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Five Classic Powell and Pressburger Films

Five amazing films from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of cinema's greatest creative partnerships.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

This was the fifth from the Archers (the name of Powell and Pressburger's production company) and the first in glorious technicolor. Despite the title, the film has nothing to do with David Low's satirical comic strip. Instead, it tells an original tale about Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), a stereotypical British officer and gentleman who struggling to deal with the way the world (and war) changes throughout the first half of the 20th century. The standout scene belongs to Candy's lifelong friend, Theo (played by Archers regular Anton Walbrook), a German soldier who delivers a heartbreaking monologue to British immigration officials about how he lost his country and his children to Nazism, something that Walbrook (a gay man of Jewish descent who fled Austrian in 1936) was all too familiar with.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

"This is the universe. Big, isn't it?"

Thus begins one of the most charming and romantic fantasy films every made. It's the story of an RAF pilot (David Niven) who falls in love with American radio operator (Kim Hunter) on the night he is meant to die in a plane crash. But there's a terrible fog across the English Channel that night so when he bails out of his plane without a parachute the angels miss him. He returns to England and his new love, but the celestial powers, eager to correct their mistake, won't leave him be and he soon finds himself on trial for his very life and afterlife. This was the first of three films the duo made with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. In a reverse of The Wizard of Oz, the afterlife is depicted in black and white while the real world is in glorious colour, prompting one character to cheekily remark "One is starved for Technicolor up there."

Black Narcissus (1947)

Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, the duo's tenth film revolves around the growing tensions within a small convent of Anglican nuns (led by Deborah Kerr) who are trying to establish a school and hospital in an old palace on an isolated mountain in the Himalayas (actually a set at Pinewood Studios using some stunning matte painting work by W. Percy Day). One by one the nuns start to fall under the strange spell of this remote location and the allure of local expat Mr. Dean, none more so than Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth, whose final descent into madness is the stuff of nightmares.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The duo's masterpiece, a reworking of the Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale about a woman who is unable to stop dancing when she puts on a magical pair of red shoes. It stars Moira Shearer as Vicky Page, an aspiring dancer torn between the composer she loves and the tyrannical ballet company impresario who offers her the stage she desperately craves. The Red Shoes tells a dark and tragic tale of love, obsession and dance, but does so with such vibrancy and colour. The central 15-minute ballet sequence, where Vicky first dances the Red Shoes, is one of the most spell-bounding scenes ever put on the big screen.

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

Following the release of The Red Shoes, the Archers entered a period of decline that often saw Powell and Pressburger clash with American studio heads over final cuts and take job directing generic war films neither really cared for. The Tales of Hoffman, their visually stunning adaption of Jacques Offenbach's fantasy opera, itself based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, is probably the duo's last great work.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

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