Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Archers and Their Masterpiece Theat...er, I mean Cinema

The good folks over at The Movie Waffler have posed a question to those of us who care enough to listen.  Which director (or directors in my case) has had the best/most productive run/streak of great films.  Now one could easily make an argument that certain directors have never made a bad film and therefore their entire careers would constitute this run.  But even those directors of whom such a claim could be reasonably made, those with a small enough oeuvre, but a powerful enough one as well, to make such a thing possible, if not probable (Kubrick, Welles, Visconti), have a lesser film or two snuggled away in there to stop any ideas of a perfect game.

Sure, Welles' The Stranger is a very good film, but it is certainly no masterpiece, and therefore would break up any streak that would lead Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons to The Lady From Shanghai and Macbeth.  Now Kubrick, with Lolita, Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork and Barry Lyndon would make a strong case for this theory, but Spartacus at one end and The Shining at the other may say otherwise.  Though, I might be tempted to keep it going through The Shining (unlike many, I quite enjoy that film) as well, but I am here to talk about a different streak, from a different time.  It was the 1940's and the directors were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers.

English born Michael Powell and Hungarian born Emeric Pressburger first came together during the war.  Already semi-established as a director and writer respectively, these two were brought together to work on propaganda films for the British war effort.  Some of these earlier films (Contraband, The 49th Parallel) were Hitchcockian thrillers, and quite good, but still nothing compared to what was about to come.  In my not-so-humble opinion, The Archers have created seven - and I do not throw such a term around willy-nilly - bonafide masterpieces.  Six of which were made successively between 1943 and 1948, and it is these six films, in these six years that we are here to talk about - so please allow me to praise great movies.


Starring Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook and, in three roles, the lovely Deborah Kerr (at the time, Michael Powell's lover), and based, at least in name, on a newspaper comic strip, Colonel Blimp, the first of our run, takes place over a fifty year period in the life of a cocksure British officer and the woman/women (all Kerr) who he can never get out of his mind.  Splendid picture indeed.


A Canterbury Tale is probably the least seen and least known of our six film run.  This haunting, otherworldly film tells the story of a group of wayward pilgrims, played by Sheila Sim, Dennis Price and Sgt. John Sweet, an actual U.S. Army soldier in his one and only screen appearance, in the Kent countryside, which incidentally is beautifully filmed by the great cinematographer Erwin Hillier.


Another otherwordly-style film from The Archers, I Know Where I'm Going stars Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey (and a twelve year old Petula Clark long before she went "Downtown") as a pair of wouldbe lovers trapped by a storm in the highlands of Scotland.  The film's penultimate raging sea scenes and the inevitable finale, make an already great picture into a true blue masterpiece.


Renamed Stairway to Heaven for US release (something that goes against the whole idea of the film never mentioning Heaven or any specific afterlife) A Matter of Life and Death is the magical tale of an RAF pilot and the American woman he falls in love with - after he has supposedly died - is a beautiful film to watch (Earth-bound scenes in Technicolor, After-Life realm in crisp monochrome B&W).   


Black Narcissus, my second favourite Powell/Pressburger, is the haunting story of a group of nuns - headed by the always great Deborah Kerr - temporarily inhabiting a mountaintop nunnery (previously a princely whorehouse) and deals with the ideas of spirituality and the loss of faith.  Archer regular Kathleen Byron, as the bewildered Sister Ruth, is the sexy/creepy highlight of a film already filled to the brim with highlights.


The Red Shoes is not only my favourite Archer's film, but my favourite film of all-time - period.  Starring the beautiful flame-haired ballet star turned actress Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, who lives to dance, and Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring as the men who are splitting her emotions tragically in half.  Shot by Jack Cardiff, one of the finest cinematographers in film history, Martin Scorsese has called this the most beautiful colour film ever made - and who am I to disagree with that.

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There you go.  Six films, six years, six masterpieces.  Now one could make an argument that I could go on and add the duo's next film, 1949's The Small Back Room, to this list, but I am going to back off from such a thing since I do not think it quite reaches the heights of these aforementioned six works of art.  As for their next film, The Elusive Pimpernel, I cannot say, as it is a film that, having been in itself rather elusive, I have never seen (believe it or not, there is a Powell/Pressburger that has not been seen by yours truly).  After this, we could add another film to the list (if we were not going for that unbroken thing) in the form of 1950's Gone to Earth, with Jennifer Jones and David Farrar.  This film is that seventh bonafide masterpiece I spoke of in my opening salvo.  But alas, we are going for a streak here, so it will have to just sit and watch its six brethren take their day in the spotlight.  Well, that is it for now folks.  Have a good day.

1 comment:

Michaël Parent said...

I haven't seen A Canterbury Tale yet. But I can say that the other five films are worth any great film. Any director would have loved to have such a streak. Very good piece Kevyn!