Based on an opera written by two guys named Bela, Powell and his golden-era designer Hein Heckroth went nuts with colored lights and jagged sculptures on this newly-restored musical. Judith gives up her old life for his castle, but finds it dank, and insists he open the seven closed doors. She doesn’t much like his bloody torture chamber, or the armory full of bloody swords, or that the walls and even the flowers are bleeding, but keeps insisting she’s not afraid. Behind door five is a view of Bluebeard’s vast kingdom, and now she sees blood in the clouds, might be hallucinating. Door six is his pool of tears, no points for guessing what else appears in that pool. BB seems really unhappy, not sure what he’s getting out of all the killing. Judith says he might as well open the last door since she’s already guessed it’s full of women he murdered. He credits his three previous zombie-statue wives with the glories of his kingdom, each representing different times of day, says Judith will be his midnight girl, “night belong to you forever.”

A long, complicated movie – Criterion summary:

The film follows the exploits of pristine British soldier Clive Candy as he battles to maintain his honor and proud gentlemanly conduct through romance, three wars, and a changing world. Vibrant and controversial, it is at once a romantic portrait of a career soldier and a pointed investigation into the nature of aging, friendship, and obsolescence.

Blimp in WWI with John Laurie:

I wrote in 2006: “Oops, I thought this was a comedy. I’d somehow convinced myself that Powell makes comedies and I’m never right.”

At the beginning, the movie seems to be about fiery young soldier Spud, then he disappears for 2.5 hours while Candy goes into a “when I was your age” story. This threw me off the first time I saw the movie, as did Deborah Kerr’s various roles. Throwing me this time: Roger Livesey, handsome romantic lead of I Know Where I’m Going, so convincing as a blowhard old man.

Not covered by the summary above: Candy’s lifelong friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Candy provokes an international incident in the early 1900’s (during the Boer War) and gets himself into a duel with Theo, then they recover together, both in love with Deborah Kerr #1, who marries Theo. In WWI, Candy meets Deborah #2, a nurse, and marries her. And in WWII, Theo has moved to England and Deborah #3 is dating young Spud, is a favorite assistant of Candy’s for obvious reasons.

Deborah Kerr thinks highly of me:

No character in the film is named Col. Blimp – he was a political cartoon character, a blustery old officer who proclaims his dated ideas in a Turkish bath, the WWII version of Candy. The movie’s a bit long and rambling, but a total pleasure to watch, with color cinematography that is beyond excellent. One of my very favorites.

Duelist Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff:

Powell sounds soooo tired on the commentary.
On Kerr: “I got enthusiastic about her hats.”

Scorsese is more fun. I like when he appreciates the visual design while also saying that you don’t have to care about this stuff if you don’t want to:

Look at the use of red in the menus … These are things I kind of enjoy. I don’t say that as you’re watching the film you should be pointing out where the red is. I think you should just look at the movie and enjoy it, hopefully, and probably you shouldn’t be even listening to this narration, you should be watching the film.

Grumpy sailor Andrew is assisting a couple of pleasure-cruisers (the man is played by Powell himself) who want to visit a deserted island. Atop the mountainous island, Andrew finds a tombstone and tells them his story in flashback. Just an amazing-looking movie, shot on “the lonely island of Foula,” an instant cure for my complaints that Design For Living was too talky with no visual imagination.

Andrew sees dead people:

Back before the island was deserted, Andrew (Niall MacGinnis, the reformed nazi in 49th Parallel) was best buds with Robbie, and liked Rob’s sister Ruth. Robbie had decided to leave the island, and there were few able young men left, especially after Rob’s decision became final when he died during a mountain-climbing race, so their fathers (Finlay Currie of Corridors of Blood, and prominently-sideburned John Laurie of The 39 Steps) and the other elders decide to gather their sheep and abandon the island. Meanwhile the couple can’t be together since Andrew is blamed for his sweetie’s brother’s death, but fortunately he got her pregnant, so her father says the hell with it and allows the wedding.

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

The film refuses to conclude with this couple – refuses to use them as a summing-up of what the picture is really about, as almost any American movie would. Eerily, these characters are dwarfed first and last by their awesome physical surroundings, and by the nurturing community they come from, which looms second largest in Powell’s sense of a natural order.

Sideburns falls off a cliff during a plot contrivance the evacuation, leaving behind a tombstone for Andrew to find years later. It’s kind of a negative movie, actually, but so wonderful to watch that it hardly matters. IMDB says Powell overshot the film and credits his editor for saving it.

I have Powell’s autobiography but haven’t the time to read whatever he wrote on Edge of the World just now – and apparently he wrote a whole separate book just on the making of this film.

Yachtsman Powell with his future wife Frankie Reidy:

Return to the Edge of the World (1978)

A lot like Agnes Varda’s DVD extras, returning to scene of a film made many years ago, reconnecting with some participants, but putting in real effort to produce more than a simple nostalgia (or marketing) piece. Alarming to watch them closely together and see everyone get old so fast.

The sixth-and-a-half Powell movie I’ve shown to Katy. I always think of Powell/Pressburger films as the kind of thing she’ll love, despite the fact that she hasn’t loved any, and has roundly disliked at least three. This one was going well, with a strong-willed female lead until, cornered by her confusion and desire, she falls down a well to her death. Sorry, Katy.

Hazel (Jennifer Jones) is lovely with a disconcerting gypsy accent, lives with her father Esmond Knight (just saw him in Contraband), who doesn’t seem blind at all in this movie. Rich asshole David Farrar (also kinda an asshole in Black Narcissus) hotly desires her, but she hides away from him and finally marries meek minister Cyril Cusack (Odd Man Out, Fahrenheit 451). They sleep in separate bedrooms and he can’t bring himself to touch her – shades of Smiles of a Summer Night – and so she ends up back with David Farrar, shaming her husband and outraging his mother (Sybil Thorndike) and congregation. Hazel is attracted/repelled by Farrar all along, and he seems like the love ’em-and-leave ’em type but obsesses over Hazel for years, so it’s unclear just how this is going to work out. Of course it doesn’t – she tries to run from everybody at once, wild like her pet fox (thanks, Katy) towards certain doom.

Jennifer Jones and David Farrar:

Cyril Cusack:

We knew that the fiery pagan girl wouldn’t be easily domesticated by her mild Christian husband, and would’ve known very well that she wouldn’t live through the movie if we’d paid attention to the signs: the film’s title, the bottomless pit shown in the first act, and the fact that the first time we see her at home, she’s framed inside a coffin.

Strong, deep colors and expert production design, as expected from a Powell/Pressburger/Heckroth picture. My favorite character was Andrew Vessons (Hugh Griffith) as Farrar’s contemptuous coachman. Movie was cut down considerably by David O. Selznick for the U.S. release with added close-ups and explanation, doing nothing for the film’s reputation.

A couple of characters: Hugh Griffith above and Esmond Knight below

I’ve seen a lot of wartime films by the Powell/Pressburger crew, but this one was the most fun.

Neutral ship captain Conrad Veidt (Casablanca and Thief of Bagdad baddie) and his passengers and crew are stuck at a British port having their ship searched for contraband, when a tough-talkin’ broad (Valerie Hobson of Bride of Frankenstein, Kind Hearts and Coronets) slips away. Conrad secretly follows her to shore, finds out she’s a spy, gets involved in hijinks, and foils some sort of nazi plot.

They’re all gonna laugh at you, Conrad:

To attract police attention to the baddies’ lair, Conrad turns on all the lights during the war blackout:

It was easy to follow at the time, but a month later the details are hazy. I remember the girl’s co-conspirator was Mr. Pigeon (Esmond Knight, the old guy who tosses an arrow into the king at the start of Robin and Marian), that the baddy is Van Dyne (Raymond Lovell, later in 49th Parallel). They recruit an excitable Danish chef, the brother of an officer on Conrad’s ship (played by the same actor since they share no scenes), who almost steals the film.

The credits boldly name this scene the “White Negro” Cabaret:

A. Ives for Senses:

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger … would later get into considerable trouble with Churchill on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when they suggested that not all Germans were bad, and that traditional British codes of honour were meaningless in fighting such a ruthless enemy as the Nazis. Britain had to fight dirty, they essentially argued. These theories are also propagated by Contraband, if in a somewhat undercooked fashion. So Veidt fights dirty as he tracks down the Nazis – beating up some British officers in his quest – while the meta-cinema of Contraband (mentioned above) clearly shows an affection for a lost Germany [references Fritz Lang, stars Conrad from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari].

Inside the nazi lair:

Our friendly spies are surely doomed:

But wait! Conrad’s in the elevator with a gun:

Shootout ensues in a bust warehouse:

“Do you think that we Hollanders who threw the sea out of our country will let the Germans have it? Better the sea.”

Pressburger’s first producer/director credit after a decade of writing in the movies – including Powell’s 49th Parallel, The Spy In Black and Contraband. Shot by Ronald Neame and edited (as was 49th Parallel) by David Lean. Early on were some wondrous airborne shots of the city below lit up by bombs and anti-aircraft fire – I couldn’t tell if it was stock footage or superior special effects.

A pip of a war thriller, more exciting than 49th Parallel. After a British bomber is shot down over Holland, the soldiers (who all parachuted to safety) have to find their stray comrade, contact the resistance and make their way to the border, nearly getting caught a bunch of times.

Note nazi officer silhouette in the organist’s mirror:

Sure, all the guys have different jobs and hobbies and personalities, but the movie is pretty story-driven, so I didn’t get strong enough individual impressions to tell them all apart and remember who was who – figuring most of this out from IMDB. Older guy George, rear gunner, was the villain in The 39 Steps. I recognized Eric Portman from A Canterbury Tale. Hugh Williams (who later starred in Pressburger’s solo film Twice Upon a Time) was an actor in civilian life, so gets dressed as a woman when they hide out in church with the villagers. Front gunner Bernard Miles was in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake. Pilot Hugh Burden played in Ghost Ship and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, and Emrys Jones (the stray Bob, a soccer player) appeared in The Small Back Room.

The bailed-out men are found immediately by children who report them to Pamela Brown (I Know Where I’m Going, Tales of Hoffmann). She surprisingly makes them prove their identities to make sure they’re not nazi spies trying to entrap the resistance leaders, then smuggles them (via the costumes and the church) on to priest Peter Ustinov (voice of Prince John) then on to Googie Withers (of Night and the City) who gets them to a boat at great personal risk – in fact, I’m not sure how she gets out alive at the end. Somewhere along the way they come across Bob at a soccer game, natch, and Ustinov squares off against nazi sympathizer Robert Helpmann (Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann). During their boat escape, one (George?) is shot, but in the epilogue they’re all alive, well and flying missions again – target: Berlin.

Also watched:
An Airman’s Letter to His Mother (1941, Michael Powell)

…which was exactly that – a letter written to be delivered in case of his death, then delivered when he died. One of those super-patriotic messages, which was published in all the papers and filmed by Powell, I guess in order to reach cinemagoers who don’t read the papers.

The kind of movie that I appreciate more after watching it than during. Having read nothing about it beforehand, I spent much of the runtime wondering why P&P made a wartime movie about three strangers casually hanging out in a small country town near Canterbury, trying to solve the mystery of a man who throws glue in girls’ hair. Not that I minded, since it moves along at a fair pace and is lovely to look at, but as it was ending I finally realized it’s another kind of propaganda movie, better and more subtle than 49th Parallel, perhaps with a similar emotional development to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (though it’s been a while since I’ve seen that one).

Of course, “more subtle than 49th Parallel” doesn’t mean it was a subtle movie, and I have a caveat about the pacing, too: John Sweet as Bob Johnson (not a film actor, but an actual U.S. army sergeant) delivers his lines with such cowboy cadence, I felt like I could’ve watched a whole other movie during the gaps between words.

On Bob’s way to Canterbury, a proper city with cathedrals and stuff, he gets waylaid in a small town, and a fellow traveler, here to relive a vacation she spent with her presumed-dead soldier fiancee, gets attacked by the glue man. To solve the mystery, the girl (Sheila Sim of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) asks past glue victims in town for clues, Bob recruits the two warring armies of children (the film’s highlight, like a friendly Rome Open City) and their new British friend Peter (Dennis Price, who would return in Oh… Rosalinda!!) gets to know local historian Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman of 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing). Colpeper turns out to be the glue man – of course, being the first-billed actor and the main personality about town – but the ‘why’ is more interesting than the ‘who.’ He’s trying to scare local girls from dating visiting soldiers while their own men are off at war. Colpeper has an all-around weird way of seeing things, maybe just too British for my understanding, but he’s not a bad fellow.

L-R: Bob, Sheila and Dennis

In the end our pilgrims make it to Canterbury and each receives a blessing: Bob finds out that his girl hasn’t been responding to his letters because she moved to Sydney, not because she’s leaving him. Dennis, a theater organist before the war, gets to play the Canterbury Cathedral organ. And Sheila finds out her man is still alive. I don’t know how to do the movie justice with my little plot descriptions – it was all very moving. Also notable for being the film that killed Margaret Mitchell. On her way to see it, she got run down by a drunk at Peachtree and 13th, a few miles from here.

P. Von Bagh:

A Canterbury Tale is about clues, not as in a detective story (although the search for the mysterious “glue man” almost qualifies it as one), but clues leading to what is most essential or, perhaps, the real “why we fight” of life: culture, landscape, history, the senses. These things are woven into a slight double narrative, simultaneously very rich and very absurd …

Why do we fight? This wartime question was given an impeccable, contemporary answer by the Frank Capra team, in the United States, and by the documentarian-poet Humphrey Jennings, in England. The Archers, though, were stretching the boundaries, as if reaching for another reality. The film seems to be strictly about the everyday, while at the same time dealing with things almost never touched upon in cinema. The immaterial made concrete by the camera work of Erwin Hillier. A wholly fantastic mise-en-scène by Powell, intriguing because he does exactly the same and more with “realist” and “documentary” material as with studio magic, and with a unique activation of human senses, made sacred through the purest means of cinema. And all this based on the strangest of scenarios, developed by the greatest writer of cinema (at least since F. W. Murnau’s Carl Mayer): Emeric Pressburger.

Eric Portman’s Colpeper can be ranked with another great Powell and Pressburger character, Anton Walbrook’s harsh/gentle impresario Boris Lermontov, in The Red Shoes (1948). Colpeper might expound his philosophy in a ruthless way, but he is certain that he is acting for the cause of Culture (as Lermontov does for the cause of Art), without compromise. For characters with such a twisted perception of the world, their fight can only be strange.

Shots below are from the prologue, which cuts forward hundreds of years, from a pilgrim watching his hunting falcon to a modern soldier watching a spitfire fighter, a possible influence on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I watched this shortly before Trash Humpers, and judging from my notes, I’d already had more gin than I realized at the time. In place of the usual plot points and character names, I wrote down phrases that make me laugh, like “Bob’s your uncle” and when a young soldier is called “old man.” So feel free to blame the gin when I say this wasn’t one of my favorite Powell/Pressburger joints.

Weapons testing at Stonehenge:

I remember people mentioning this one when The Hurt Locker was out, both being about a damaged bomb defuser during wartime. Jeremy Renner was more psychologically damaged than this movie’s David Farrar (also of Gone to Earth), who is physically damaged, with a humiliating false foot (never seen by the audience, unlike Capt. John’s leg in Renoir’s The River). There’s a big solo bomb-defusal scene at the end with clamps and “reaching rods” – a low-key replacement for the awesome bomb suits in Hurt Locker, not that those suits helped much when bombs exploded. But most of the movie is a quiet, simmering backstage drama behind the war effort, with the munitions people trying to sell an idiotic government minister on some shoddy weaponry until Farrar finally exposes the whole thing – shadows of the Colonel Blimp theme of doing what’s right for the war effort versus what’s traditionally expected.

Our three heroes, conveniently in the same camera shot:

Of course there’s a girl – Kathleen Byron of Black Narcissus – a coworker who likes our bomb man, as well as a kind older professor (Milton Rosmer of The Lion Has Wings), a young specialist (Cyril Cusack of The Fighting Pimpernel) and an upright captain (Michael Gough, lumpy guy in The Horror of Dracula) who enlists the research unit to solve the mystery of booby-trapped cylinders the Germans have been dropping out of planes (he gets blown up at the end before Farrar takes the stage). My favorite character was a celebratory bottle of whiskey that hovers in forced perspective, always haunting the alcoholic Farrar with temptation.

A tough year to be nominated for best British film – if Kind Hearts and Coronets doesn’t beat you, The Third Man will.

N. James for Criterion:

The Small Back Room presents the relationship between Sammy and Susan in fairly realistic terms. In the novel the two live together; this could not be shown in British cinema of the period. Kathleen Byron claims the credit for the elegant solution of having the two live across the hall from each other. … The Small Back Room grapples with the sticky, intractable problems of a live-in relationship … Its depiction of companionship and care on the brink of catastrophe conceals a deeper undertow of romantic commitment to risk.

Watched again with Katy, three years after buying the DVD intending to show it to her – and she liked it! Watched by myself April 2006, and wrote as my fifth entry for this blog: “Total children’s fantasy with brilliant colors except for the occasional harsh violence (beheading talk, arrows shot into the bad guys’ skulls). Nice to see a British/American movie set in Iraq with good guys named Ahmad and Abu who praise Allah every few scenes. Of course the effects are great and of course the princess falls in love way too easily. Our hero was sorta goofy, but Abu the thief is wonderful. Neat how it begins in the middle (blind Ahmad) then hits the full backstory before proceeding.”

Holy cow. Shot over two years. Remake of a Fairbanks movie. Shot like a silent film, conceptualized as a musical, and directed by six different people. Interrupted by the war, so it was put on hold to make propaganda piece The Lion Has Wings. Constant script revisions. Whole segments excised a few weeks before release. Early scenes with Sabu unusable because he grew so much during the hiatus. Shot in two countries with a relatively new color process and an unprecedented array of special effects. Could have ended up an unsalvagable mess instead of the beautiful-looking smoothly-edited story it is.

I love this giant foot. Of the stars, Sabu was Indian and genie Rex Ingram was black, “born on a riverboat on the Mississippi River,” making this an unusually multicultural film for 1940 Britain.

Young Sabu never gets to be a romantic hero, but the romantic hero is boring. Sabu shoots the villain in the forehead with a crossbow (Jaffar’s mechanical horse then falls to pieces mid-air, a startling scene) and escapes his appointed pink-clothed life as John Justin’s vizier, flying away on the magic carpet in search of adventure.

Princess June Duprez was in other Korda pictures The Four Feathers and The Lion Has Wings, and a Rene Clair movie.

Jaffar was Conrad Veidt. Good at playing a villain, he’d portray the chief nazi in Casablanca the year before he died, and in the silent era he starred in The Hands of Orlac and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (as the somnambulist). Miles Malleson, the old toy-obsessed Sultan, wasn’t really so old – he acted for the next 25 years, including in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Stage Fright and Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Cheese-headed stage actor (obviously) John Justin became a Ken Russell regular in the 70’s.