Volume 17, Number 51 | May 13 - 19, 2005

MICHAEL POWELL: BEAUTY UNENDING
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St.
Plaza level, Lincoln Center
$10, $7 for students, $5 for seniors
212-875-5600 or filmlinc.com

Walter Reade honors legendary director

Michael Powell filmed the world at war and men and women in love

By JERRY TALLMER

I don’t know if a movie has ever grabbed you by the throat, but there’s a motion picture that grabs me by the throat every time the theme music sweeps up behind the credits, when I first lay eyes on Joan Webster as a crawling baby who knows exactly where she’s going. By the time the credits are over and Joan Webster, age 25, has blossomed into Wendy Hiller, leopard toque cocked down over her right eye, informing her father that she’s heading to the Scottish isles to get married, I’m quite in love all over again. And not for the first time—or the tenth.

“You can’t marry Consolidated Chemical Industries,” says her banker father, as he peers at the card she’s handed him.

“Oh, can’t I?” says Joan. “Don’t worry, Daddy. I know where I’m going.”

Her father scrutinizes the card again. “Sir Robert Bellenger? He’s one of the wealthiest men in England. Bellenger must be nearly as old as I am.”

Joan Webster will, as it happens, never get to the island of Kiloran, where her stuffy billionaire fiancé awaits her. Weather, fog, high gales, turbulent seas, a horrifying whirlpool and a kilted Navy officer on leave—Torquil MacNeal, the land-poor but damned appealing Laird of Kiloran—will get in the way. By the time she—well, let me steal from myself, in a piece on Michael Powell in 1988:

“You could make a case that the most sexually romantic film ever made has no more explicit sex in it than one moment at the very end when Wendy Hiller asks Roger Livesy: ‘Will you do something for me?’ ‘Anything,’ [he] replies. ‘I want you to kiss me,’ says the headstrong young woman who has been running away from him for six reels. And, there on the dusty road, with three bagpipers piping away, he does.”

“I Know Where I’m Going,” written, produced, and directed in 1945 by Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988), who called themselves the Archers, is one of 32 films by Powell in a Film Society of Lincoln Center series, now through May 31—“Michael Powell: Beauty Unending”—celebrating the 100th birthday of that great director.

You can get a chance to catch it this very Friday, May 13, 6:30 p.m., at the Walter Reade Theater, or Saturday, May 14, at 2 p.m., or Monday, May 30, at 2 and 6 p.m.

Special bonus—you can complement “I Know Where I’m Going” this Friday, May 13, at 1 p.m. (or Sunday, May 15, at 6:45 p.m.) with an altogether different Powell-and-Pressburger masterpiece, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” a magically time-binding motion picture that—made in 1943, as the Luftwaffe was trying to blitz England to its knees—weaves back and forth between the Boer War, World War I and World War II in an object lesson against blind appeasement of the unappeasable.

Things have changed in the years since, but “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”—which took its title, its iconography, its protagonist, and his walrus moustache from the character invented by cartoonist David Low—is a reminder of Churchill’s observation that the Germans “are either at your knees or at your throat.”

Even the good German, the handsome, punctilious Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, an army officer who by protocol must engage in a 1902 duel in Berlin against young British Lieutenant Clive Candy, goes through a phase 16 years later of despising his now best friend Candy as a naïve, idealistic idiot whose Britain didn’t win World War I (“We lost it,” Kretschmar-Schuldorff insists)—only to turn up 20 years later still, in 1938, seeking refuge in dear old, green old England.

“I thought I had nothing to fear from Hitler,” Kretschmar-Schuldorff tells the Foreign Office-type to whom he’s applying for an entry permit. “It took me eight months to find out I was wrong.”

“Took you rather long,” says the cool Brit.

“It took your England five years,” says Kretschmar-Schuldorff just as snottily. He has a point. So did David Low, in all his scorn of Neville Chamberlain, the Cliveden set, and that lot. And so do British-born-and-raised Michael Powell and Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger.

These two movies are well larded with members of what I like to think of as the Michael Powell Repertory Company—Roger Livesy as Clive (Colonel Blimp) Canby; Anton Walbrook, the soon-to-be impresario Boris Lermontov of “The Red Shoes,” here as disillusioned Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff; John Laurie, with his lean Scots face and burr, in small, vivid supporting roles in both pictures; Finlay Currie as a hard-bitten boatman; Deborah Kerr, then the actual love of Michael Powell’s life, in not one, not two, but three different roles as important beauties in the life and times of Clive Candy; magnificent Pamela Brown, who with one simple “Hello!” fingers the truth that Joan Webster, unknown to herself, has fallen head-over-heels for Torquil MacNeil, the Laird of Kiloran.

As for “The Red Shoes”—and I never met a woman not totally under the spell of “The Red Shoes” but there are two remaining Walter Reade screenings—Sunday, May 29, at 2 and 6:30 p.m.

Truth be told, there was one female not under the spell of “The Red Shoes.” I once interviewed Moira Shearer, years after this 1948 classic swept the world by storm. “I always thought it was sort of a silly film,” she said. The lovely ballerina, who starred in the film, said that she herself would not have dived to death from a balcony for the sake of art.

There are also the other 30 movies in the series, many of them great or near great. For a few—“Gone to Earth,” “A Canterbury Tale,” “The Small Back Room,” “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing,” “Ill Met by Moonlight,” “The 49th Parallel” (with a stunning cameo by Laurence Olivier), “The Boy Who Turned Yellow.”

Powell and Pressburger understood, in their blood, something very basic: Movies are dreams; dreams are movies. And Michael Powell in his blood knew something else.

It was something that I could not write in a daily newspaper in 1988. What I reported was my shock at learning from him that, because of a London stage commitment, Roger Livesy was never within 500 miles of the Western Isles during the shooting of “I Know Where I’m Going.”

A double was used in certain scenes. “The secret of doubling an actor,” the author of “A Life in the Movies” (Knopf) told his interviewer, “is not to run away from the camera or turn your back on it; on the contrary, you walk straight up to it.”

That much I wrote. What I did not write is that the 83-year-old Michael Powell added. “The secret of making movies is balls. You have to have balls.”

Powell once had the balls to make a movie called “Peeping Tom”—a most unpleasant movie—and Hollywood killed him for it. You can catch it Sunday, May 29, at 4:30 or 9 p.m., to find out why.

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