As I try to figure out my top DVDs for 2008, a must for my 2009 list has already arrived. Hot on the heels of its excellent “Collector’s Choice” edition of Randolph Scott Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which made welcome strides with Columbia’s back catalog last year, has issued “The Films of Michael Powell.” The two-disc set features one of the great works of his partnership with co-writer, co-producer, and co-director Emeric Pressburger, the much-requested A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and his last, little-seen picture, Age of Consent (1969), where the beauties of Australia are upstaged by the debut of 23-year-old Helen Mirren in all her natural splendor.
My introduction to “The Archers,” as Powell and Pressburger billed themselves, came through my aunt, who told me that The Red Shoes (1948) was her favorite film. It quickly became one of mine. The subject is ballet, and the ambition and romantic yearnings that course through one aspiring ballerina, and their technique dances. Like most of the pictures made in the course of their partnership, it’s an evergreen, blazingly alive in Technicolor, and though we’ve come a long way, baby, since the life and career choices the heroine is forced to make (or have we?) it’s a timeless cinematic achievement. The Archers’ logo was a bulls-eye, and they rarely missed their target.
I hadn’t seen A Matter of Life and Death in some time till the DVD arrived, and the restoration of the image, which switches from monochrome to color, is breathtaking. So is the storytelling, with one knockout twist toward the end that managed to catch me off-guard. I think it was the hellish orange of the destructive flames in the scene that really reinforced what was happening, as a major character makes a transition that allows the celestial trial at the center of the plot to begin. The cinematography, which will vibrate off your monitor, is essential to the picture. The film was shot by Jack Cardiff, who, at age 94, supervised its transfer to DVD. (The story goes that he asked Sony’s technicians to go for a more “lemony cast” in one scene, which they tried but couldn’t do. Frustrated, they reported back to Cardiff, who replied, “Neither could I.”)
That may be the only failing of the piece, which is otherwise a flawless mixture of propaganda, philosophy, romance, and fantasy. It shouldn’t work, but Powell and Pressburger were masters at keeping several balls up in the air at once. The film was intended to refresh the fraying relationship between Britain and America as World War II ended and the U.S. emerged as the dominant superpower, and took off from a true story of a downed airman who survived a long fall without a parachute. Here, squadron leader David Niven takes the plunge, and winds up near and dear to the heart of the American radio operator (the charming Kim Hunter, before Stella in Streetcar, and Zira in the Apes movies) who guided him to safety. But the “Other World,” having missed its chance at a new resident, would like a word with him, and its representative, a French aristocrat killed during the French Revolution (Marius Goring) tries to entice him onto the stairway to heaven. (This is the film’s still-wondrous set design highlight—did Jimmy Page and Robert Plant somehow have the movie in mind?—and also its American title, as Columbia shied away from using “Death” so shortly after the war). But Niven won’t give up our world so easily.
The movie shuttles between two planes: The “Other World” scenes, filmed in dream-like, expressionist black-and-white, and England, where Hunter and an iconoclastic doctor (Roger Livesey) work to save Niven, a university tutor before the war, from the devastating brain tumor that is causing his history-inflected visions. The film concludes on the operating table, as a trial, pitting Niven against a barnstorming prosecutor (Raymond Massey) who was the first American killed by the British during the revolution, is held in the cosmos to determine his fate.
Plot summary (my plot summary, anyway) makes A Matter of Life and Death sound clumsy and schematic, but it is a rich and delicate tapestry, seamlessly woven together. (Ian Christie’s excellent commentary track points out that the filmmakers made a close study of brain injuries, so the facts are as well-considered as the fantasy.) In its use of color, it corrects the glaring flaw in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy returns to the sepia Kansas from which she came. Now that she knows there’s no place like home, and that she never left in the first place, the dull Kansas she once knew should also be in color—maybe not Oz color, but naturalistic shades, indicating peace with her surroundings. In A Matter of Life and Death, the unknowable fantasy world is shrouded black-and-white; it’s the real world that’s radiant, with pleasures worth stick around for and perplexities worth solving. Revisiting the film was a hopeful way to start the new year.
Powell thought Age of Consent might be a new start, after a period of virtual blacklisting by the British film industry following the outrage over his 1959 film Peeping Tom, his outstanding pre-Psycho thriller about a photographer who kills his models as he’s shooting them. But it was not to be. The studio cut the picture, including its cheeky opening credits (with a nude painting of Mirren standing in for the “Columbia lady” logo), replaced its score, and dumped it. Only recently did the watered-down version resurface on Turner Classic Movies, with “youth-oriented” opening credits animation so poor I nearly turned it off before it began. TCM can pulp that relic: Making up for past sins, the DVD contains the original print.
I know what it is you want to see, so you may as well get it out of your system and skip to minute 52, minute 61, and minute 88 for the earliest known examples of Mirren nudity, which in an affectionate video interview she says may have been the first full-frontal nudity in any studio release. All I can say is, if you’ve been following her nakedness in her 30s, 40s, and 50s, prepare to be knocked out by her 20s. The film itself is less of a knockout, with Mirren as a wild child on an Australian island who catches the eye of a vagabond painter (James Mason), beginning a relationship that helps both of them grow up. Powell’s painterly eye is much in evidence—the CGI-boosted compositions of Australia are far less impressive than the footage of coral reefs and flying foxes flying amidst the trees here. Then again, a starchy Nicole Kidman fully dressed in the desert is no match for a free-spirited Helen Mirren diving nude in the silky blue water.
Age of Consent, from a semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, has other charms—Mason, a specialist in director bailouts who had come to the aid of Max Ophuls and Nicholas Ray, gets a gold star for his rehabilitative effort, and is good as the Lindsay-like artist (who was played by Sam Neill in the 1994 film Sirens). Thanks to Mirren’s uninhibited performance, the erotic undercurrent beneath many of Powell’s films, like my very favorite, 1947’s Black Narcissus (set in a Himalayan convent) comes up for air in the freer late Sixties. And I liked the Mason’s dog, Godfrey, who pulls off a neat trick. But much of the sort-of comedy, sort-of romantic melodrama is ramshackle, like a sketch for the next film Powell and Mason planned to make, an Oz-set Tempest, and never did.
It is, however, a means to the end of talking about Powell, which Martin Scorsese, whose championing led to his rediscovery, does with his usual great enthusiasm in video interviews on both discs. (Powell, who wrote superb autobiographies, married Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.) Admirers of the director disappointed that the Criterion Collection couldn’t add these to their Powell holdings will be pleased with the high-quality transfers and supplements, which include a making-of documentary and a commentary by Film Comment editor-at-large Kent Jones on the Consent disc. Newcomers have these and numerous other discoveries in store.
For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.