The Films of Michael Powell

The Films of Michael Powell (1946)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, James Mason, Helen Mirren
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Interviews

Michael Powell is a filmmaker who, by all rights, should be as much of an established figure in the minds of cinema buffs as other famous English directors like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Carol Reed. And yet, for years Powell's film work remained essentially locked away in the past, remembered chiefly by critics while occasionally receiving limited exposure on black-and-white TV. But in the 1940s, Powell's collaboration with co-writer, co-director, and co-producer Emeric Pressburger gave birth to some of the most breathtaking, lively films of the era. Under the production moniker The Archers, the pair released the wartime drama "A Canterbury Tale" (1944), the spirited romance "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945), and, most famously, the lavish Technicolor films "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "Black Narcissus" (1947), "The Red Shoes" (1948), and "The Tales of Hoffman" (1951). Narratively and technically inventive, these films garnered great critical acclaim and achieved commercial success both at home and abroad. After the release of one controversial film in the early 1960s, however, Powell's reputation was tainted in the British film industry, effectively signaling the end of his career and a descent into near obscurity throughout the remainder of the decade.

In the 1970s, a group of young American filmmakers and critics, including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, discovered a common affection for Powell and Pressburger's films, which they had seen as children, and their promotion of the pair's work (from Scorsese in particular) revived interest in The Archers in the film world. With great support from Scorsese, many of their best films have received home video releases over the years. Still, widespread recognition has eluded these master filmmakers outside of serious film circles, and there are still a few movies yet to find their way to home video. Fortunately, Sony recently contributed by bringing one of Powell and Pressburger's most sought-after films to Region 1 DVD for the first time, along with one of Powell's individual efforts, in a two-film collection that is cause for rejoicing for classic film lovers.

A Matter of Life and Death

Released shortly after the end of World War II, "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946) broached subject matter that had long been avoided in films on both sides of the Atlantic, specifically an emphasis on casualties and the growing tensions between a war-torn England and the powerful United States. Both of these themes are evoked in the opening scene as British bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), blood streaking down his face and his damaged plane burning, radios in to give his final words before he jumps to his death. On the receiving end of his call is June (Kim Hunter), an American woman stationed in England. She is deeply moved by his words, and he takes comfort in her sweet voice and genuine concern. In their brief but passionate exchange, the two fall in love. Peter then jumps to the ocean below, fully expecting to die, but he miraculously wakes up after being washed ashore, finding himself not only very much alive but completely unscathed. Soon after, he coincidentally meets June face to face, and they continue their love affair that began only with a radio call.

It is not long before Peter discovers that his survival was not a miracle at all but an accident, as his celestial conductor (Marius Goring) could not find him in the dense English fog. Scolded in heaven (if that is what you wish to call it—the celestial realm remains ambiguous and devoid of any overtly religious identification), the conductor is sent down to Earth to retrieve Peter, who refuses to go on the basis that this accident was not his fault and he now has something to live for in his new romance. The heads of the afterworld decide to give Peter a trial to determine if his case is valid. On Earth, however, June is troubled by his talk of celestial conductors, so she calls in Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to examine Peter and get to the bottom of what she believes are hallucinations. Peter soon finds himself caught between two realms where he is either dead or crazy, and when a brain operation is prescribed, death looms ever closer.

In spite of its thematic bleakness, "A Matter of Life and Death" succeeds in being a sparkling fantasy picture, buoyed by astonishing cinematography and production design. The Archers would earn great fame for their brilliant use of Technicolor in time, but this film exhibits perhaps their most imaginative use of it in that half the film is actually not in color. Subverting the visual style of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), Powell and Pressburger chose to film their celestial realm in monochrome black-and-white and their Earth-bound sequences in color, capturing the rich and diverse tones of the physical world while painting the afterworld (which may or may not be in Peter's head) as a striking but intriguingly indefinable state of being. This film also marked the pair's first collaboration with master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who would go on to photograph their next two films, "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes." The film's most famous set piece, however, is a giant escalator that appears prominently in the second half, leading from Earth to the afterworld. Designed by Alfred Junge, the escalator has earned a place in pop culture that in some ways has exceeded the film itself. It also served as the inspiration behind the American title change, "Stairway to Heaven," after the American distributors refused to release the film with the word "Death" in the title so soon after the war.

Beyond the film's technical achievements, there is a strong emotional core in the love story that complicates Peter's brush with death. David Niven, making his return to film acting after serving in the British army, and Kim Hunter, a relative newcomer at the time, are not glamorous, but their wholesome veneers embody the admirable characteristics of their native countries. Late in the film, Raymond Massey appears as a celestial prosecutor, an American with a noted prejudice against Britons, who is staunchly against Peter and June's romance and uses the tensions between the two nations as grounds for dismissing Peter's case. The bureaucratic structure of the afterworld and the focus on the virtues of the lovers' nationalities veers into propagandistic territory, but as Martin Scorsese says in one of the special features, it is propaganda "in the best sense." Powell and Pressburger ultimately prevent the film from becoming too heavy-handed with their witty dialogue and a cheeky sense of humor that overrides the political sentiments. Nowhere is this romantic element milked more than in Marius Goring's scene-stealing performance as the foppish celestial conductor, a French aristo with a weakness for love, a passion for chess, and a desire only for himself.

Age of Consent

In 1960, three years after The Archers amicably went their separate ways, Michael Powell directed a psychological thriller called "Peeping Tom." Concerning a murderous young man who films his female victims as he kills them in order to capture their final, terrified looks, the movie was savaged by critics for its morbid and disturbing story. The controversy surrounding the film essentially brought about the end of Powell's career. Nine years later, he directed his penultimate film, "Age of Consent," with the financial support of the film's star, James Mason.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by artist Norman Lindsay, "Age of Consent" features Mason as successful painter Bradley Morahan. Disillusioned with the commercial and dispassionate turn his career has taken in New York, Bradley decides to return to his native Australia to recapture the artistic freedom and inspiration he had as a young man. Retreating to an island on the Great Barrier Reef, he unexpectedly finds his inspiration in Cora (Helen Mirren), a teenage girl on the brink of womanhood whose only guardian is her perpetually drunk and abusive grandmother (Neva Carr-Glyn). Cora is secretly trying to save up enough money to escape from her grandmother and find a job as a hairdresser on the mainland. Bradley pays her to pose nude for him, producing the best work of his life in the process and simultaneously inspiring her to embrace her sexual allure.

The critical response to "Age of Consent" in 1969 was lukewarm at best, and when viewed today, the film still comes off as a slight piece. There are certainly good things in it. The relationship between artist and muse in the film is certainly promising, although it peters out in the last scene and lacks development throughout. More fascinating is the depiction of Cora as a young woman coming of age amidst a small community that only notices her body, and Helen Mirren deserves most of the praise for this. This was 23-year-old Mirren's first movie, but already she displays the confidence and presence that would mark her as one of England's finest actresses in the following decades. As Cora, she possesses the wildness that stems from the character's lack of proper parental care, but there is also a deeply rooted vulnerability in her performance that brings out a more complex, enigmatic quality. She is the film's greatest asset.

Other virtues are Hannes Staudinger's lush cinematography, which makes the film lovely to look at, and Peter Sculthorpe's exotic music score. Although the score perfectly suits the movie's somewhat dreamy atmosphere, Columbia Pictures rejected it when the film was released in the United States. A more commercial score by Stanley Myers ("The Deer Hunter") was recorded and used for the American cut. The film was also heavily edited to remove some of the nudity and was given a new opening credits sequence (Columbia objected to their logo being parodied in a painting of a nude Mirren posed as the Columbia Torch Lady).

However pleasant the lead performances and technical merits may be, the film's flaws are too prevalent to ignore. In addition to a lack of development between the two main characters, the film also stumbles over some clumsily mounted comic relief, primarily in a subplot involving Jack MacGowran as Bradley's parasitic friend. While MacGowran is fine, most of his scenes have little bearing on the rest of the film, and they provide an unnecessary distraction rather than the intended relief. Similarly, the film's opening sequence is a rushed, disjointed mess. Set in New York, it is painfully clear that it was not filmed there (it was, in fact, filmed in Sydney). Frenetically edited with jump cuts and characterized by the kind of broad comedy that ruins the MacGowran scenes, this opening fails to establish an appropriate tone for the rest of the film and leaves the viewer lost for the first 20 minutes or so until Bradley actually makes it to the island. In spite of its best intentions, "Age of Consent" is never as provocative or engrossing as it should be, but there is enough of interest (especially Mirren) to make it worth a look.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has brought these two films to DVD in a double-disc set. Disc 1 contains "A Matter of Life and Death" in its original fullframe aspect ratio. The picture quality is quite stunning, considering that this film is more than 60 years old. The image is crisp and detailed, nicely bringing out the natural film grain. The color sequences are wonderfully vibrant. There is a gorgeous trucking shot of some pink flowers at about 25 minutes in that is especially breathtaking. Some slight fluctuation is evident in the color segments as well, but this is apparently characteristic of the color process that was used. Also good but perhaps not as spectacular are the black-and-white sequences. They are just as clean and grainy as the color sections, but gray tones are not always strong. The image sometimes has a sepia tinge, but overall the transfer does justice to the fantastical appearance that Powell, Pressburger, and Jack Cardiff intended.

Disc 2 houses "Age of Consent" in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. Once again, the film grain is very well showcased. This transfer is not as sharp as that for "A Matter of Life and Death," but this may be part of the intended look (quite likely for a film of this period). Colors are very strong, although at times they actually seem too saturated, with skin tones occasionally appearing very dark and reddish. Again, this may be the way the film is supposed to look. I believe I also detected some slight edge enhancement throughout. While this transfer is not quite as impressive as the older film's transfer, it is very nice to look at and showcases the beautiful location photography well.

As mentioned above, both films were altered for their U.S. releases. Sony's new DVDs thankfully feature the restored original versions of both films. "A Matter of Life and Death" appears under its British title, and "Age of Consent" is fully uncut and includes the original Peter Sculthorpe score. In the latter's case, I think it would have been interesting to have Stanley Myers' score included as an additional soundtrack option just for comparison, but it is good to have the film in its original state.

The soundtracks of both films are delivered in Dolby Digital 2.0. In general, they sound just fine for movies of their ages, clear and without noticeable distortion. Music and vocals are well-balanced, with the songs on "Age of Consent" sounding especially good. Overall, the audio quality matches the video.

"A Matter of Life and Death" is accompanied by an excellent commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, one of the foremost experts on Powell and Pressburger. He offers an intriguing reading of the film, detailing its allegorical qualities and discussing how the film was perceived by British audiences in the immediate aftermath of World War II. He also provides some good historical background and information about the directors and cast members, making this a thoroughly enjoyable and informative track. This is truly top-notch work, worthy of the long wait American fans have endured for this movie to arrive on DVD.

Also on Disc 1 is an eight-minute appreciation of the film by Martin Scorsese. Although short, this feature is another great piece, as Scorsese discusses his early exposure to Powell and Pressburger's films on TV and his role in the pair's critical rediscovery in the 1970s. It is always nice to hear from Scorsese on The Archers, and he speaks both as an authority and a fan.

On Disc 2, historian Kent Jones graces "Age of Consent" with an audio commentary. His is much more low-key than Christie's, but it is still insightful. Most interesting are his musings on the stymied condition of Michael Powell's career in the 1960s after "Peeping Tom" and the connections "Age of Consent" shares with his earlier films, even though it is generally considered a lesser work.

Scorsese also contributes a five-minute appreciation in the same vein as the one for "A Matter of Life and Death." This is followed by an informative 17-minute "Making-of" piece featuring interviews with Kevin Powell (the director's son, who served as the film's production manager) and other crew members. A 12-minute interview with Helen Mirren is expectedly entertaining as the actress recounts the experience of making her first film. Finally, underwater photographers Ron and Valerie Taylor (who later worked on "Jaws" and "The Blue Lagoon") are given a 10-minute segment to discuss their beautiful shots of Mirren diving for crustaceans.

"The Films of Michael Powell" is an absolutely recommended collection for classic film fans. "A Matter of Life and Death" is one of Powell and Pressburger's most charming and innovative films, one that has been absent from Region 1 DVD for too long. While "Age of Consent" may be a far cry from Powell's greatest work, it is nonetheless a film worth seeing for its own pleasures. Sony has offered up a substantial package, not only making these desirable films available but adorning them with some excellent features as well. It is this kind of attention to older films that makes DVD collecting such a joy, and I hope to see more releases like this from Sony.