I saw my first two Michael Powell films some years ago at Edmonton's Metro Cinema. A Canterbury Tale (1944), made with Powell’s longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger, concerns strange criminal activities in a fictional Kent village during the Second World War, and it functions as a moving, somewhat mystical appeal to read history in landscape. Peeping Tom (60) is a thriller about a killer who films the death of his female victims. The former is an immensely charming work from the height of Powell and Pressburger’s hugely popular, very British spectacles. The former is an unremittingly grotesque portrait of psychological disease that, far from creating the sensation of the similarly sinister and voyeuristic Psycho (60), released only three months later, it essentially ended Powell’s career in the Britain, driving him to wander the wilderness of international co-production for the last 30 years of his life.
So we have two exemplary Powell films and, as it happens, films that exemplify the two Powells: the celebrated patriot and master craftsman, and the shunned maverick. As retrospectives and home video continue to introduce his legacy to a new generation of filmlovers, it’s interesting that the latest pairing of Powell films to appear on DVD in Sony’s two-disc The Films of Michael Powell also straddle the disparate halves of his career.
A Matter of Life and Death (46), re-titled Stairway to Heaven for its US, opens gazing into the celestial heavens, with a voice-over meditating briefly on stars and gases and the life and death of entire galaxies. It grounds itself in the widest possible context, one of myth, awe and whimsy. It needs to because what follows is so absurdly fantastical. The story shifts between miracle survival and radical brain surgery on earth and a court hearing in heaven overseen by an audience of thousands. The lovers at its centre meet in voice only when British Airman Peter Carter, the last living crewmember aboard a badly damaged bomber en route back to England, makes contact with June, an American radio operator. During what he assumes will be his final moments of life, Peter passionately flirts with June and she’s deeply moved. Peter then leaps from the descending bomber and falls without parachute into the sea—and lives.
Turns out the emissary of death sent to scoop Peter up couldn’t find him in the soupy English fog. Heaven, being an imposingly modern realm run as a well-oiled bureaucracy, sends the emissary back to get Peter. But Peter, having by now awoke on the achingly beautiful shore of Sceptered Isle and met his beloved June, has fallen in love, and demands clemency on grounds of romance and, as it will come to pass, UK-US diplomatic relations. All very silly but also delightful, gorgeous, endlessly imaginative, engrossingly strange and so very unabashedly a movie. And we’re asked to heed the opening voice-over’s implication that this may be best seen as the entirely interior journey of a severely brain-injured man. And it surely spoke to countless soldiers returning from a long war, weary, death-haunted and needing to believe that life really can start all over again.
There’s pleasure to be had in all the dichotomies. Heaven is black and white, while earthly life is conveyed in an astoundingly sumptuous use of Technicolor—like The Red Shoes (48), it was photographed by maestro Jack Cardiff. Peter is played by beloved British star David Niven, a veteran of the war as well as the movies, while June is played by the fresh young American Kim Hunter, basically an unknown, though she’d already played the lead in Val Lewton’s sublimely bleak The Seventh Victim (43). Their ages are visibly much farther apart than the film would have you believe, but what they represent and the strength of their chemistry, like everything else in A Matter of Life and Death, trumps verisimilitude.
From the shores of Sceptered Isle to those of Dunk Isle along the Great Barrier Reef, a Powell hero once again finds renewal begins by the primordial sea. In Age of Consent (69), successful Australian painter Brad Morahan ditches his cosmopolitan existence in New York City to go Gauguin on an Edenic beach back home with a dog named Godfrey, who nearly steals the film. I say nearly because the pooch’s costars are the great James Mason and the 22-year-old Helen Mirren in her first film role. Mirren plays Cora, a deeply uncultured island girl desperate to escape a stifling life shared with her grandma, a screeching old bag that even in a story deliberately forged in archetypes is far too gratingly one-note to suffer gladly.
Cora becomes Brad’s muse, reviving his creative vitality. Their relationship, teetering on woefully antiquated cliché—Powell himself expressed a general distaste for the “Girl Friday” theme—is above all given life by Mirren’s astonishingly immediate performance. Often naked, never able to articulate her sense of confusion, despair or discovery, her Cora is about as pure a presence as can be found in a talkie. Aspects of Age of Consent, like the gags, the music and the occasional excess of enthusiasm with the zoom, can feel corny and dated. Yet the leads, along with Powell’s characteristic sensitivity to nature, light and sound, make very worthwhile what would, sadly, prove to be Powell’s last feature film.