Prime Powell

British grand stylist gets his due with an exhaustive slate at Cinematheque


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it took an enormous effort on the part of a number of committed people to restore Michael Powell to his rightful place in the history of cinema. Martin Scorsese is among them.The great chronicler of the New York gangster milieu has a very warm spot for The Red Shoes, and can talk at length about the influence of Black Narcissus’s fantasy scenes on his style in, of all things, The King Of Comedy.

The problem is that Powell doesn’t fit anywhere. There’s no director more English, but he made his greatest films in an era when English cinema was small, self-deprecating and steeped in documentary traditions.

When that era ended and British cinema moved into its Angry Young Man phase with the arrival of John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and the rest in the early 60s, Powell’s career had essentially been destroyed by the reaction to Peeping Tom, one of the greatest of psychological horror films and a stunning meditation on the cinema and death.

Powell is a fantasist, a grand stylist and an artist given to emotional extremes. There is no director in English cinema with a more astonishing sense of landscape or, come to think of it, seascape.

He is a master of psychological realism in unrealistic settings, of using landscape to reveal character and of that most tremulous of cinematic transitions, the dissolve, in a time when cinema preferred hard cuts. Of course, he was always capable of genuinely bizarre missteps.

One need only note the casting of Laurence Olivier as a French-Canadian trapper in 49th Parallel (April 7, 1 pm), and the Cinematheque schedule accurately describes Oh… Rosalinda!! (April 19, 6:30 pm) as being located in “the kitsch stratosphere.”

Cinematheque Ontario offers 20 Powell titles in its current series, including most of the director’s greatest films: I Know Where I’m Going (March 23, 4 pm), The Red Shoes (March 24, 1 pm), A Matter Of Life And Death (March 27, 8:30 pm), The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (March 30, 7 pm), Black Narcissus (April 4, 6:30 pm), A Canterbury Tale (April 11, 6:30 pm, The Thief Of Bagdad (April 13, 6:30 pm) and Peeping Tom (April 24, 8:45 pm).

Among the lesser-known films, the opening film in the series, a restored print of 1937’s The Edge Of The World (March 22, 6:30 pm), tells the story of a doomed love affair on a tiny island and features one of the greatest dissolves in the history of the cinema.

The Small Back Room (March 23, 8:45 pm) offers penetrating psychological realism, and Contraband (April 11, 8:45 pm) and The Spy In Black (April 5, 6:30 pm) are startling black-and-white thrillers starring Conrad Veidt and worthy of Fritz Lang.

The program offers an extreme contrast to the series that immediately precedes it at Cinematheque. Jumping from Frederick Wiseman to Powell, one cannot help but feel a bit like the angel in A Matter Of Life And Death, who arrives in England from a monochromatic heaven and says, “Aaaah… Technicolour!”

Any chance to catch Powell’s films in good 35mm prints is more than welcome, especially since most of them are not available on video.

The most famous, though, can be found in deluxe Criterion Edition DVDs. (Black Narcissus, on a video-historical note, was the first disc ever with a commentary track back in the laser-disc era.)johnh@nowtoronto.com

MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH: THE FILMS OF MICHAEL POWELL at Cinematheque Ontario (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (March 22) to April 24. For this week’s schedule, see Rep Cinemas (page 94. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNNN

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