Michael Powell

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A Matter Of Life And Death Review

When a modern viewer considers the work of Michael Powell -- whose perverse Peeping Tom is a cult classic -- a tender love story that defies death -- yes, a little like Ghost -- is not something that typically comes to mind.

Yes, sure, Powell (and frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger) made family fare like The Red Shoes, but A Matter of Life and Death (often known by its alternate title, Stairway to Heaven) is something entirely else. To wit: The story involves a British airman named Peter (David Niven), who is on the verge of crashing his plane during his World War II mission, and spends his last moments before bailing out speaking over the radio to American wireless operator June (Kim Hunter), with whom he makes a special connection. Peter jumps before crashing, but is surprised to find himself washing up ashore, fully intact. And wouldn't you know it, he soon encounters June, and the two are immediately in love.

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49th Parallel Review

A contingent of Nazi naval officers are stranded on the Canadian mainland after their U-boat, on the prowl in Hudson Bay, is destroyed. They resolve to trek across Canada, then either cross the border to still-neutral U.S.A. or find passage on a non-Allied boat back to the Fatherland. Director Michael Powell stages their odyssey as a series of politically charged set-pieces as the disdainful Nazis find their beliefs tested by a cross-section of Canadian clichés, from French-Canadian trappers (among whom is Laurence Olivier attempting a dead-on imitation of Pepe Le Pew), Native Americans, and Eskimos to a WASP-y outdoorsman (Leslie Howard), ordinary Joe's, and the members of a religious commune. Leading the goose-steppers is Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman), maniacally loyal to his Führer and whose sneer can't be anything but villainous.

The title of Michael Powell's WWII propaganda actioner refers to the boundary separating the United States and Canada. A suitably righteous narrator tells us it's the world's only undefended national border and, as such, befits the values of peace and democracy shared by the two countries. 49th Parallel isn't a strident call to arms meant to guilt-trip Americans into re-thinking their neutrality, but rather a tribute to the Canadian (and to all free-thinking) people who were already involved in the anti-Nazi effort. By praising democratic values and warning of the Nazi threat looming over the free world, 49th Parallel was director Michael Powell's roundabout exhortation to the American people to join the good fight.

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A Canterbury Tale Review

Virtually every film that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made together is a cult classic to some degree (with Peeping Tom a must-see). A Canterbury Tale is one of their lost classics, a quieter, smaller movie that has more heart and less dramatics than much of their later fare.

As the title suggests, the film is a sort of update of the Chaucer book, giving us four WWII-era pilgrims taking the train along the "old road" through southern England which winds up in Canterbury. The action begins with American soldier Bob Johnson (Sergeant John Sweet, credited thusly because he was a real sergeant) getting off at the wrong station on a foggy night. Turns out Canterbury is up the road a bit, and he's stuck in Chillingbourne for the evening, along with land girl Alison (Sheila Sim), and British soldier Peter (Dennis Price). The make out for the hotel but are soon waylaid by this small town's sole criminal enterprise: The Glue Man, who puts glue in women's hair and runs away unseen.

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Dirty Mary Crazy Larry Review

A throwaway car-chase flick that squanders the talents of Susan George and Peter Fonda, this 1974 B-movie is mainly of interest to aficionados of car-chase flicks and gearheads who know their way around 1969 Dodge Chargers.

The plot, such as it is, involves Larry (Fonda), a would-be NASCAR driver, and his mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke), pulling off a heist and then scrambling to get out of an anonymous county - but not before picking up Mary (George). Mary is "dirty" because, we learn, she's had sex on more than one occasion; Larry is "crazy" because he drives recklessly, without a seatbelt. The filmmakers' attempts to create some witty romantic banter between these two crazy kids come are rhythmless and hackneyed, like Sullivan's Travels in a heroin nod; the chase scenes are nothing new to anybody who's caught five minutes of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. It finishes off with a ridiculous, insulting final scene that gives new meaning to the term "crashing bore."

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The Edge Of The World Review

Not to be confused with The Center of the World, this 1937 film will mainly be of interest to fans of director Michael Powell, whose Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (among others) have become classics of the cinema.

The Edge of the World is one of Powell's early films, a stark story about life on an inhospitable island off the coast of Scotland. In fact, it's so inhospitable that half of the community feels it's time to leave altogether. To settle the matter, two of the young men who reside there decide to race to the top of the local cliff face -- the winner chooses whether they go or stay. Alas, tragedy ensues during the climb, and the clannish residents of the island become even more embittered than ever.

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The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp Review

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is not about a Colonel named Blimp. Instead it is a long, epic film about a British soldier named Clive Candy. Directed in 1943 -- by the amazing duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the film is not quite as triumphant as their many collaborations, but if you stick with it for its 163 minute running time it is ultimately rewarding.

The film is told in flashback and covers the time period from 1902, well before World War I, to 1943, near the end of World War II. In that time the world went through major changes most specifically in the way wars were fought. Clive Candy (played by the hoarse-voiced actor Roger Livesey) is a relic of the past. He is a soldier who defines war by a 19th century paradigm in which war was considered a gentleman's game - an old-fashioned way of thinking about modern combat.

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Black Narcissus Review

Very Good
Widely hailed as one of the most beautiful films ever shot, Black Narcissus is a strange tale of Anglican nuns who establish a convent in an extremely remote region of the Himalayas. Obviously not a great idea, but weird locals, altitude sickness, and sketchy personal pasts all conspire against the gals. To be sure, the cinematography of Narcissus -- notably an ending that must have stuck in Hitchcock's mind for decades -- is to die for, utterly pioneering for its time and deserving of its two Academy Awards (art direction and cinematography), but its story has never totally grabbed me. Sure, women of the cloth might have demons in their pasts. Doesn't everyone? The ending is chilling, but the subplots fall flat, including two about a local wild-woman and a studious boy who wants to learn everything there is to know. Should've stuck to those crazy nuns.

Peeping Tom Review

Movie critics in England didn't just pan Peeping Tom when it was released in 1960 - they eviscerated it. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer," one critic blared, joining a chorus of voices calling it "sick," "nasty," and "beastly." The film was pulled from theaters in less than a week, and the foofaraw all but ended director Michael Powell's big-screen career, which was built on outsize - and much more polite - successes like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. It wasn't until the late '70s, when Martin Scorsese celebrated the film, that it began finding audiences again.

In most movie-business tales like this one, you can later look at the film in question and wonder what the fuss was all about. That's not the case here. Peeping Tom remains an intense, thoroughly disarming film about madness - not cackling, loony-bin madness, but the sort of insanity where the person is painfully aware of just what's cracked inside him. Psycho, to which this movie's often compared (they were released the same year) eventually reveals Norman Bates as utterly certifiable. That doesn't happen to Mark Lewis (a tremendous Carl Boehm), the handsome gent who spends his days as a focus puller at a film studio and his nights killing women - and filming the proceedings. Only until the very end is Lewis revealed as unsalvageable - until then, you're half rooting for the guy, and that's both the brilliance and the horror of the film.

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