The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are among the most beautiful and amazing movies ever made. The credits for their films are unique in that both men are given credit for writing, directing and producing. In fact, Pressburger wrote them, Powell directed them and only the producing job was actually shared. Under the production company known as The Archers this particularly fecund partnership produced some of the most memorable films of the ’40s, but the three picture output they produced between 1946 and 1948 has to rank as one of the unparalleled rolls in cinema history.
They are perhaps best known for the last movie to come out of this incredibly fertile period, the 1948 ballet-based fantasy The Red Shoes. Based loosely upon Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, this movie is truly one of a kind. Don’t be fooled by the fairy tale background or the fragile concept.
The Red Shoes is not really about the ballet, or even magic, at all. It’s really about the eternal clash between love and art. A ballet dancer and the impresario who makes her a star are both at heart choosing between what they love more. For the ballet dancer it’s a choice between love for another man or her dancing. For the impresario, it’s between the ballet dancer and what steps he will go to create everlasting art from her.
Moira Shearer is the typical redhead star in this film and she’s simply amazing. But Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov is the real acting masterpiece here. The cruelty on his face is enough for any talented actor to bring up, but Walbrook goes further by showing you not only the cruelty but also the reason behind it, the positive reason for destroying his creation.
Even if you aren’t a ballet fan–and I’m not–you will enjoy the ballet sequences, especially the centerpiece title sequence. Rarely mentioned among the discussions of great dance scenes in movies, the Red Shoes ballet which is at the heart of this film is something that could only be done on film. Any attempt to recreate what you will see in this movie on the stage would be impossible. Ultimately, the movie is the story of self-destruction of the artist.
Although The Red Shoes is probably Powell-Pressburger at their most famous, a curious and rarely-televised film is maybe a bit more representative of their work as a whole. For some reason known as Stairway to Heaven in America, it’s rightful title is A Matter of Life and Death.
Think of Heaven Can Wait on acid and you may come close to picturing this truly bizarre spectacle in your mind. Its starts out innocently enough in technicoloured glory with David Niven flying a bomber during WWII and falling in love with radio operator Kim Hunter. But then he dies! Long before Janet Leigh took a knife in the shower, Powell-Pressburger killed off their star before the movie had really even started.
Except he’s not really dead. A minor mistake occurred, giving Niven a few extra hours of life. Reversing expectations by filming heaven in black and white, Niven’s character submits grounds for a reprieve from death based on the grounds of falling in love just before he bit the big one. Okay, now get ready.
The Collector from heaven who made the mistake comes down to earth to convince him that he must give up. But of course nobody but Niven sees the collector and soon he’s seeing a neurologist and being accused of having hallucinations and talked into having brain surgery. Meanwhile, however, Niven succeeds in getting a trial for himself up in heaven. I won’t give away the verdict, but then again you’ve probably already guessed it.
My favorite Powell-Pressburger film is Black Narcissus. Made right between the aforementioned films, this movie was based in a convent in the Himalayas and you will surely be shocked to learn that every bit of it was filmed inside a studio. Simply stunning. Again, just from the sound of it being set in a convent may put you off, but be aware that this is one of the most intensely erotic movies ever made.
Never has exploded sexual repression ever been made to feel quite so palpable as during the climactic scene when Kathleen Byron’s rejected nun stalks Deborah Kerr. Both women have found themselves attracted to David Farrar and the look on Byron’s face as decides to try to murder Kerr is simply haunting. But even the scenes leading up to this one stand out as being made by masters of the medium working during a three year period of production genius rarely if ever rivaled.
If you haven’t seen at least one of these movies, you surely owe it to yourself to hunt them down. Trust me, once you’ve seen one, you will dedicate yourself to seeing the others.