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The Archers

Over the past couple of years, I've acquainted myself with some of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Known collectively as The Archers, Powell & Pressburger had a string of successful and innovative movies throughout the 1940s and '50s. I haven't watched everything in their collaborative filmography, but have had the pleasure of watching six of their features, and cannot recommend them enough. It's always exciting to discover new, quality entertainment, even when said 'new' entertainment is decades old. Classic cinema is truly a treasure trove of great wonders and ideas.

Just for the heck of it, I've decided to rank and (briefly) overview each of the Powell & Pressburger movies I've seen. If anything on the list sounds like it might tickle your fancy, by all means, check it out. They're available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  All right, here we go:

1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Starting off in present day (for the film), we are quickly moved forty year into the past, to witness the overall career arc of Clive Wynne-Candy, a British Army officer that is deftly portrayed and molded throughout the film by the fine British actor Roger Livesey. The film was notorious for being disliked (at least in its early stages) by Winston Churchill, much of the cause being down to the friendship Wynne-Candy maintains with a German man (played to perfection by Anton Walbrook), despite two world wars. What Blimp shows us, and what Churchill apparently feared would hurt the war effort in the UK, is that international friendship and patriotism can mix. Another treat is the appearance throughout the movie of Deborah Kerr, in three different roles. Her performances are reassuring, yet haunting.

2. I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Roger Livesey appears again in the world of The Archers, this time paired with the talented and delightful Wendy Hiller. In I Know Where I'm Going!, Hiller plays Joan Webster, a resolute young Londoner who believes strongly in herself and her goals in life. She journeys to Scotland, to marry a man older than herself, and also richer. Joan crosses paths with Torquil MacNeil (Livesey), and soon her confidence isn't so confident anymore. At its core, I Know Where I'm Going! is the story of the fine balance between dependence and interdependence, of loneliness and love, and of the flexibility to change one's plans in life. The acting is great, and the setting really seals the deal, with the cottage of Catriona Potts being the icing on the cake.

3. Black Narcissus (1947)

If there is one commonality among the films of Powell & Pressburger, it is their evocation of place. This may perhaps be no more in evidence than with Black Narcissus. Set in the remote Himalayas, the film revolves around the exploits of a group of nuns (led by Deborah Kerr, in another fabulous, understated performance). The nuns' efforts to establish a school and hospital are met with obstacles at nearly every turn, whether it be from the locals, or a British cad named Mr. Dean or, perhaps most insidious and potent of all, from within their own ranks. The setting plays a vital role, becoming its own character in the film, and Alfred Junge deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work here.

4. A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Like many of The Archer's works, A Canterbury Tale takes place during World War II, and centers around the lives of three friends -- two men and a woman. They travel to a small town in Kent, and almost immediately the woman (Sheila Sim) is attacked. The friends encounter the local magistrate, Mr. Colpeper (played by the reliable, if unsettling, Eric Portman), and he plays an important role. Oddly enough, given the title, a majority of the action takes place in the village in Kent, only venturing to Canterbury for about the last half-hour of the film. A Canterbury Tale works, despite arguably being about nothing. Yes, things happen, but it has a fairly loose structure, when compared with most other mainstream films. You just sort of let the movie unfold, and that's okay.

5. 49th Parallel (1941)

Another WWII film, 49th Parallel is a sweeping film, without much epicness to it. First consider the players. Aside from Archers stalwarts Eric Portman and Anton Walbrook, we have Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey. Now, consider the setting: things begin in Hudson Bay, then move to a peaceful German commune outside Winnipeg, then across the rural Canadian countryside and, finally, to the climax at Niagara Falls. Despite the stellar cast and various locales, the film doesn't feel whole. It comes across as loose, disjointed, uneven. There are scenes of great drama and tension, but also periods of meandering. Regardless, even a lesser Power & Pressburger film is still a good movie, and this one serves as a nice propaganda piece, to urge the United States to enter WWII and help its allies.

6. The Red Shoes (1948)

It is no doubt blasphemous to most lovers of classic cinema that The Red Shoes ranks sixth on a list of six movies, but, so it goes. I find this film to be impenetrable. It has legions of fans, from classic film buffs up to Martin Scorsese. Admittedly, I come across as no better than a cinematic plebe for not appreciating this movie, yet its allure eludes me. Starring Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook, watching The Red Shoes one can at least take away the fact that Black Swan owes much to this film that came decades before it. Almost fantasies, both films contend with destructive natures backstage at a ballet, and feature odd duck female protagonists. It is a beauty to behold, however, with excellent cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Watch it to behold gorgeousness on screen, not necessarily for a coherent plot.

And there you have my list. There are, of course, several other movies that were produced by The Archers, but not all of them would appear to be readily available. A shame, as each Powell & Pressburger feature has been a unique film-going experience. I look forward to seeing more, time and movie-gods permitting.


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