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Really Big Shoes

LACMA salutes the Archers, England's remarkable duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

September 21, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

British filmmaker Michael Powell has been so associated with one film and one film alone that "Million Dollar Movie," the second volume of his autobiography, says in impressive letters right on the jacket, "the director of 'The Red Shoes.' "

But Powell did considerably more than the film that launched ballet lessons without number, and he didn't do that picture alone. The credits read "directed, produced and written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger," a testament to one of the most remarkable partnerships in film history. These two collaborated on 22 films, mostly in the 1940s and '50s under the banner of the Archers, their joint production company with the celebrated logo of an arrow hitting a bull's-eye.

Though Powell (who was in general responsible for the directing, with Hungarian-born Pressburger doing the writing) worked on films that ran the gamut from "The Thief of Bagdad" to "Peeping Tom" without his partner, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has sensibly concentrated on the joint ventures in "The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger." This wonderful 12-film series starts Saturday night with a screening of, inevitably, "The Red Shoes," with Powell's widow, crack editor Thelma Schoonmaker, in attendance.

Seeing the Powell-Pressburger films today in the excellent prints LACMA has secured is to understand why this partnership is both revered by partisans (who include directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola) and largely unknown to the general public. For these excellent films are both independent and conventional, British and not British, ahead of their time and rooted in it.

More than anything else, the Archers' films are idiosyncratic, not quite like anyone else's movies, or even like each other. They're individualistic, unpredictable entertainments for adults, engaging and sentimental but not at the expense of being smart and literate. Clever, irreverent, laced with unexpected poignancy, they are the clear precursors of today's independent films, and its probably no coincidence that Pressburger's grandson ended up producing the groundbreaking British film "Trainspotting."

Though their exoticism and willingness to deal with sexuality made them not typically British, the Archers films displayed an intense pride in the jaunty, can-do spirit of its British characters. And the Powell-Pressburger films also needled Americans whenever they could, with one character noting waspishly that "the Americans can't bear anybody to be tougher than themselves."

And there is, of course, one more thing. The Archers' films, as befits Powell's apprenticeship with silent film visual wizard Rex Ingram, were almost all drop-dead gorgeous, pictorial masterpieces with a casual grasp of imagery that still takes the breath away.

The LACMA series offers a special treat when the Archers' most visually spectacular film, 1947's "Black Narcissus," an Oscar winner for both art direction and color cinematography, gets shown on Oct. 11 in a 35-millimeter Technicolor nitrate print from the motion picture academy archives.

Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, "Black Narcissus" details the crises of faith that follow when a group of nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary open a new school and medical facility in the back of the beyond, 8,000 feet high in a former palace brothel tucked into a corner of the Himalayas.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest sister superior in the order, was played by Deborah Kerr, and her nemesis, Sister Ruth, by Kathleen Byron, leading Powell to tartly note in his autobiography, "so my two mistresses, one ex and one current, were both working for me in the same picture. It was a situation not uncommon in show business, I was told, but it was new to me."

Also in the picture was hunky David Farrar as the local British agent suspicious of the nuns, Sabu as the extravagant son of the local ruler whose London-bought scent gives the film its name, and the teenage Jean Simmons, miles away from the Ophelia she played almost simultaneously for Laurence Olivier, as the sensuous Ria.

Powell called this "the most erotic film I have ever made," but what most viewers remember as well is the exquisite, poetic color "Black Narcissus" used, its glorious evocation of the Himalayas made all the more noteworthy because Powell insisted on doing the whole film inside the studio.

As the director pointed out in "A Life in Movies," the first volume of his autobiography, "The atmosphere in this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start. Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting--it must all be under our control. If we went to India and shot a lot of exteriors, according to the usual plan, and then came back to Pinewood and then tried to match them here, you would have two kinds of colour and two kinds of style." LACMA's "Black Narcissus" print includes the flashback sequences, doltishly censored in this country, that show a romance Deborah Kerr's character had before she took her vows.

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