Archive for Emeric Pressburger

Teardrops

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns

michael-powell-emeric-pressburger

The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.

This Strangler Fellow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2012 by dcairns

In THE VULTURE, Akim Tamiroff plays a man who can mutate at will into a giant scavenger bird. It all takes place in Cornwall, you see. I remember being disappointed by this film, which might strike you as odd, considering the subject. But nothing could be more desultory than a film about Akim Tamiroff as a Cornish man-bird, made with so little enthusiasm and flair — those involved apparently don’t realize that such a film ought to be fun. And it’s 1967 — cinema is being reinvented! OK, not in Cornwall, but the influences are abroad in the air. To give you an idea of how sad and insipid the film is, the last scene is devoted entirely to hero Robert Hutton (a man who carries a shroud of tedium about him like a medieval miasma) to whoever the leading lady is, just how Tamiroff managed to pull off a phone prank earlier in the film which gave him a false alibi. Something we the audience already know, and which can hardly be of supreme interest in a movie about a GIANT TURKISH VULTURE. The writer-director was Lawrence Huntington. So naturally I sought out more of his work. (To be fair to Huntington, he died the year after making THE VULTURE. But not until November, so no excuse really.)

WANTED FOR MURDER may be the most generic title ever, but it’s there for a reason — to conceal the film’s true individuality, a necessary task given the gay subtext crawling all over it like Toby Maguire. The year is 1946, and the British film industry is experiencing an artistic boom — by its peak, in 1948, creative confidence was even trickling down to lesser talents — it was almost impossible for anybody to make an uninteresting film. Despite a lot of banal detective stuff, WANTED FOR MURDER is pretty fascinating. It stars Eric Portman, fresh from his Glue Man duties in A CANTERBURY TALE, and was written by, well, everyone there was — but the initial adaptation of the source play seems to be the work of Emeric Pressburger. Now, Portman was happily gay, and Powell claims that Pressburger was a bit of a homophobe, despite all the gay actors in the Archers’ films, and the flamboyant and even campy tone of some of them… at any rate, somehow WANTED FOR MURDER has evolved from being a tale of a serial killer, obsessed with his late father who was the public hangman in Victoria’s day, to being an allegory about closeted homosexuality. Portman stalks the streets by night, engaging in brief romances with people he meets under a pseudonym. His doting mother knows nothing, but fears the worst. She urges him to bring a girl home to meet her some time, to settle down. He thinks she’s right, and pursues Dulcie Gray, a nice girl who works in a record store (he has an obsessive passion for classical music).

It’s all kind of right out there, and the detectives hot on Portman’s trail (who really do refer to him as “this strangler fellow”) are a more effective beard for Portman’s “lustmorden that dare not speak its name” than poor sweet Dulcie could ever be. Huntington actually directs with some command of pacing and moments of flair. His career went back to the early thirties and he was obviously a pro, and alert to the interesting stuff going on around him. There’s also the nostalgic feeling of British fairgrounds, the Underground and London coppers, concerts in Hyde Park and all of that. And a weird preponderance of Scottish characters — an Underground employee, a copper, and this poor murderee, Jenny Laird —

The American serviceman is our old friend, spanner-faced Bonar Colleano, another reason to be cheerful.

PS — a Langian Limerick.