Thursday, 6 January 2011

Powell & Pressburger #3. The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Roger Livesey in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943).

Powell & Pressburger were brave, boundary-pushing filmmakers. A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) is a bold, ambitious vision of heaven, a heaven of faith equality, and contains a central debate on prejudice. Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) caused uproar upon release for putting audiences into the shoes of a perverted serial killer; an exploration of the dangers of voyeurism that is as powerful now as it was 50 years ago. But perhaps The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp was their bravest film - after all, it was shot and released slap-bang in the middle of WWII, in Britain's darkest hours, and not only contains criticism of the military, but also has a deeply sympathetic German character, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who befriends the central character, Brit Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). The film is full of audacious, enterprising ideas and characterization, and that's what makes it such a masterpiece...

Winston Churchill was famously opposed to the screenplay and even denied Laurence Olivier leave from Navy duty to play Clive Candy. Instead Powell & Pressburger turned to the sublime Roger Livesey, and paired him with Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, and the young up-and-comer Deborah Kerr, who turns in three astonishing performances. Churchill wanted the film banned, as he felt it was overly critical of the classical solider; the patriot. This is the type of character Clive Candy is when we first meet him, bathing in the steam room of a London house. "WAR STARTS AT MIDNIGHT!", we are told, but a young lieutenant named Spud (James McKechnie) has jumped the gun. The enemy doesn't play fair, is his thinking, but this outrages the bloated, mustached Candy. The scene has a heightened realism, and is very funny - playing up to the comic strip origins of the Candy character. He's presented as the buffoon and, at first, we laugh. A solider stuck in his ways, he fights the young lieutenant and they fall into the swimming pool. The camera glides across the pool and we are transported to 1902, and Candy's life as a young, eager man - a man much like Spud.

What follows is storytelling of the most epic and finely crafted order. Along with Lawrence Of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is often referred to as the best British film of all time, and it's a title richly deserved. The film begins with the smart, cocky Candy traveling to Berlin against orders, to investigate the anti-British propaganda supposedly being spread by the Germans. "Leave politics to the politicians" he is told, but pays no attention. While in Berlin he accidentally offends the German army, and is challenged to a duel, which he accepts. His opponent is a man he has never met before, a man named Schuldorff. The camera observes the start of their fight but then zooms out of the location, leaving the fate of the duel unknown. Clive and Schuldorff find themselves recovering in the same nursing home and they bond over evenings of card games. Schuldorff's English is poor ("very much") but they develop a mutual respect. Schuldorff falls in love with Candy's British contact, Edith (Kerr's first role). On Candy's last day in the home Schuldorff announces his engagement to Edith, and the three of them celebrate. It is only after the train journey home that Candy realizes he loved the woman too, but must wait another 15 years to find her lookalike...

Powell & Pressburger find ingenious ways to show the passage of time, the first of which is via a series of animal heads. Candy is also a hunter, and he places he heads of his victories on his wall - under each is a plaque with the date of shooting. Quick-edits flash-forward through the years as Candy collects all sorts of prizes - including an elephant. We pass sixteen years to 1918, and Candy is in Flanders. It's here that he meets his future wife, Barbara (Kerr's second role), a dead-ringer for Edith - literally, in fact, as she's 20 years his junior. WWI comes to a close, and Candy has Schuldorff over for an evening gathering, assuring him that there will be a life for him back in Germany (he has been a prisoner of war). Time once again propels forward to 1939... Candy's wife passes away and he is retired. The next 30 minutes are some of the most unbearably sad in all of cinema history...

What's truly remarkable about The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is that, despite some questionable makeup (bad hairlines and no wrinkles) there's a genuine sense of aging, and world-weariness. It doesn't even feel like watching two actors, such is the dedication and honesty of Livesey and Walbrook's performances. It's just like watching two men grow old together, and respect each other all the more. The final chapter of the film opens with Schuldorff sat in an immigration office in England, at the start of WWII - noticeably greyer and paler, he now walks with a stick and speaks more slowly. He unfurls a heartbreaking story to the official questioning him of how his wife had passed away and his estranged children, two boys, had become Nazi's. With nothing left, he has returned to the place he now feels is home. Walbrook's delivery here is astonishing - spoken like a broken man, he attempts to put pride over sadness, but his tone is one of regret. Of course, Candy welcomes Schuldorff with open arms... and a confession of love for Edith, which he never got over. These are now men of honour and experience, and the conversation is handled with a masterful maturity and a nice little gag... Deborah Kerr's third appearance as Candy's driver Johnny, whom he picked from 700 women. After a BBC speech is denied, Candy is retired again, and feels deflated. Schuldorff and Johnny soon have him back on his feet with the Home Guard - shortly before Candy's house is bombed. The film eventually comes full circle as Spud is revealed to be Johnny's boyfriend.

What else can be said for the film? The script is among the best ever written, the performances are Oscar worthy, the direction sublime and the music and photography unequaled. It's to the credit of Powell & Pressburger, those masters, that they end the film on an impossibly beautiful note, bettering even the excellence that has come before it. The bomb site that was once Candy's house has been turned into a water cistern. He remembers a promise he made to Barbara upon their engagement, that he would "never change" until the house is flooded and "this is a lake." He looks down at a leaf floating on the water and turns back to Schuldorff and Johnny. "Here is the lake" he says, "and I still haven't changed." Perfect.

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