The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943

Director – Michael Powell

Starring – Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, and Anton Walbrook

Throughout the history of cinema, pairings of filmmakers emerge who, together, can magnify and build upon each others abilities to create something that neither could have done alone. Often times these partnerships are comprised of a director and an actor, but its not limited to those two positions. For every Scorsese and DeNiro, there is a Tarantino and Lawrence Bender, or a Hitchcock and Bernard Herrman. Despite the job titles involved these partnerships can be very fruitful, but there is no more celebrated combination of talents than those of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seems to be the culmination of that particular pairing, though I can hardly profess to know for sure.  I decided to watch the movie in an attempt to follow along with the Powell/Pressburger movie marathon put on by the boys at the Filmspotting podcast.  Till that point I had, of course, heard the names of the famous duo, but I had no idea of their impact on the film industry.  So despite my having seen The Red Shoes before this film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp counts as my awakening to their particular brand of humor, whimsy, and romance.

Blimp  follows the unlikely friendship of Clive Candy, a young British officer, and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German officer with whom Candy is assigned to fight a duel after a misunderstanding between their respective countries.  Each man is seriously wounded in the duel and they grow close to one another in the hospital.  Theo eventually falls in love with his friend’s companion Edith Hunter, and risks another duel to ask for her hand in marriage. 

The film opens a few years from the beginning of  World War 1, and goes all the way through the Nazi build-up of the second World War.  Though they don’t see each other often, when the pair does have occasion to meet, it is clear that each man treasures his friendship with the other more than anything.  Even Candy’s fascination with Theo’s new bride, seemed to me to be simply an extension of his desire to connect with his friend more often.  Though he obviously has deep feelings for Mrs. Hunter as well. 

Each man grows from the idealism of youth, to the comfort of middle age, and into the winter years of their lives all the while enduring wars, the deaths of loved ones, and the political and social challenges that go along with being on opposite sides of massive turmoil and conflict.

Roger Livesey plays the stout, indomitable Clive Candy, in all his bombastic glory.  Ever the positive go getter, Livesey imbues Candy with a certain innocence that runs contrary to all the conflict and horror the character has seen in his lifetime.  Theo, played by Anton Walbrook, is a bit more of a stuffed shirt, and in his earlier years a bit more pessimistic thanks to Germany’s loss of the first World War.  Ultimately he provides a fine counterpoint to Candy, however, as both men vie for the attention and affection of the different incarnations of Mrs. Hunter, played memorably by Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays Hunter, but also plays the woman who Candy ultimately marries, Barbara Wynne, and eventually the driver hired by Candy, Johnny Cannon.  The fact that each of these three characters looks similar is simply for the benefit of Candy and Theo.  Beyond the exterior, these three women are different characters in their own rights.

Pressburger’s script is able to maintain the dry, sometimes zany, British humor without losing any of the real emotional heft, and Powell’s direction gives the actors room to make these characters their own.  In the hands of another writer/director team, that fine line of humor and heart could easily have been lost.

Cinematographically speaking, Blimp is positively glowing in rich Technicolor tones, and dreamy 1940’s set pieces.  George Perinal, the film’s cinematographer, was also responsible for the look of another of my favorite films from this list so far, Le Million.  Perinal manages to keep that certain dreamy quality that I loved so much from Le Million, and use it in a completely different way in Blimp.

The one rather confusing, although ultimately unimportant, problem I had with this movie, was the fact that I waited quite a while for the character Colonel Blimp to show himself.  Well, actually that’s not entirely true.  Once I was caught up in the story, I stopped caring about the title so much, but it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until I looked up the reference to the stodgy British militarism on Wikipedia afterwards.  Check that out here if you are so inclined.  That one quibble shouldn’t prevent you from seeing this film, it didn’t stop me!

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

MasqueoftheRedDeath

The Masque of the Red Death – 1964

Director – Roger Corman

Starring – Vincent Price

Despite it’s lofty source material, and it’s pedigree of themes, this Roger Corman directed version of  The Masque of the Red Death seems more interested in cheap spectacle than it is in characterization and story-telling.  This isn’t necessarily bad, as sometimes cheap spectacle, gratuitous cleavage, and gaudy thrills is just what the doctor ordered.

The Masque of the Red Death stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a sadistic and cruel ruler of a castle overlooking a small town.  As the story begins, he is verbally attacked by one of the towns people who are sick of the mis-treatment, and abuse they receive from him.  Prospero sentences the man and one of his compatriots to death, but before this can be carried out, the wife and daughter respectively of the two men, pleads for their lives.  Seeing a game, and some amusement in all of this, Prospero brings them all to his castle.  On their way out of the small town he discovers a kind of plague called the Red Death in the village, and orders the town burned to the ground.  From here, the story takes place completely at Prince Prospero’s opulent castle. 

Not having seen a Roger Corman film before, I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The sets were bargain basement.  They consisted of a couple of shoddy props dressed up with strong lighting and color, and this ended up being the true star of the show.  The craft of the film was, at best, shoestring, and at worst, threadbare.  The acting was hammy and overwrought, and the motivation of the characters seemed cartoonish and exaggerated. 

That being said, I can understand the motivation for making something like this.  I have to imagine the goal was to spend as little time and money on a feature film, quickly edit it and get it out there, and try to make as much money with it as humanly possible.  I can understand the attraction of audiences wanting to see a movie like this.  I enjoyed myself, after all.  It was full of campy hilarity, and it kept me busy for an hour and a half.  And I understand the historical significance that Roger Corman and Russ Meyer played in the movie industry.  Each man brought film-making a step closer to the people, and a step further from the studio’s control.  They gave the first chances at directing to some of those who would be considered the best of the best from the 70’s through the present (Scorsese, Cameron, Bogdonovich, etc..), and allowed them the creative freedom to get their feet in the door.  What I don’t understand is why this film deserves to be on the list of 1001 movies that someone should see before they die.  Again, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it seemed like they wanted to represent a specific genre of film, but didn’t feel that any one in particular could be singled out, so they just picked it out of a hat.

These movies are fun.  I really like Vincent Price, and he lives up to his reputation as a ridiculous, over-the-top personality in this film, but it is easily replaced by any number of campy horror themed classics, from this era.  Too bad,  I thought it was gonna be awesome.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

1938AngelsWithDirtyFaces

Angels With Dirty Faces – 1938

Director – Michael Curtiz

Starring – James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan

You can officially mark this down as the definitive moment where I witnessed my first James Cagney movie.  Unfortunately you can also mark this down as the start of my apathy towards the much lauded actor.  His performance as a tough as nails, streetwise hoodlum, with a soft spot for anyone willing to lavish him with attention didn’t do much to impress me.  His, and Pat O’Brien’s performances as the old friends who went down very different paths, were nothing more than caricatures of cartoon renditions of the saintly priest and the hair-triggered gangster.

This movie’s patchwork of stereotypes and cliches stretches the  audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point.  We are to believe that the cause for their very different outcomes is because, as kids one of them (Cagney) was too slow running from the cops, got caught, and was sent to juvenile hall.  This started him on the road to a life of crime, debauchery, and inevitable inprisonment.  O’Brien, on the other hand, feels guilty for his friend getting caught and apparently turns into a one note, billboard for piety.  He and Cagney meet again, years down the line and resume their unquestioned friendship where it left off, cracking jokes and talking about old times.

The obvious moral tone of the film is, at times, too much to take seriously.  Ham-fisted attempts at showing the folly of the youth that admires the gangster, and the weakness of the girl who falls in love with him, is never dealt with in a realistic way.  The stakes are always set in stone for Cagney’s character,  he is either going to prison, or to the grave, maybe both.  In terms of the stakes of the dramatic action, there is no question that this will happen, there is no other outcome.  His gangster character, and also for that matter the priest character, aren’t even written as people who make conscious choices, both are just a facts of life,  forces of nature.  There is no decision making done by either of these two.  The director, Curtiz, seems to be simply setting us up.  The movie is billed as a rolicking action movie, with gangsters and guns on the poster, but ends up being an overly preachy tale of the ills of gangsters, women and crime.  It almost chastises you for wanting to see Rocky (Cagney) win, through it’s heavy handed message.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable, and even enjoyable, but only if you manage to dis-regard the flagrant moral-ism on display.  On the plus side, the ever-watchable Humphrey Bogart plays Cagney’s shady, double-crossing, lawyer accomplice.  His nervous mannerisms, and general dislike for Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, seem to be the most enjoyable, but also the most authentic part of the whole film.

Check it out if you like early gangster flicks, but don’t bank on it being the best one you’ll ever see.  Movies that do it better… Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, The Big Sleep, the original Kiss of Death featuring the creepy Richard Widmark, and the recent Brick.  I recommend checking those out, if not instead, at least along side.