Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is playing this week at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a new print from the Film Foundation. If you are here, you probably don’t need to be told that it’s always preferable to see a P&P film on the big screen, but take it from us that Blimp‘s visual pleasures are many. Or take it from Andrew Tracy, who wrote about one particularly amazing shot from the film from our Take One symposium. Read it again, or for the first time:
It’s a crucial moment in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and thus all the more conspicuous as it elides the payoff of the long sequence preceding it: as Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) begin their duel in 1902 (heralding the start of their forty-year relationship) after a prolonged dithering over protocol, the camera, while observing them from overhead, pulls back into the rafters, and then (courtesy of a dissolve) into the sky above the wonderfully obvious miniature of the gymnasium, a miniature Berlin in the distance, false snow whipping the lens; reaching its peak, it descends back to the cardboard earth towards a toy hansom cab, in which Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr) anxiously awaits the outcome.
A virtuoso shot, and one with more than an echo of the famous “unbroken” take craning into Susan Kane’s nightclub a mere two years previous. But Michael Powell’s willfully grandiose gesture carries far more resonance than Welles’s masterful showboating. Stanley Kauffmann’s rather harsh charge that Welles was “a scene and sequence-maker, not a filmmaker” nevertheless contains an irreducible truth at its core: for a great majority of “ambitious” filmmakers in the first two decades of the sound era, scenes and sequences took precedence over the film as a whole. One need think only of Ford’s overt preciousness of composition in The Informer (1935) or The Fugitive (1947), or Mamoulian’s aggressive playfulness, or Milestone’s uniquely weighty sense of innovativeness to realize that Welles was only the most pronounced (and publicized) example of Hollywood’s erratic but consistent romance with capital-A Art. Innovation in cinema never springs from some pure and untapped creative well. For those Thirties and (more dwindling) Forties Hollywood producers who counted prestige as a subdivision of profit, these occasional ventures into the Artistic were only good business sense. Continue reading.