Black Narcissus (1946)

Black Narcissus – 1946

Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar

Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it.  But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.

The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the  mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens.  The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.

Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen.  Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel.  She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.

Speaking of Mr. Dean.  It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand.  Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals?  Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.

Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife.  Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.

The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace.  It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance.  Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous.  Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up.  It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.

Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear.  Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges.  It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching.  So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds

Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire.  Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular.  For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films.  The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.

When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list.  Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.

“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley

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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!

…there’s more…

So it’s time again for a batch of the movies that I HAVE seen.  We are starting to get more into the time frames from which I’m more familiar with, although there are still a ton of movies from this roughly ten year span that I haven’t seen.  Either way I have some work ahead of me, so without further ado…

The Stranger (1946)

This was one my more recent Orson Welles views.  As one of his less talked about films, I didn’t know whether it was something that I should expect to really enjoy like The Third Man, or Mr. Arkadin, or if it was more of a “I was young and needed money” type of movie.  I was pleasantly suprised to find that it was the former rather than the latter.  Welles plays a former member of the Nazi party hiding out in plain sight in small town America.  He is being pursued by the ever vigilant Edward G. Robinson, who isn’t quite sure whether this is the man he is hunting, or if he is simply a small town school teacher.  The Stranger is a fantastically underrated film, Welles as a director, and both Welles and Robinson as actors are top of their game!

“The Stranger asks the age old question: What’s worse,  accidentally marrying a Nazi, or purposely grooming your eyebrows to look like semi-circles?” – Ashley

La Belle Et La Bete AKA Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Of the two versions of this film and one version in Television format (that I’ve seen anyway), I much prefer this black and white, french one from the mid 40s.  The magical whimsy that Cocteau naturally imbues this film with, through the special effects costumes, and the poetic nature of the story, far surpasses the Disneyfied and televised versions.  Jean Marais seems natural, alien, and feral all at the same time, as the beast.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Fantastic for so many reasons, not the least of which that this story serves as the inspiration for as well as the loose structure of The Big Lebowski, one of my favorite movies of all time.  Bogart and Bacall are never better together than they were in this, each at the top of their games, and each with their roles fitting like gloves.

“Wait…now who’s that guy again?” – Ashley

The Killers (1946)

I have to admit, I like the second version of The Killers, directed by Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, better than this 1946 version by Robert Siodmak.  Despite liking source material, Siodmak, the actors Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, there is just something about seeing Ronald Reagan and John Cassavettes playing opposite each other (Reagan in the villan role) that captured my attention and cheered me up.

“Ava Gardner, you so pretty!” – Ashley

Great Expectations (1946)

The rare, short David Lean film, Great Expectations was suprisingly to me, not as daunting as it could have been.  Great performances by Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham.

Notorious (1946)

I like this movie, although I do not necessarily love it as I feel I’m supposed to.  Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are great actors, but I feel that too much is made of this film.  Worth the watch, but ultimately films like Casablanca, Charade, and Rear Window are much much better.

“B.I.G!” – Ashley

Out of the Past (1947)

This is a fantastic film noir starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, about the owner of a small town gas station, whose mysterious past catches up with him when a big time criminal boss lures him into a world of crime.  Awesome cast!  Kirk Douglas makes a great villain.

Ladri Di Biciclette AKA The Bicycle Thief (1948)

It has been such a long time since I’ve seen this movie, and since that time I’ve seen so much more in the way of foreign and art films.  And while I thought some of those films were strictly better, The Bicycle Theif still remains a benchmark against which I weigh other movies.  This film more than any other introduced me to and maintained my interest in Italian Neo Realist film.  From here I moved through the years to Fellini, Pontecorvo, Germi, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and of course Antonioni.  Still, The Bicycle Theif remains in my head, as clear as when I first saw it.

“Italian Neo-Realism…boooooring!” – Ashley

Rope (1948)

Not one of his best films, but certainly, Rope stands as an interesting experiment.  Comprised of 5 or 6 different long camera takes, Rope is effectively a filmed stage play.  The transitions inbetween scenes are fairly clever as they are meant to be invisible, making it seem as if it were filmed entirely in one take.  The action, suspense, and plot twists depend entirely upon the acting, as the camera cannot do any elaborate or special movements.  The plot centers around some young men who, as an experiment to see if they can get away with it, have murdered their fellow classmate.  As a means of proving how perfectly constructed this crime is, they host a dinner party while the body of the victim is still in the room.  It is up to Jimmy Stewart, a guest at the party, to reconstruct how it happened and expose the two murderers.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Orson Welles.  Murder.  A beguiling lady.  With those ingredients you have  the recipe for an awesome movie.  To tell you facts about the plot, would almost give away too much.  Needless to say, check it out, it’s awesome.

The Red Shoes (1948)

This tragic fairytale utilizes saturated comicbook-esque color to highlight the passions in the life of the young ballerina, Victoria Page.  The color red, specifically, stands out as a sort of totem color standing for passion, drive, and even obsession.  While beautiful to look at, the story is not as engaging as some others of this era, the film’s main plot is mostly love story and for a self professed action buff, I felt it was lacking something.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

All you need to know about this movie:  AWESOME FUCKING MOVIE!  SEE THE SHIT OUT OF IT!!!!

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness is a master of disguise in this dark comedy about inheritance, and family relations.  It is a good film, a real good film actually, but I didn’t think it needed any further hype than that.  It certainly gave was the grandfather to a lot of grade B or lower films that have come out of Hollywood, Eddie Murphy pretty much has copied the premise of Kind Hearts and Coronets in all of his more recent flicks from the Nutty Professor to the present (and by this I don’t mean the failed humor, I mean the fact that Alec Guinness plays so many different characters.)

The Third Man (1949)

An absolute classic!  Orson Welles plays Harry Lime to the nines, pairling each of his moments onscreen with his dialogue, utilizing each to the fullest.  Joseph Cotten plays Lime’s jilted best friend, hunting for the elusive truth about his pal.  He is torn between his attraction to Lime’s girl, and the loyalty he feels toward his friend.  Pitch perfect in every way, right down to the bombed out rubble of the post-war Vienna setting (The film was actually in and around post-war Vienna).

Orphee AKA Orpheus (1949)

Just like “La Belle et la Bete”, another film by Jean Cocteau, Orpheus is a beautiful piece of lyrical, visual poetry.  It is filled with similar themes of death, life, love, mirror images, and redemption.  Highly visual, and despite being fairly sussinct for all of it’s ambition, it accomplishes it’s goal.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

A film noir through and through, from the “one last heist” type plot down through the starkly bleak urban setting.

Rashomon (1950)

The film that introduced the rest of the world to Akira Kurosawa, and Toshiro Mifune (Through the Venice film festival).  That alone warrants it’s inclusion on this or any other list of influential films, but Rashomon has so much else going for it.  It is the story of an assault, and murder, told after the fact from each of the points of view of the parties involved, the witness, the bandit, the wife, and even the victim.  Completely blew me away when I first saw it!

“If you don’t like this movie, I’ll punch you in the face.” – Ashley

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Quite possibly the best film noir movie out there.  An ingenious story toying utilizing elements of Hollywood’s past (Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, and Cecil B. DeMille, all play integral parts in the story, some, like DeMille and Keaton, play themselves), and it’s future combining them together artfully and cohesively.  Billy Wilder’s fascination with cynicism finds a comfortable home in this tale of stars who are not ready to be forgotten.

“Don’t move to Hollywood.” – Ashley

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Hitchcock’s story about a chance meeting on a train that ends in murder.  One of his more atmospheric films, Strangers on a Train is a potboiler right down until the end, despite the stakes being revealed from the onset.

“Murder-swap!” – Ashley

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Yet another Alec Guinness film that serves to highlight his subtle yet potent presence.  Here, as a seemingly mild mannered bank clerk, he masterminds a heist to smuggle a shipment of gold out of the country.  Filled with spot-on comedic moments and timing, this movie along with the original version of the Ladykillers is tied as my favorite Alec Guinness film (not including the original Star Wars Trilogy).

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

A hallmark of science fiction, The Day the Earth Stood Still, seems a little dated and the premise is a little thin.  I enjoyed watching it, but I have to say for a genre of movies that depends highly on the visuals and special effects, it didn’t have the affect on me that it would have if I’d grown up with it.  That being said, it is still a fun story, and is certainly responsible for inspiring a huge number of films and directors that are inspiring me today.  Klaatu…barada…nikto.

Ikiru AKA To Live (1952)

This film asks the question, “Can one person make a difference?”, and answers with a resounding yes!  After years upon years as his bureaucratic, mundane job accomplishing nothing, Kanji Watanabe learns he has cancer and strives to do something worthwhile with the rest of his life.  Something that will make a difference to someone.  This is one of Kurosawa’s best films, illustrating the perils and dilemmas of the everyday person and demonstrating each person’s responsibility for their legacy.  Warm, humanistic, and bold, this film should be required viewing for everyone.

Le Salaire De La Peur AKA Wages of Fear (1953)

An excellent adventure film, the Wages of Fear strives to break out and be more than the definition of it’s genre.  The good news is that it succeeds.  Utilizing tension and pacing, Henri George Clouzot, keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as our (anti)heros accend the trecherous mountain pass in trucks carrying nitroglycerine, in order to stop a fire at an oilwell.  The people sent on this mission are completely disposible, each doing it for the high pay that comes with the completion of this dangerous job.  Re-made as Wizards, a film by William Friedkin, and starring Roy Schieder, The Wages of Fear stands out as one of the best action movies that I’ve ever seen.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Mired in controversy due to Director, Elia Kazan’s anti-communist and anti-union sentiments, (Kazan named names during the blacklisting period of the fifties in Hollywood) the good qualities of the film can sometimes be overshadowed.   Marlon Brando, and Rod Stiger turn in Oscar worthy performances, deserving recognition outside of this argument.  The film itself still stands as an alegory to the cancerous nature of communism and the power of the individual worker against the greedy union and mob influences.  Not as powerful a film as it is often hyped up to be, but certainly important to the history of Hollywood, and definitely worth a watch.

“Method = No enunciation. ” – Ashley

Rear Window (1954)

One of the best films ever made, and certainly Hitchcock’s best film, Rear Window does so much with so little.  It serves as a meditation on the voyeuristic nature of movies, and in society, all the while telling a cracking good yarn.  Hitchcock combines visual and storytelling elements of Jacques Tati, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder, while adding in his own gift for mystery and suspense.  This is the best of all worlds, a nearly perfect film.  Not to mention it has the beautiful Grace Kelly in it too!

“Your creepy neighbor may save your life.” – Ashley

Well, that’s it for now.  Hopefully you’ve enjoyed another installment of the short but sweet reviews of these films that I’ve already seen.