Sunday, 16 August 2009

The best of times. British cinema of the 1940s

Now, where to begin? As mentioned before, there's a film festival in New York celebrating Brit Noirs, and British cinema has since my early teens been very dear to me. It all started when TV3 in Sweden was screening British postwar classics every afternoon. I suppose they must've got a good deal with some distributor, or possible they had to buy these films in order to get newer, juicier films. But for whatever reason, there they were, and I watched most of them. Both acknowledged classics such as Brief Encounter (1945) and much lesser known films such as The Red Tent (1956).

And probably since then I've considered this particular era, the British postwar cinema (actually, it began already during the war) as one of the true golden ages of cinema. Not just British cinema but world cinema. It's so happens that there was something like a perfect storm for filmmaking. There was a lot of cash at hand, both from the government and from wealthy producers such as J. Arthur Rank, and there were a lot of exceptionally creative, inventive and forceful personalities, writer, directors and cinematographers, who were given at lot of freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. Public attendance was also very high.

There were of course David Lean, Carol Reed and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and there were the brilliant Alexander Mackendrick, the cynical Robert Hamer. There were also directors such as Alberto Cavalcanti, Thorold Dickinson, and Charles Crichton. The brothers Boulding and the writer/director team Frank Lauder/Sidney Gilliat. And they were all in it together, with Lean editing films directed by Powell for example, or Crichton directing scripts written by Mackendrick. And there were also the extraordinary writer T.E.B. Clarke, as well as Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, and cinematographers such as Jack Cardiff, Christopher Callis, Robert Krasker and Douglas Slocombe. And the many wonderful actors at that. None more so the Celia Johnson, whose performance in Brief Encounter may be the most heartbreaking I've ever seen.

They were all different of course, with various themes, styles and temperaments, from the extravagant dreamlike passion of Powell/Pressburger to the quiet realism of Lauder/Gilliat. Much more varied than conventional wisdom would have it. All in all, those years, say between 1940 and 1955, were awe-inspiring, still not really appreciated as much as they should. Things started to unravel after 1948, with less money, more competition from America and the internationalisation of both films and filmmakers. And then came the kitchen sink realism, which took much joy out of British cinema. Oh, OK, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) is very good.

For prospective connoisseurs, here's a list of my particular favourites, in chronological order (and I'm sure I've forgot a few):

The 49th Parallel (1941) Powell & Pressburger
In Which We Serve (1942), David Lean and Noel Coward
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Powell & Pressburger
Champagne Charlie (1944) Alberto Cavalcanti
A Canterbury Tale (1944) Powell & Pressburger
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) Powell & Pressburger
Dead of Night (1945) Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden.
Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Powell & Pressburger
Great Expectations (1946) David Lean
Odd Man Out (1947) Carol Reed
Black Narcissus (1947) Powell & Pressburger
Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean
It Always Rains on Sunday (1948) Robert Hamer
The Red Shoes (1948) Powell & Pressburger
The Passionate Friends (1949) David Lean
The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed
The Queen of Spades (1949) Thorold Dickinson
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Robert Hamer
Passport to Pimlico (1949) Henry Cornelius
The Small Back Room (1949) Powell & Pressburger
The Man in the White Suit (1951) Alexander Mackendrick
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Charles Crichton
Hunted (1952) Charles Crichton
Mandy (1952) Alexander Mackendrick
The Cruel Sea (1953) Charles Frend
The Man Between (1953) Carol Reed
Hobson's Choice (1954) David Lean (yes, I admit, Lean's second only to Howard Hawks in my very own pantheon of directors. And then Michael Powell.)
The Dam Busters (1954) Michael Anderson

Well, that should keep you occupied for quite some time.

A few other directors are also worth mentioning. One is Val Guest, who made his first film in 1943, but I know very little of his big and varied output. But I do know that he made the weird science fiction/horror film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), the musical Expresso Bongo (1959) and the very good crime thriller Hell Is a City (1960), which is rather like Ealing studios meets the existentialism of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Two other directors, J. Lee Thompson and Seth Holt, are also worthy of consideration, but they didn't start to direct until the 1950s, and are therefore not part of this timeframe. But I might return to them later on.

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