-truths and half-lies, with some stagey episodes which were rather embarrassing and with actual facts which were highly distorted.” The film was a commercial success but audiences reportedly saw through its patronising methods. It is now viewed mainly by Powell devotees or war historians.

34. THE VOLUNTEER

The Volunteer is usually skipped over in the Powell and Pressburger filmography, considered a short film and filed in the comparative obscurity reserved for most live action shorts that aren’t Un Chien Andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon. But at close to 45 minutes in length, The Volunteer fits my (and the BFI’s) assessment of what constitutes a feature and, as someone who counts Buster Keaton’s 45 minute Sherlock Jr. amongst the greatest films ever made, it’d be hypocritical of me to set The Volunteer to one side. In all honesty, the urge to do so before I watched it was fairly strong, as its propagandist intentions were not of great interest to me. And yet, Powell and Pressburger had made a very fine piece of dramatic propaganda in 49th Parallel, so my prejudices were temporarily put in check as I sat down to watch The Volunteer.

Unlike the purely fictional 49th Parallel, The Volunteer is caught between Documentary and Comedy/Drama, with Ralph Richardson playing a version of himself as an actor whose incompetent but spirited dresser signs up for the Fleet Air Arm and becomes a war hero. The tone here is far more simplistic than the balanced humanism of 49th Parallel but not as forcefully nationalistic as Powell’s earlier propaganda films The Lion Has Wings and An Airman’s Letter to His Mother. The Volunteer is comparatively chipper across its runtime, emphasising the importance of the war effort but never digging into the grim realities of battle. I enjoyed the film for a while during its early slapstick scenes of Fred the dresser destroying light fittings while trying to hang pictures, but the deeper we get into the militaristic stuff, the more my attention wandered.

The Volunteer reportedly did its job effectively, increasing the number of volunteers following its release. Its deliberately simplistic viewpoint and stretch of a runtime does make it easy to see why so many viewers are determined to set it aside from the official filmography but it is extremely fascinating that The Volunteer was released in the same year as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, one of Powell and Pressburger’s most iconoclastic films and one for which they were pilloried by conservative traditionalists. While their critics were expending energy on trying to demonise and suppress one of the greatest films ever made, amidst hyperbolic accusations of treason Powell and Pressburger managed to inspire an increase in volunteers for the war effort in a much better use of time and energy.

33. THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW

The Boy Who Turned Yellow is an odd ending to the Powell and Pressburger story. Created for the Children’s Film Foundation, a non-profit organisation that made short children’s features for Saturday morning matinee cinema showings, The Boy Who Turned Yellow was never going to be another A Matter of Life and Death, nor was it intended to be. With low budgets and modest resources at their disposal, the touchstone for Children’s Film Foundation films was clearly 70s children’s TV rather than anything more cinematic. Though often ambitious in premise, the first thing these films generally make me think of, with their bad acting and televisual aesthetic, is the TV series Rentaghost. As with specific children’s TV shows from any era that sometimes fail to strike a chord if you didn’t grow up with them, I can well imagine adults who recall viewing these oddities on a weekend cinema trip will find some nostalgic appeal here. I can often tap into this kind of enthusiasm vicariously but unfortunately The Boy Who Turned Yellow is so weak and all over the place that I struggle to imagine having enjoyed it much at any age.

A distracted young boy who loses his pet mice at the Tower of London, turns yellow on his way home (along with a whole tube train and its passengers), then meets a personified electric current called Nick (short for ElectroNic) who helps him save his mice from a Tower of London which suddenly seems to switch eras around them. The synopsis sounds quite promising, if utterly bizarre, but the key to the film’s actual level of quality is in that terrible ElectroNic pun. For all the good intentions of creating a children’s film that doesn’t talk down to children, The Boy Who Turned Yellow is full of crap jokes and terrible performances, while the unfocused plot suffers from too many ideas being created in too short a time. The scene in which the train and its inhabitants all turn yellow is vivid and memorable but the point of this development is vague and feels just like a visual flourish without motivation. The arrival of Nick complicates things further, although Robert Eddison (later to become widely known as Indiana Jones’s Grail Knight) gives easily the best performance. But a film that begins as an educational piece about electricity and the Tower of London meanders its way through half-baked Fantasy and Sci-fi tropes before culminating in the worst of climactic cop-outs: it was all a dream. This allows The Boy Who Turned Yellow to cheaply buy its way out of any necessity to explain its shock-sneeze of a plot, because we all know that dreams rarely make sense. But anyone who has ever had someone tell them about last night’s dream at length also knows that dreams can be really bloody boring. In this case, they certainly make 55 minutes feel like a very long time.

32. RED ENSIGN

Red Ensign is the film during the making of which Michael Powell began to feel he was finding his cinematic voice. It is ostensibly a film about a crusade to ensure a strong British shipping industry but it has often been said that it is an allegory for Powell’s struggles to try and help establish a strong British film industry. In either case, the film has a tirelessly patriotic bent, the likes of which Powell’s wartime films would pursue in a less nationalistic manner, when he had the benefit of Emeric Pressburger to provide more nuanced, humanist screenplays.

Red Ensign’s patriotism is just one strand of conservatism that informs the film, which includes an infamous scene in which a rabble-rousing worker with legitimate concerns about pay is dressed down and fired by the hero, Leslie Banks’ crusading shipyard manager David Barr. The men are then asked to work for free because Barr’s money has run out and improbably they agree. And the rabble rouser? Well, he is revealed to be a plant from a rival firm, in case we were in any doubt over his ghastly villainy for seeking fair pay for labourers. Meanwhile, Barr unrepentantly forges a signature on a document which he is unable to obtain legitimately. Though he is arrested and charged for the crime, it is ultimately portrayed as being for the greater good, with Barr hailed as a hero and rewarded by having a ship dedicated in his name. Red Ensign’s politics then… a bit iffy!

Of course, Red Ensign is a film of its time. You’d expect a heightened level of patriotism between the wars and the economic crash of 1928 provides crucial context behind the desperation of Barr’s actions. I could forgive all of this if only Red Ensign weren’t so deathly boring. Whatever analogy you choose to put on it, in the end Red Ensign is heavily focused on the shipbuilding industry and unless the viewer has maritime mania, it’s more than possible that all the technical talk and boardroom meetings about boats and quotas will start to grate very quickly. Ultimately, while it tries hard to establish some kind of dramatic thrust, Red Ensign feels like a poorly disguised public information film, albeit one with some audaciously extreme opinions.


31. THE NIGHT OF THE PARTY

The Night of the Party is a very short, underworked Murder Mystery which takes the bulk of its hour long runtime setting up motives for its clutch of eccentric characters, only to offer a muddled murder sequence and an anticlimactic ending. I love a Murder Mystery when it’s done well but The Night of the Party is so lacking in intrigue or any real form of detection that it essentially feels like they may as well have shown the killer committing the crime. Michael Powell is unable to bring any real flair to the stagey production and it falls to the lively oddball Ernest Thesiger to provide what little there is in the way of entertainment here. To see Thesiger lending his talents to a better film, watch James Whale’s classic The Old Dark House instead. In terms of The Night of the Party itself, it’s probably telling that I’m attempting to talk about other films in lieu of anything to say about this one. Powell’s skills as a filmmaker were improving, a fact evident even in a feeble effort like Red Ensign with its montages and evocative shipyard footage. The Night of the Party, by contrast, feels like the clearest example of a quota quickie in Powell’s filmography. You can tell he’s not interested in this project himself so it’s very hard for the audience to work up any enthusiasm either. Its sense of fun still puts it higher in the pecking order than the bone dry Red Ensign but only just.

30. THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL

The Elusive Pimpernel was a film that few of the creatives involved really wanted to make. Director Michael Powell and star David Niven were particularly against the idea but were threatened with contract suspension by studio bosses Samuel Goldwyn and Alexander Korda if they refused. Emeric Pressburger, from whom impeccable screenplays seemed to flow in the 40s, struggled with adapting Baroness Orczy’s famous story and the self-aware thigh-slapping angle he went with failed to impress Goldwyn. In turn, the collaboration between Goldwyn and Korda soured when Goldwyn refused to make his final payment and things got litigious. Niven, unhappy with the treatment he received from Goldwyn, would go on to sever his contract as a result. Powell, who had tried to increase his interest in the project by making it into a musical, was denied the right to do so and went on to write The Elusive Pimpernel off as an inconsequential career cul-de-sac. It continued a downturn in commercial fortunes for Powell and Pressburger that would not be rectified until over halfway through the decade. Ultimately, it’s little wonder that The Elusive Pimpernel lives up to its name. At the time of writing, it is only available in muddy VHS rips online and, while such compromised versions can never truly validate a film’s negative reputation, the copy I saw was good quality enough to see that there is little of note here that could be saved by more vibrant colours and clearer sound.

As a huge fan of Swashbucklers, the notion of a Powell and Pressburger take on the genre initially excited me greatly. However, having rewatched the catalogue leading up to The Elusive Pimpernel, I realised that the duo were entirely the wrong choice for such material. Their unconventional, iconoclastic approach is hard to combine with the straightforward thrills of an Adventure story, especially such a bluntly anti-revolutionary one as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Consequently, The Elusive Pimpernel meanders terribly, its impressive costumes and locations not being enough to distract from a film bogged down by wearying inaction and tentative dialogue. A scene involving racing carriages almost pumps a bit of blood into proceedings but it lurches to an anticlimactic end and the film never picks up a head of steam again. Most of the best material here borrows heavily from the 1934 Howard Young version of the same story, a film which itself suffered a little from a lack of action but boasted unforgettable performances from Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. By contrast, Niven (who, lest we forget, didn’t want to be there) and Margaret Leighton (whom Michael Powell did not want to be there) are forgettable in the same roles, with Niven‘s Percy Blakely never as entertainingly foppish or eccentric as Howard’s version and Leighton’s Marguerite far less mesmerisingly passionate or complex.

There’s not a great deal more to say about The Elusive Pimpernel. It’s an example of a bad mismatch of writers/directors and material. The Swashbuckler subgenre simply isn’t suited to Powell and Pressburger’s style and it’s very clear while watching the film that no-one really wants to be there, least of all the audience.

29. RYNOX

Michael Powell’s early films are often called “quota quickies”, a disparaging term suggesting a rushed, low-quality production made to satisfy the quota requirements of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. While this is true in some cases, there are other films among these early works that were made with a greater level of artistic ambition. The significant stylistic and technical differences between early sound films and what came later can sometimes make it difficult for modern audiences to distinguish between a quota quickie and a film with greater intentions, but despite Powell’s own retrospective efforts to redefine 1937’s The Edge of the World as his first “real” film, there are articles of great interest in that earlier period of his career too.

The oldest surviving film directed by Powell alone (the earlier Two Crowded Hours, a genuine quota quickie, is currently lost), Rynox is one of those more ambitious early works. That’s not to say it’s necessarily that good. While several critics received it with great excitement in its time, Rynox feels clunky and silly in light of the sophistication that came as filmmakers got to grips with sound. Still, there are some fascinating elements here, including an unusual, if also highly unlikely, central mystery and a tense Horror-tinged edge that comes by way of an imposingly grotesque brute called Boswell Marsh. This character’s opening scene in which he terrorises a couple of clerks has a palpable sense of tension which unfortunately melts away as we enter the main plot but which makes for a memorable start nonetheless. At just 46 minutes in length, Rynox gets away with its daft plot twists and, Marsh aside, unengaging characters to an extent but it’s very hard to imagine a time when this was briefly seen as one of the greatest British films ever made. Nevertheless, curious Powell enthusiasts will probably not regret giving up less than an hour of their time to this glimpse at the great director’s unusual beginnings.

28. THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE

After a string of bells-and-whistles flops, literary adaptations and films that leaned into the upper class pursuits of opera and ballet, Powell and Pressburger returned to the roots of their partnership with a couple of back to back War films. The majority of their previous War pictures had come out while WWII was still in progress so were bound by a certain sense of propagandist duty (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft is Missing) or else vilified for iconoclastic attitudes about outdated old-guard principles (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). Although the war was still in recent memory, Powell and Pressburger’s post-war films were freed from propagandist expectations to some extent, which meant they could continue their pattern of celebrating the heroism of the allied forces while refusing to dehumanise the enemy, with a reduced level of controversy. The Battle of the River Plate does just that, depicting a real life sea battle between three Royal Navy cruisers and a German pocket battleship that plays out like a respectful work disagreement. Interestingly, the film explores the same themes of fair play during wartime that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had previously decried as impractical and outdated in the face of the Nazi threat. Unfortunately, this ideological reversal is one of the few things about The Battle of the River Plate that is at all interesting.

After so many box office failures, it seems peculiar that such a stiff-backed, methodically dull film as The Battle of the River Plate should be the one to break the curse. Still, War films were popular at the time and the stodgy Britishness of the whole affair was par for the course so perhaps my unfair modern expectations play a significant part in how boring I found The Battle of the River Plate. But with its abundance of technical Naval dialogue and a face-off with the enemy that largely amounts to a long waiting game, The Battle of the River Plate is undeniably slow. The opening credits include not only the names of the actors and their characters but also the names of the ships used for the film and the vessels for which they are standing in. In some cases, Powell and Pressburger were able to obtain the actual ships involved in the real incidents depicted, leading to amusingly stuffy credits like ‘HMS Cumberland as Herself.’ All this effort suggests to me that The Battle of the River Plate was aimed at, and will still appeal most to, the sort of military enthusiast who enjoys spending their weekends painstakingly UHUing their fingers together in the pursuit of creating a perfect plastic replica of a gunboat. It’s good to know that this demographic is out there, hanging fascinated on every dry exchange and every image of a stationary warship floating patiently. If this describes you, my advice would be to seek out a copy of The Battle of the River Plate post-haste. Everyone else can probably be content with watching toy boats bob round them in the bath, safe in the knowledge that they won’t have to wait an entire two hours before they can pull the plug.

27. THE PHANTOM LIGHT


The Phantom Light sounded like a very promising premise for a lighthearted ghost story but it turned out to be quite flat in execution. Part Comedy, part Adventure, with the merest hint of spookiness, The Phantom Light is a disappointingly bland tale that gets wrapped up in uninteresting characters and implausible reveals when it could’ve been so much better with a simpler plot, fewer players and a greater focus on atmosphere. There’s never a moment when the viewer believes for a second that the local legends about a haunted lighthouse could be true, which feels like an essential missing piece in making this an effective Thriller. Michael Powell admitted to being drawn to this project because of his love of lighthouses but little of that enthusiasm for the setting comes through, with an awful lot of the events taking place in sparse and dull indoor sets, while even Powell himself was dismissive of the story.

One thing The Phantom Light does have in its favour is the lead performance of Gordon Harker. I really like that the script is based around a comedic character rather than a stiff-backed hero, and Harker’s eye-rolling incredulity is reminiscent of the demeanour with which Tony Hancock would eventually make his name. Harker is actually second-billed after Binnie Hale, an actress who made very few films but who also has a promising comic energy. She is not given that much chance to capitalise on these comedic skills however, since her character is largely unbelievable and superfluous. Although she gets plenty of screentime, the writers never seem quite sure how to use her (except for one lingering shot of her bare legs in which Powell seems to have made an emphatic decision on how to use her!) and the desperate revelation that she is an undercover Scotland Yard detective seems tacked on to give her more purpose. For this reveal to work, there needs to be some kind of reversal of her previous ditzy behaviour but she doesn’t change at all, making the twist seem highly unlikely. Unless I’ve missed the point and this was intended to be a further deception on her part. I’d pretty much lost interest by that stage.

If The Phantom Light is ultimately a disappointment, it at least displays an encouraging energy in its lead performances and its ambitious, if misguided, head-scratcher of a screenplay. Powell seems less invested in his directorial duties than in some of his other early works though. Perhaps he was just enjoying the lighthouse too much to focus on his job.

26. THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB

Powell and Pressburger’s time as The Archers came to an end with Ill Met by Moonlight, the final film on which they took joint writing, producing and directing credits and the last one to feature that rousing opening sequence of an arrow hitting a target. More cynical viewers might suggest the split came about because The Archers were now more consistently missing the target but the commercial success of their last couple of films suggests that there may have been more to it. Still, acrimony did not seem to be a long term factor, as the pair reportedly remained friends, and nine years after they bowed out on their partnership, Pressburger wrote the screenplay for Powell’s Australian oddity They’re a Weird Mob. For an unspecified reason, Pressburger used the pseudonym Richard Imrie in the credits of the film. By this point, the fallout from the release of Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom had caused him to be ostracised by the British film industry, so perhaps there was an element of self preservation, although having now seen They’re a Weird Mob I can think of another good reason why Pressburger wouldn’t have wanted his name on it.

They’re a Weird Mob was based on a novel by Australian author John O’Grady, a fish out of water story of an Italian immigrant whose expectations of a writing job for his cousin’s magazine fall through and leave him adrift in a strange land with a culture and language he struggles to comprehend. I suppose there’s a certain wisdom in foreigners writing and directing a film about an alienated immigrant but Powell and Pressburger feel completely mismatched with this material. Had it been placed in the hands of native Australians instead, perhaps the culture clash comedy would’ve been approached with a slightly gentler touch. Its effectiveness hinges on believability and when nearly everyone the protagonist Nino meets says things like “Crikey ya dil, me snazzwilkers are burning and I need to sink a coupla bloody schooners” it gets old very quickly. A few of the misunderstandings play out amusingly, such as one which ends with a couple of hotel employees miming the sport of cricket in the lobby. But right beforehand, when they first mention cricket, Nino chirps like the insect in reply. There has already been a misunderstanding over the word “test” which is plausibly amusing but the insect gag is a step too far. The film seems to think it can’t let any possible double meaning lie and a potentially interesting look at culture clashes repeatedly drifts into Mind Your Language funny-foreigner antics.

Despite its overenthusiasm for tired linguistic gags, They’re a Weird Mob stays on the right side of xenophobia thanks to its well cast lead Walter Chiari, who makes Nino less of a blundering buffoon than an intelligent, good-natured outsider feeling his way. Occasionally the film pushes against that, as in a moment when Nino goes swimming in a danger zone and the omniscient narrator suddenly resurfaces to chime in with “Wrong again!”, but ultimately Powell seems sympathetic to Nino’s plight. A scene involving a drunken racist on a ferry clearly satirises outdated attitudes, even if the rest of the nation hasn’t exactly been portrayed as welcoming up to this point, but the film’s overplayed theme song Big Country by Rene Deveraux walks a less well-defined line. Its repetitious sexism is clearly meant to be humorous but it’s hard to tell whether the humour is supposed to stem from an ironic viewpoint or not. There’s self-awareness here but its bet-hedging ambiguity seems like more of an act of cowardice than respect for an audience. Perhaps in 1960s Australia it wasn’t so controversial to claim that it was “a man’s country, sweetheart” and I’d be willing to make that concession if only it was clear to what extent the film actually means it.

Despite its broadness and tendency to go a step further than it needs to, They’re a Weird Mob’s comedy of cultural differences is fairly entertaining for a little while. But its failure to find a decent plot sees it quickly becoming aimless, its string of repetitive sketches eventually collapsing into an unconvincing romance. Australians are painted as fairly unpleasant when it comes to their treatment of Nino, including his eventual love interest Kay, played with a clipped bluntness by Claire Dunne. Ultimately, the gentleness of the comic misunderstandings is undercut by how immediately confrontational or unnecessarily antagonistic every Australian character appears to be. Still, the good-humoured Aussies weren’t offended and They’re a Weird Mob became a big hit in Australia at a time when Powell was struggling to find work in his own country. Although it found little traction outside of Australia, it was never really expected to and the film has gone on to be deemed a classic down under.

25. HONEYMOON

Honeymoon is usually seen as the final entry in Michael Powell’s cycle of films inspired by ballet and opera (although the German television film Bluebeard’s Castle probably deserves a place in the conversation) and is a curious but not completely uninteresting film. It initially combines languid, travelogue-style scenes of the Spanish countryside with a half-hearted plot about a newlywed couple and the puckish Antonio, a dancer who comes between them. Short dance interludes occur throughout the first hour, usually involving small, realistic presentations, but at approximately the halfway mark Honeymoon goes for broke with a full Red Shoes style ballet sequence with stylised sets and costumes. This 25 minute sequence is quickly followed up by another dance, this time presented as a fever dream. And then the film just sort of drizzles to a vague conclusion.

The dance sequences in Honeymoon save the film from its tedious story but they come too late in the game to completely rehabilitate it. Once the full-blown ballet takes over, the beyond-tepid plot struggles to wrest the focus back and the film’s illusion of a structure disintegrates. Powell’s images of the Spanish landscapes in Georges Périnal’s ravishing Technicolor are sufficiently arresting for a while, especially when accompanied by the lovely theme The Honeymoon Song by Mikis Theodorakis, which constitutes the film’s major popular legacy (it was recorded by The Beatles for a BBC session years later). A joyously featherlight sequence in which Antonio flamencos his way across the countryside after being ditched by his lover is an early highlight but then the central couple of Anthony Steel and Ludmilla Tchérina show up and that feather thuds abruptly to the ground. Steel is awful as the husband who wants his new wife to give up her career as a prima ballerina, while Tchérina continues to prove that she is a significantly better dancer than she is an actor. Antonio is lively and amusing in his role but with Steel and Tchérina to play against he feels like a vibrant bird of paradise hurled full force into a brick wall.

Once the ballet sequences start in earnest, Honeymoon becomes consistently higher quality, partly due to their elimination of dialogue and plot but also because the sequences themselves are quite impressive. Sadly though, they feel more tailored towards those with an existing interest in ballet, whereas The Red Shoes ballet that they clearly wish to emulate had the crossover potential to enchant anyone susceptible to being captivated by rhythmic movement. Honeymoon’s long ballet sequence is sometimes fascinating, always impressive but a tiny bit testing in its vague narrative and measured execution. Though undeniably stylised, Ivor Beddoes art direction and production design is less gaudy than Hein Heckroth’s work on The Tales of Hoffman and The Red Shoes, which is refreshing at first but ultimately proves more difficult to connect with than the fairytale excesses that so reliably mesmerised viewers of those films. In the end though, Honeymoon suffers from having a couple of showstopping sequences and no show for them to stop. Powell had apparently wanted to bring back The Red Shoes’ Moira Shearer in the lead role but she decided against accepting for a completely understandable reason: she read the script first.

24. HIS LORDSHIP

His Lordship is another early Michael Powell film that is riddled with problems but is basically enjoyable, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong ones. In the case of this ultra-light Musical Comedy, there’s a preposterousness to its wobbly attempts at class-based satire that makes it fascinating. Less enjoyable, though no less preposterous, are two Bolshevik villains whose stereotypical depiction is in keeping with His Lordship’s broad style but whose mention of the fact that they are from Odessa at the beginning of a song about what a pair of evil, lying, avaricious cheats they are suggests there may be more than just mild xenophobia going on here. In terms of His Lordship’s political leanings, there’s a playful attitude towards societal norms in which an apparently working class plumber is ashamed of the fact that he secretly inherited an unwanted title from his trade unionist father. The script is flipped, with his socialist girlfriend being portrayed as an inverse snob for her rejection of him, but those claiming that His Lordship is attempting to undermine left wing ideologies are perhaps overstating the satirical power of a film that is as light as a bubble. In truth, there are little flashes of more acidic commentary, such as a low-rent Busby Berkeley style number with mops and buckets (probably the highlight of the film), but ultimately everyone is shown to be a hypocrite or a walking contradiction to some degree, and the conclusion seems closer to some ill-defined comment on the merry folly of humanity, albeit with some pointed antisemitism served on the side.

Along with Powell, a couple of alumni from the less ambitious but slightly better Hotel Splendide return, including writer Ralph Smart and star Jerry Verno. Verno has a better defined character here and his performance is consequently improved, although he is upstaged by the big, showy turns of Janet McGrew as a preening movie star and Ben Welden as her opportunistic manager. Their storyline drags His Lordship in a whole other direction that confuses its point even more, but it also allows Powell to create some of his most memorable absurdist images yet, particularly a pack of paparazzi whose exaggerated movements are all perfectly synchronised. Peter Gawthorne is amusing as the butler who is repeatedly disturbed by the Bolsheviks’ habit of kissing each other on both cheeks (an early example of a gay joke) but Muriel George, in the role of Verno’s mother, seems to have decided to act with her voice and not tell her face about it. V.C. Clinton-Baddeley and Michael Hogan are too ridiculous as the Bolsheviks to be at all funny and the film sags every time they show up, which is often. The musical numbers are unremarkable but pass the time reasonably.

While Powell’s early films are often written off en masse, there is a laudable ambition across them that is evident even at this stage. He turned his hand to various genres from Melodrama to Farce, Crime Drama to Musical, and delivered results that, while flawed, were better than could be expected from most directors on an equivalent budget. His Lordship is perhaps the most ambitious of his films up to this point, though not quite the best, but Powell delivers about as entertaining a production as could be salvaged from the frankly peculiar material handed to him.

23. HOTEL SPLENDIDE

Michael Powell’s earliest films often found him collaborating with writer Philip MacDonald, who provided screenplays or source material for five of Powell’s seven 1932 films. MacDonald would eventually go on to provide material for acclaimed films like Zoltan Korda’s Sahara and Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher, as well as hidden gems like Anthony Mann’s Strangers in the Night and Henry Hathaway’s 23 Paces to Baker Street. Another key collaborator was comic actor Jerry Verno, who appeared in four of these early films before Powell eventually brought him back for a cameo in The Red Shoes. Hotel Splendide, a lighthearted Comedy Crime caper, was the only film to bring these three men together and the result, though not exactly a good film, is splendidly (or splendidely) entertaining nonetheless. Filled with goofy gags and sloppy slapstick, Hotel Splendide follows the fortunes of a disgruntled clerk who ostentatiously quits his job when he discovers he has inherited the titular establishment, only to realise its pretentious name is overcompensating for a rather less salubrious property than he had envisaged. Adding to his problems, a jewel thief who buried his ill-gotten gains under what is now the site of the hotel arrives with his accomplice in tow. Also there is a rival villain who has got a whiff of the loot, not to mention some troublesome guests, passive-aggressive employees and undercover police officers.

The stage is set for a lively farce but unfortunately, with only 53 minutes of runtime to play with, Powell just doesn’t have the necessary space to effectively handle all the plot strands. A half-hearted romance is set up but not paid off, characters are sidelined or bumped off before they’ve had a chance to make any impact, and the climactic escalation seems tacked on rather than arrived at naturally. Verno’s protagonist is too ill-defined for us to really root for, his opening resignation from an unsatisfactory job seeming to be more about his own arrogance than his employer’s tyranny. Still, if the runtime neuters Hotel Splendide, it also makes it more digestible than it would’ve been with an extra twenty minutes or so. It moves forward briskly from scene to scene and there are some genuinely funny moments, notably those involving Verno’s affected pronunciation of Splendide, which invariably receives a sidelong glance until he finally concedes “OK, Splendid!” There are also moments of visual invention which momentarily remind the viewer they’re watching the work of a future master. For instance, when Verno first sees the hotel he has inherited, we see an image of his palatial expectations which then literally melts before his eyes, to reveal the far more modest reality. The joke would’ve worked better had the real hotel been more tumbledown but given the tiny budget he was working with, Powell makes the most of the bit.

While I hardly went away from Hotel Splendide feeling satisfied, I did leave it smiling. For all the easily picked holes, it’s a decently efficient little early sound film and a step up from the average quota quickie.

22. SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS

Something Always Happens is definitely one of the better Michael Powell quota quickies, which some might cynically suggest isn’t saying much. In truth, the majority of the early Powell films aren’t what you’d call good but there’s definitely some enjoyment to be had out of them for curious cinephiles. I’ve got into a sort of rhythm with them where I largely know approximately what I’m getting and can settle in to enjoy them for what they are, while also spotting moments of technical ingenuity that point the way forward. In the case of Something Always Happens, there’s little of the latter on show but there’s plenty of charm to this muddled tale of the down-on-his-luck Peter, the young street urchin in whom he finds a kindred spirit and the unscrupulous owner of a string of petrol stations with whom he faces off. The major problem with Something Always Happens is it doesn’t seem to know what it is. The plot about Peter essentially adopting the homeless child Billy on sight sets up a Chaplinesque premise with hints of Capra’s humanist tales, but then it becomes a sort of corporate espionage story in which Billy is completely sidelined. I enjoyed both strands of the story to some extent but they certainly don’t fit together, giving the impression of a screenplay written as the filmmakers went along.

Something Always Happens has charm to spare, particularly in the subplot in which Peter and Billy gradually win over a kind-hearted landlady with a gruff exterior (called, I kid you not, Mrs. Badger!). Peter’s romance with Cynthia, the daughter of his business rival, is a bit perfunctory and the writers miss an opportunity when Peter’s chance to financially ruin her father is not explored as the emotional conflict it would surely be for Cynthia, but instead just barrelled ahead with as a gleeful meting out of just desserts. A longer film with a more generous production schedule might have allowed time for something more complex to develop regarding this surrogate family. We see Mrs. Badger become a sort of grandma figure to Billy but it would’ve been nice to have a chance to see Cynthia fitting into this ragbag collective and perhaps have a redemptive arc for her father rather than just ending in schadenfreude. Still, while he finds little opportunity to display his wider directorial skills, Powell at least seems emotionally engaged with the material, which is essential in preventing Something Always Happens from seeming maudlin or manipulative. Instead, we get a confused but always likeable little film that passes the time pleasantly.


21. A CANTERBURY TALE

A Canterbury Tale is the sort of languid, bucolic film for which you either fall head over heels or by which you are intensely bored. I love slow cinema, I love a picturesque country setting, I love lengthy stretches of dialogue and a loosely defined plot to which the characters are not subservient. A Canterbury Tale has all these things, and yet I don’t love, or even particularly like, the film. Over the years, certain fans of Powell and Pressburger have been completely captivated by A Canterbury Tale, listing it alongside acclaimed works like The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death as one of the duo’s finest achievements. There’s certainly a fascination in just how boldly experimental the film is in its rejection of established narrative conventions. Viewers for whom the picture-perfect Kent scenery is enough of an attraction will probably be grateful of the film’s plodding pace, which allows for every bush, tree and quaint fence post to be fully caressed by the eye. There’s something more than just aimless meandering going on here though. Something about Britishness, something about the importance of these picturesque country escapes to the national identity, something about a soldier’s state of mind in the limbo between assignments. Unlike the preceding The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which made the most of a two and a half hour runtime to fully explore its thesis, A Canterbury Tale is more reticent in openly examining the themes it establishes with deliberate ambiguity. The viewer is invited to piece together clues as to the film’s point, in the same manner that the protagonists investigate the bizarre mystery of The Glue Man, an assailant who terrorises the otherwise peaceful town by pouncing on women and pouring glue in their hair, an act of assault which the film ultimately concludes is not that bad really.

Most synopses of A Canterbury Tale highlight the Glue Man mystery but it is a peripheral concern at best, with an unpleasantly sexist solution which the main characters seem to take as an exoneration. It’s a shame given that the premise sounds ripe with possibilities. I remember the first time I watched A Canterbury Tale I was certain I was going to love it after the opening minutes in which a Chaucerian pilgrim releases a falcon into the sky and the film leaps ahead 600 years as the bird’s silhouette becomes a spitfire. It predates 2001: A Space Odyssey’s celebrated century-spanning match cut by over two decades and is at least equally effective. What a shame then that so astounding an opening gives way to such a tedious experience. A Canterbury Tale remains a boldly experimental work throughout and I’m glad it exists but at 124 minutes it feels overextended. Michael Powell himself was not a fan of his own film and understood why contemporary critics found it silly and frivolous. But a late 70s restoration saw critics embrace it as a masterpiece, yet another example of Powell and Pressburger being ahead of their time. Certainly, A Canterbury Tale feels more aligned with the burgeoning independent cinema of the 70s and 80s than it does with British films of the 40s. Again, all of these things seem to suggest a film I would adore, but while I appreciate its strangeness and originality, I just can’t connect with its dragging pace and barely existent story.

Another thing I find off-putting about A Canterbury Tale is its cast. The three modern pilgrims are played by Dennis Price, Sheila Sim and Sgt. John Sweet. The notion to cast relative unknowns was a good one and the fact that only Price went on to become anything close to famous has meant that A Canterbury Tale retained its air of skewed realism throughout the decades. On the other hand, the three performances themselves range from stiff to unconvincing to bloody annoying. Sweet, a complete unknown whose only other credit is an obscure short with the eyebrow-raising title Some Like It Rough, gives one of the most grating performances I’ve ever seen, shattering the peace of the Kent countryside with his blackboard-scrape of a voice. He plays the role of Acting Sgt. Bob Johnson but that adjective unfortunately seems misplaced. Still, Sweet called the experience of appearing in the film the most profound of his life and he donated the £2,000 he was paid to the NAACP, further examples of heartwarming details connected to this film that I love more than I do the film itself.

The final act of A Canterbury Tale shifts from the fictional small town of Chillingbourne to Canterbury itself, where we see some beautiful scenes of the war-torn city and its ornate cathedral. At this stage, the film switches to a sort of magical realism as the three pilgrims each receive a blessing in the form of happy news and dream opportunities. It’s a nice way to end the film, chiming with the odd sense of something otherworldly that courses through the entire two hours. There are other things to like here, with Powell and Pressburger regular Eric Portman impressing again with a memorable turn as an oddball magistrate, Charles Hawtrey proving amusing in a small role as a tetchy stationmaster, and rich black and white cinematography from Erwin Hillier to complement Powell’s subtly offbeat direction. The more I talk about A Canterbury Tale, the more I want to watch it again. Sadly, I’ve fallen into this trap before and while the lightly magical atmosphere obviously had an effect on me, if I take a moment to really remember the viewing experience it is the agonising longueurs, the blaring voice of Sgt. Sweet and that badly misjudged Glue Man plot that drift gradually to the surface. I’m glad A Canterbury Tale exists. I wish I could be one of the people who loves it so much. But barring some kind of eleventh hour blessing from an unknown force, I don’t see that happening.

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