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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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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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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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 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 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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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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