Tag Archives: John Laurie

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp runs two and three-quarters hours and takes place over forty years. The former’s passage is sublime, the latter’s is subtle. Directors Powell and Pressburger bookend the film in the present, then flashback. The lead at the start of the film is James McKechnie. He’s a lieutenant who gets some orders and decides he’s going to get creative with them, which takes him–after some truly amazing driving sequences with motorcycles and army trucks–to aged general Roger Livesey hanging out in some Turkish baths with his pals, steam wetting his walrus moustache. It’s young versus old; McKechnie’s got the new ideas, Livesey’s got the old.

Only what if, at one point, Livesey had the new ideas and someone else had the old. The film flashbacks forty years to a much younger Livesey–the makeup on him in Blimp is a significant achievement–just coming home from the Boer War. He’s just found out a spy he knew from the war (David Ward) is in Berlin, drumming up anti-British sentiment over the conflict. Being a good British officer, Livesey thinks it’s his job to get involved, which introduces him to Deborah Kerr–an English governess in Berlin who doesn’t like the anti-British sentiment. Then Livesey’s big mouth gets him in more trouble, leading him to meet–gradually–German officer Anton Walbrook.

Blimp is never more comedic than during this portion of the flashback. Powell and Pressburger come up with some really good sequences, quite different than how the film opens. The present is movement and sound–the driving sequences, beautifully photographed (by Georges Périnal) and edited (by John Seabourne Sr.)–are visually ambitious. As well as aurally–the truck part of the sequence is set to fast, popular music. The past has a slower pace, visually, but only initially. There’s a lot of establishing work done. Then Powell and Pressburger start getting more and more ambitious.

Some of their ambitions are with how to move through the forty year flashback. They come up with a couple excellent devices, which they use multiple times throughout Blimp, to move the action forward in time without having to do anything with the actors.

Since Blimp is about the military, Powell and Pressburger are also able to get away with a bunch of exposition in the dialogue without it slowing things down. After the time transition, there’s a little catch-up, but never too much. Each scene in Blimp is perfectly timed, which probably helps it breeze through its not-insignificant runtime.

When the action gets to World War I, things are very different. Livesey’s starting to get makeup. He’s also got a sidekick–John Laurie–the film goes through phases of actors. It starts with Livesey, Kerr, and Walbrook. Then it’s Livesey, Laurie, and Kerr. Finally it’s Livesey, Walbrook, Laurie, and Kerr. But there are some interesting complications.

Anyway. The World War I sequence. Whereas the film opens with these modern army motorcycles zooming along, with shots alongside, snappily edited, with this fast music accompanying, the World War I sequence feels like a stage play. The exterior backdrops are clearly paintings. Livesey and Laurie are usually outside. Well, Laurie’s always outside. But he and Livesey will have these interactions during the exteriors before Livesey has to go in and talk to these soldiers or those soldiers. Livesey’s a general now. Travelling the front in Flanders; the soldiers inside don’t have the same read on the war as Livesey. They think he’s out of touch. And when Livesey’s in the war, it’s that stagy exterior. They’re exquisite sets, but they’re definitely not reality. It’s very subjective. And awesome, because Livesey never gets to talk about how he’s internalizing anything. He’s British. They aren’t supposed to internalize.

But the World War I stuff isn’t just Livesey on the front, it’s also Livesey meeting Kerr (just after the war) and having a grand romance. Only Kerr is playing a different character than before. She’s the same age as she was in the first sequence, just all right with her twenty-year senior paramour Livesey. And Walbrook comes back. As a German prisoner of war. Who also has a much different read on things than Livesey. Walbrook gets some great scenes in this section. He gets great scenes later on, but he didn’t get any great scenes–where he got the best material–in the first section. The film treats Walbrook very differently in each sequence, which is awesome, because Walbrook’s so good developing his character over forty years. He’s got a very different part than Livesey. As life for a German from 1902 to 1942 was much different than a British person in the same period.

In the present–or near present, the last section of the flashback, catching up to the bookend–Livesey and Walbrook are reunited once again. The sections are all about twenty years apart. 1902, 1918, 1939. The bookend is in 1943, with the catchup over the last four years of the present action the fastest. But Livesey’s in the same makeup in the last section as he was in the opening bookend. He’s become the guy at the beginning of the movie. The old general who young and capable McKechnie thought was so out of it.

The film’s not really about Livesey being out of it or not. It’s a character study set against British and European history (and social history), with some really grandoise moves from Powell and Pressburger. Kerr playing three different characters–Livesey has a type, he eventually confesses (though Laurie suggests the film skips over five more Kerrs during the first World War)–it’s a grandoise move. Especially since they’re rather different characters, even if Livesey wants to gaze on each one with the same adoration. Kerr gets some glorious moments in Blimp, though her most impressive acting comes in the third sequence, when she is no longer romantic partner material for Livesey or Walbrook.

The production’s impeccable. Powell and Pressburger have various styles throughout, something different for the time period, type of scene, setting. There’s always a new style they’ll implement to get a scene done, developing on a previous one or just doing something entirely new; even in the last scene, they’re still switching up the style. Glorious Technicolor photography from Périnal. Seabourne’s editing, whether he’s being flashy or not, is always fantastic. Great music from Allan Gray (and some exquisite use of classical composers as well). Junge’s production design–phenomenal. The whole production is breathtaking.

Walbrook’s got the meatier role but Livesey’s got the harder one. He’s got to develop a character underneath a caricature. Walbrook gets to break out of a caricature. It’s hard to say who gives a better performance. Same film, very different types of roles leading to different types of performances. I’ll start to type Livesey, then think I should type Walbrook, but shouldn’t I type Livesey. Ad nauseum.

Kerr’s great. She doesn’t have to break from caricature so much as develop a character the film never really shows. She’s idealized and objectified (not visually, but narratively). She transcends those constraints, which is kind of the point. Powell and Pressburger set that detached, off-kilter narrative distance and then do everything to facilitate her being able to cross it. While still staying detached and off-kilter.

The stunning thing about Blimp is how much the filmmakers are doing throughout. After the first section of the flashback–there’s always this theme or that theme, this exceptionally gentle subplot, that exceptionally gentle subplot–and they keep them all going at once. While still doing the various character developments. And history lessons. It’s a dense, narratively, visually, conceptually. Blimp couldn’t be a minute shorter.

Laurie’s great in the fourth biggest role. He gets to be the humor in the later sections of the flashback, when the world isn’t really funny at all anymore. After those four actors, no one really stands out. Not because they’re not good–they’re usually great–but they’re just in the film for a scene or two. Sometimes separated by twenty-one years.

Muriel Aked’s got a really nice scene with Livesey. She’s his only family, his aunt. She gets to humanize him quite a bit. Even if it’s with hunting trophies.

But Livesey, Walbrook, and Kerr are the film. Powell and Pressburger stick to them. Even when someone’s chastising Livesey and it’s over his shoulder, the directors are sticking to him. There are some magnificent scenes in Blimp. The way the filmmakers execute them enthralls. And they seem to know they’re being enthralling and they’re excited to get to enthrall.

Blimp’s also a very serious film. Far more serious than the opening bookend suggests. More serious than the first section of the flashback suggests. The World War I sequence, which totally changes the visual tone of the film–realistic to subjective–is when Blimp starts getting really serious. And it never stops. That seriousness helps break Livesey’s caricature, it helps get Kerr across that intentionally protracted narrative distance, it’s what Walbrook has to embody.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; director of photography, Georges Périnal; edited by John Seabourne Sr.; music by Allan Gray; production designer, Alfred Junge; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Roger Livesey (Clive Candy), Deborah Kerr (Edith Hunter / Barbara Wynne / Johnny Cannon), Anton Walbrook (Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff), John Laurie (Murdoch), James McKechnie (Spud Wilson), Roland Culver (Colonel Betteridge), Albert Lieven (von Ritter), and Harry Welchman (Major Davies).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE WORLD WAR ONE ON FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Trio (1950, Ken Annakin and Harold French)

Trio is a lopsided anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham short story adaptations. The first two segments, directed by Ken Annakin, are deliberate, thoughtful, wry comedies. The last one, directed by Harold French–and taking up over half the film’s runtime–is something of a tragedy. It’s deeply, chastely romantic, full of characters and enough story to probably run for a feature length outing on its own. Instead, it gets fifty minutes to meander to its finish.

Maugham introduces each story, though not for very long. Trio cuts away from him while he’s in mid-sentence, the uncredited narrator always cutting him off. Kind of strange, given Maugham’s one of the three screenwriters. Apparently someone thought he’d detract from the adaptations themselves.

Annakin does an excellent job with the first two segments.

The first has long-time church verger James Hayter losing his job. His boss finds out he can’t read or write and so does the Christian thing, throwing Hayter out on his butt (because liability issues). All right, so the vicar does give Hayter the chance to become literate but Hayter isn’t interested.

Hayter’s performance is awesome. It’s a quiet, cautious, deliberative performance. Much of the segment, at least in the first half, is just understanding Hayter’s perception of the world and his place in it. When he does make his moves for the future, involving landlady Kathleen Harrison, the segment speeds up quite a bit without losing any of its personality. Very nice work from Annakin, Harrison, and, obviously, Hayter.

The second segment has a much bigger principal cast. Nigel Patrick is an annoying passenger on an oceanliner, who irritates his roommate (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and his roommate’s colleague (Naunton Wayne) and the colleague’s wife (Anne Crawford). While the first segment does end with a bit of a punchline, the second just moves along until it gets to a smile.

The strong direction from Annakin, the excellent performances–particularly Patrick and Crawford, but everyone’s quite good–it gets Trio to a good place before kicking off the third story… the feature presentation, as it were.

Before cutting from Maugham, Trio establishes Roland Culver is going to be playing an analogue of the author. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s going to a sanatorium to recuperate. Sanatorium is also the title of the story. There he meets a cast of interesting people who have all sorts of things going on. Well, not Marjorie Fielding and Mary Merrall, who inexplicably don’t even warrant getting credited. They’re the two gossips who pishposh about goings on.

The main story is between Michael Rennie and Jean Simmons. He’s a retired Army officer and a determined cad. She’s the young woman who’s spent over a third of her life recuperating from tuberculosis but she’s not easily fooled. We never see her not be easily fooled, Culver just talks about observing it multiple times. Rennie pursues her, Simmons doesn’t want to be pursued, but doesn’t entirely avoid his attention.

Meanwhile, Raymond Huntley is a bore to visiting, suffering wife Betty Ann Davies. And John Laurie and Finaly Currie comedically bicker. André Morell’s the doctor in charge of the place, though he really doesn’t have anything to do. Neither does Culver. He’s just around to give Davies someone to talk with about Huntley. Rennie and Simmons function on their own, Laurie, Currie, Fielding, and Merrall are all background.

From the start, director French clearly doesn’t have the same kind of handle Annakin did on the first two segments. French and cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer frequently rely on bad projection backdrops, and French really doesn’t have anything interesting to do with all the talking heads shots. He’s seemingly more concerned with keeping it appear busy.

But the segment gets by. All the performances are good, even if the actors don’t have much in the way of parts. Whether due to the adaptation or the original text, the potentially good scenes (for the narrative) get avoided so there can be occasional reveals. When it does wrap up, it does so without much resolution. French is going for melodramatic effect, nothing else; shame the actors’ fine work adds up to so little. The segment needs more time. It’s got too much for the anthology and not enough for the story itself.

Trio’s universally well-acted, fairly well-written, either well-directed or at least mediocrely, but the lopsided nature of the segments–in terms of runtime and overall effect–hurt it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Annakin and Harold French; screenplay by W. Somerset Maugham, R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley, based on stories by Maugham; directors of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer; edited by Alfred Roome; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring James Hayter (Albert Foreman), Kathleen Harrison (Emma), Nigel Patrick (Kelada), Anne Crawford (Mrs. Ramsey), Naunton Wayne (Mr. Ramsey), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Mr. Gray), Roland Culver (Mr. Ashenden), Michael Rennie (Major Templeton), Jean Simmons (Miss Bishop), Betty Ann Davies (Mrs. Chester), Raymond Huntley (Mr. Chester), Finlay Currie (Mr. McLeod), Marjorie Fielding (Mrs. Whitbread), Mary Merrall (Miss Atkin), John Laurie (Mr. Campbell), and André Morell (Dr. Lennox).


The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)

There are numerous good moments in The 39 Steps. Even the clunky finale is a good moment–director Hitchcock knows he’s got a good moment, he just doesn’t know how to fill in around it. This inability on Hitchcock’s part makes The 39 Steps immediately interesting when compared to the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, but far less on its own. The film’s got a bad pace at less than ninety minutes. It’s a “man on the run” thriller with constant danger and it’s got a bad pace.

For the first half of the film, when lead Robert Donat finds out about a conspiracy against Great Britain and tries to stop it, is all right. There’s some great editing by Derek N. Twist and Hitchcock does well with the commentary on Londoners. And Donat and Lucie Mannheim, who plays a spy, have some solid chemistry. Donat’s just a regular guy–a Canadian who does business occasionally in London–so all this intrigue is a big deal for him. Only it’s not, because Donat doesn’t have a character to play. Charles Bennett and Ian Hay’s script does nothing for its characters–the most interesting thing Donat does is flirt with suffering housewife Peggy Ashcroft. It’s 39 Steps best scene in a lot of ways, because it’s entirely successful. Even Hitchock’s ambitious set pieces later on in the film aren’t entirely successful. There’s always something off, be it the editing–Twist is far better at confusion than action–or Bernard Knowles’s simultaneously impressive and problematic cinematography. Most of the set pieces have a big, detailed set to play out on and Knowles shoots them blandly. Hitchcock doesn’t use them well either, which is another problem (and reason 39 Steps is historically splendid), but the lighting would help a lot.

And then there’s “leading lady” Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock, Bennett and Hay work to make her as unlikable as possible, then she gets her big revelation scene and gets to moon over Donat. See, she doesn’t believe he’s a good guy.

There’s a certain charm to how the film builds up–Donat moving around, meeting various people–even villain Godfrey Tearle only gets a few scenes and his mid-second act showdown with Donat is brief. The film uses that narrative device, which is mostly expository but imaginatively handled, for so long, it becomes the most distinct element of the film. And then Hitchcock chucks it for the last third.

The action set pieces during the chase in Scotland have a lot of enthusiasm but they just don’t connect. Maybe if Carroll and Donat had some actual chemistry when she’s got to hate him but they don’t. It’s even worse because Bennett and Hay go out of their way to make her worse. And she ends up the protagonist in the third act so Hitchcock can do a couple surprises. It’s got a lot of problems.

I can’t be particularly disappointed in The 39 Steps because it never actually seems like anything is going to fully connect. Hitchcock doesn’t have the narrative distance down, he doesn’t have the balance between cinematographic devices and narrative ones. Though that second half is so poorly paced, it just annoys.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan; director of photography, Bernard Knowles; edited by Derek N. Twist; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Gaumont British Distributors.

Starring Robert Donat (Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Crofter’s Wife), John Laurie (Crofter), Helen Haye (Mrs. Jordan) and Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).


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