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Michael Powell

Art and Commerce: The Red Shoes and Galaxy of Terror / Forbidden World – DVDs of the Week

The Red Shoes (Criterion)

There’s a real charge to the cinema of Michael Powell, a joy in the play of expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up his films with energy, color, and magic—the magic of love and life and art. That invention and play with cinematic technique sounds like another British director with great directorial control and imagination, Alfred Hitchcock, yet they couldn’t be more different. The unbridled imagination of Powell’s direction (especially in partnership with his creative partner, Emeric Pressberger, who Powell shared director credit with even though his contributions are largely in the writing and producing arenas) feels like an impish schoolboy running wild through the traditions of British cinema, finding ways to give us the subjective experience of his characters, letting the emotions overflow in explosions of cinematic excitement. (It’s no wonder that Scorsese responded to Powell so powerfully; at his best, Scorsese strives for the same kind of subjective perspective with his own style and sensibility.)

Invitation to the dance: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Yet where Hitchcock is celebrated by people who couldn’t tell you the name of even one of his films, Powell remains a cult director beloved by cineastes but known to the world at large mostly for the lush, lavishly realized The Red Shoes. To girls of a certain age and a predisposition to the romance and beauty of ballet, this film is a touchstone that remains an impassioned favorite long after their invitation to the dance is over. For me, it’s a film of dark fantasy, romantic passion and an infectious love of dance, music and cinema. In 2009, The Red Shoes was restored from scratch and the print premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. This is what Criterion used for their new, freshly remastered edition, on DVD and making its debut on Blu-ray.

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Bob, Bing, and the Case of the Traveling Matte

POP QUIZ: In which Powell & Pressburger classic did Bob Hope and Bing Crosby make a cameo appearance?
ANSWER: They didn’t, but The Road to Hong Kong led them (sort of) to the setting of Black Narcissus.

Allow me to explain.

One of the great pleasures of watching older movies is that you can frequently spot how studios recycled their valuable sets, props, costumes and other resources in the interest of stretching their budgets. These days, that hardly ever happens in a way that anyone would notice. For production artists working in the modern digital realm, it’s standard procedure to create images that will never be repeated in any other film. Think of the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy: George Lucas and Peter Jackson would never allow their production resources to be borrowed by other filmmakers unless they’re sufficiently altered to express an entirely new and different identity. As production techniques grew more sophisticated, it became harder (if not impossible) to spot elements of one film appearing in another. Sometimes the recycling is deliberate, but even in franchise sequels it’s generally avoided.

The final "Road" trip (1962)
The final "Road" trip (1962)

Back in the analog days, the physical resources of studios were constantly recycled. Poverty Row quickies used redressed sets, props and costumes out of absolute necessity. Second-tier studios like RKO were similarly obligated to recycle B-movie materials as often as possible, allowing production designers, set dressers and property masters to hone their ingenuity while making everything old seem new again. Major and minor studios alike have always maintained warehouses and storerooms of reusable materials, and some filmgoers (yours truly included) make armchair sport out of spotting studio materials as they constantly appear and reappear, forming their own behind-the-scenes legacy of film-production history.

A surprisingly conspicuous example of this history presented itself recently as I watched a DVR recording of The Road to Hong Kong (1962). This was the seventh and final “Road” comedy starring Hope and Crosby (released a full decade after The Road to Bali), and I’d recorded it during a “Gift of Hope” retrospective on the MGM-HD channel. I had somehow missed the film over the decades (I was a relative latecomer to the Bob & Bing party), so I was delighted to see it presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, with dazzling HD clarity. If you’re going to kill 91 minutes with Bob & Bing, this is the way to do it.

Nobody’s ever going to call The Road to Hong Kong a classic, but with cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, David Niven and others, it’s a perfectly enjoyable lark for Hope & Crosby fans, capitalizing on the early-‘60s popularity of James Bond-ian espionage, the Cold War space race, and hot babes with gravity-defying hairdos. Bob and Bing play Turner & Babcock, a hapless pair of ex-Vaudevillians-turned-fugitive con-artists who get playfully entangled with Joan Collins (youthfully stealing the spotlight from “Road”-movie veteran Dorothy Lamour, who later appears as herself in a contractually obligated cameo required to secure the film’s financing). Joan’s an agent for the Third Echelon, a SPECTRE-like force of villainy led by Robert Morley, doing a roly-poly riff on Dr. No – a full year (according to IMDb release dates) before Dr. No’s U.S. premiere.

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Powell and Hitchcock

[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]

Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail. Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.

"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas [still from the Internet Encyclodedia of Cinematographers]
"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas

I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class. An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments. My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons. I immediately recognized that she was right. Later—awake now, lying in bed—I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films. And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himself—or Powell–Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburger—Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.

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“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog, www.seanax.com, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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