Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Contraband

Great Directors: Alfred Hitchcock

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Essential films: Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window.

Although it’s fashionable, in certain critical circles, to prefer Hitchcock’s British period to the later American films, I find the earlier movies to be much less interesting—narratively simplistic, schematic in both camerawork and suspense, and with a lack of atmosphere that becomes all the more obvious when you compare them to, say, the films of Michael Curtiz, or Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband. Hitchcock needed Hollywood as much as Hollywood needed him, and it was only with the advent of color, widescreen, and American movie stars—and starlets—that our greatest director of suspense found himself in his true element. One needs only to compare Psycho to The Lady Vanishes to see how much Hitchcock had learned in the intervening twenty years.

His masterpiece is Vertigo, which is still the purest example of a film whose formal design—in visuals, writing, and above all in music—is inseparable from its overwhelming emotional impact. The final scene, in which James Stewart is abruptly confronted with the consequences of his own folly, is cruel, capricious, and perfect. And that was only the beginning: the run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho in three successive years is the most astonishing hat trick by any director in film, moving seamlessly from psychological depth to perfect escapism to unforgettable terror. It’s a reminder of Hitchcock’s true range, and the fact that a director who knows how to generate suspense with images can get away with almost anything. If every novel, at its heart, is a mystery story, then every movie is fundamentally a work of suspense—which is why the Master of Suspense is also the most influential director of all time.

Great Directors: Powell and Pressburger

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Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!

Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.

And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.

Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.

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