6. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway To Heaven as it was retitled in the States) was a commission job, undertaken to sweeten relations between the British and American armed forces. In ‘Bang For Your Buck’ terms, that’s like asking for an educational video about the newspaper industry and getting Citizen Kane. Powell & Pressburger used their remit as a springboard to creating a visual chocolate box of a movie and a paean to fantasy and the heaven-shaking power of true love.
Airman Peter Carter (David Niven) leaps from his burning plane to his certain death in the English Channel. He is as surprised as anyone to wake up on the beach the next day, and he quickly falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator he spoke to before he bailed. This creates a problem for the angelic Conductor (Marius Goring) who was supposed to take Carter to Heaven but missed him in the fog. A celestial trial takes place in which Carter challenges the order of the universe for a chance to stay with the love of his life.
Powell was like a child in a toyshop, conjuring up a magic show of visual trickery – the table-tennis match frozen in time, the eyelid closing over the lens as Carter is anaesthetised, Roger Livesey’s camera obscura, and the literal stairway to Heaven, a triumph of design by art director Alfred Junge. Powell inverts the logic of The Wizard of Oz by shooting the heavenly scenes in black & white and the earthbound action in glorious Technicolor. The juxtaposition makes Jack Cardiff’s colours seem more lush and vibrant than ever. There is, beneath the spectacle, something adorably British about the idea that Heaven is an organised, orderly bureaucracy where spirits queue up for their wings as though they were buying bacon at a delicatessen counter.
7. Black Narcissus (1947)
How spectacularly contrary of P&P that the only film in their canon to deal explicitly with sex and eroticism should be set in a convent full of nuns. Black Narcissus is rightly acclaimed for Jack Cardiff’s photography and Alfred Junge’s miraculous production design (both Oscar winning) which created a completely convincing Himalayan location in Pinewood Studios. Its vertiginous setting is mirrored by the tightrope act of taking melodrama just this side of too far, while never being anything less than utterly gripping.
In many ways, this is more horror movie than drama. Cardiff’s shadow-painted cinematography and shocking crimsons (most famously in lipstick form) anticipating Terence Fisher’s lush and lurid Hammer films by a decade. Like The Thing (1982), the isolated characters are invaded and infected, in this case by thoughts of lust brought on by David Farrar. When Kathleen Byron – absolutely extraordinary as the sister driven mad by jealously and desire – emerges at the operatic climax with murderous intent, she appears to have undergone a vampiric transformation. Sweeping, majestic, underplayed yet totally deranged, there is nothing in British cinema remotely like Black Narcissus.
8. The Red Shoes (1948)
This is one of the most adored films ever made by anyone. The Red Shoes is one of the few movies to deal with and completely capture the mania of artistic obsession. Moira Shearer (making her screen debut) is a prima ballerina caught between the jealous fixation of ice-cold impresario, Anton Walbrook and the pure love of composer Marius Goring. Like the Hans Christian Anderson fable at its centre, what appears to be a romantic fairy-tale turns out to have a cruel, jet-black heart and every resentful decision pulls the characters towards an inevitably tragic conclusion. There’s a reason Scarface director Brian de Palma credits this “ballet movie” as his all time favourite.
The centrepiece of the movie is the celebrated ballet sequence, wherein Shearer’s performance of The Red Shoes becomes a living, breathing surrealist tableau. One of the most dazzlingly inventive scenes in cinema, it captures the out-of-body experience of an artist’s creation-moment; the unlearnable magic that so obsesses Anton Walbrook. This fusion of fantasy, reality and artifice is made all the more perfect by Jack Cardiff’s Degas-like photography. Through Cardiff’s lens, even Moira Shearer’s copper-red hair looks like a special effect.
9. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
It is particularly interesting to revisit The Tales of Hoffmann in 2014, now that grand operas are being filmed and broadcast live in cinemas. That, more or less is Hoffmann in a nutshell: a filmed opera. A lesser creative team might have simply pointed the camera at the stage and hit ‘Record.’ Powell saw this as an opportunity to harness complete control of a production by removing the limitations of the everyday and create pure artistic artifice. The sets, the props and even the actors are rendered deliberately synthetic, and having every last element subject to his control, Powell is free to use an arsenal of cinematic techniques with fluid omnipotence.
There is nothing in cinema to compare to Hoffman, saving Disney’s Fantasia (though its influence falls like a shadow across Joe Wright’s recent stage-bound Anna Karenina (2012)). Like Moira Shearer’s puppet, brought magically to life, it feels like a reanimated silent German Expressionist movie; its miming, staring characters struck dumb by the blinding glory of Technicolor. His cast of dancers is mesmerising to behold in all their multiple roles. Shearer is as expressive as ever, but it is Robert Helpmann who lingers, menacingly in the memory.
Powell could not have known just how much Helpmann’s future role as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) would intensify the discomfort of subsequent viewers. With his bulging eyes, rigid stillness and insect-like gestures, Helpmann is the spider at the centre of this elaborate web. Scorsese and George A Romero have both singled out The Tales of Hoffmann as the film that most influenced them. Little wonder: it is pure cinema.
10. Peeping Tom (1960)
By now, Powell & Pressburger had gone their separate ways. There was no acrimonious, Beatles-like split (they remained the closest of friends for the rest of their lives), merely a desire to plough different fields. As such, it was Michael Powell who alone took the heat for this, one of the most violently unwelcome films ever reviewed. It’s hard to imagine that Powell, mischievous sprite though he was, intended to create such a suicidally intense furore and effectively end his career, but in and around Peeping Tom are hints of business being concluded.
Powell claimed that ‘I am simply cinema,’ and this was his examination of the art form that had obsessed him since he was 16 years old. Nominally, it is the shocking tale of a cameraman Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm, who sadly passed away this year), who murders women with a blade in his camera tripod and films their dying moments. For Powell, this provided a means to open a critical discourse on the questionable effects of cinema and voyeurism (here intrinsically linked). Many of Powell’s old players are here, notably Moira Shearer who is ignobly dispatched at the end of Mark Lewis’s tripod. Powell himself shows up on a roll of film as the killer’s father, torturing his young son in the name of psychological experimentation.
Just as with the Nazis in 49th Parallel, or Anton Walbrook in Colonel Blimp, Powell refuses to paint his characters or themes in crude black and white. Instead of a drooling, twisted lunatic, Mark Lewis is a sweet, child-like figure in a Paddington Bear duffel coat (and has a German accent for absolutely no reason). Rather than use a shocking, stabbing Bernard Herrmann-type score, Powell uses an almost comical silent-movie piano theme by Brian Easdale. In a lovely touch, he cast the blind actor Esmond Knight in the role of the film director. Even fifty fours years down the line, Peeping Tom gets under your skin; an intelligent, demanding and worthy summation of an entire career.
Author Bio: Cai is a food and film writer, with articles published in The Chap, Fire & Knives, Gin & It and Cinema Retro. He is a features writer for HeyUGuys.co.uk and has yet to get over the Jaws obsession which consumed him as a callow youth.