Friday 9 December 2022

Dilys Powell

 One of my favourite quotes from a film critic is the following: 

To explain to a sophisticated taste why The Sun Shines Bright is so good a film strikes me as nearly impossible. A sophisticated literary taste, that is. In the cinema sophistication wears strange colours, and the most austere judge will admire a piece which to a reading man may appear tearful tosh. Nothing sadder than to watch some devoted film critic trying to explain to a dramatic or a literary critic - or even an art critic, for artists outside their own field are ruled more than they think by literary ideas - that to appreciate a film you have to look at it, not just listen to it. Human desperation can go no further.

That was Dilys Powell in her review of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953) in the Sunday Times. Powell, whose writing has been collected in, for example, The Golden Screen - Fifty Years of Film (1989) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader (1991), is someone I always enjoy reading, and often have reason to return to. I share with her a love of westerns for example ("There are no bad Westerns. There are superb Westerns; there are good Westerns. And there are Westerns." she wrote in 1964), and of Vincente Minnelli.

She did not only love Minnelli's famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, which it is common to love, but his more challenging and lesser-known films too, which often only Minnelli auteurists like. An example is her review of Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). An excerpt: "Return to form by a brilliant director: something to celebrate. The director is Vincente Minnelli/.../The story deals with extravagances which in the hands of another director might be merely absurd. Not in Minnelli's hands./.../This time the frenzies of the film studio and the desperate dolce vita of Americans working abroad are rightly set in their period; the result may be a fantasy world, but it is a fantasy which this director understands and makes his own and into which he can breathe an intense, feverish life."

Something that often shines through in her writing is a defensive position vis-à-vis a certain kind of people, of which she most certainly had had many encounters, who take a belittling view of her chosen artform; literary types for whom film is mere entertainment. As part of her efforts to emphasise the artistic value of cinema she early on highlighted the director. In 1946, for example, she gave a talk about the role of the director in relation to the national, industrial and cooperative aspects of cinema. She asked the rhetorical question: “How can one man leave the mark of his personality and his talent on this hugger-mugger?” and answered, “But he does.” She also wrote that the visual language of a great filmmaker is the equivalent of the written language of a novelist. In her reviews of Antonioni's films of the 1960s, which she loved, she writes as much about the buildings and architecture as she does about the actors. Speaking of Antonioni, I love this sentence from her review of Bullitt (1968): "And outside the work of Antonioni I haven't seen such effective narrative and emotional use of an urban background."

One of the joys of reading collections like these is that you can see how her views evolve, as from the opening paragraph of her review of Nashville (1975), "Robert Altman has never been among my idols." to the last paragraph of her review of Quintet (1979), "And once again you are reminded of the astonishing range of Altman's work. M.A.S.H. and Images, Brewster McCloud and Three Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Nashville, and Quintet - one never knows what this extraordinary director will do next. And thank heaven for that."

Another treat is when there are several reviews in a row of exuberant excitement, as from 1955, where she shares her joyful pleasure of experiencing the greatness of Seven Samurai (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and, slightly less great, Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). She also liked the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962), and she was an eager fan of Miklos Jancsó. She called Henry Hathaway an "old-time spellbinder" and referred to Fritz Lang's "cold, savage skill." This is another thing I like about her, the range of what she likes. She is open to almost anything, except a certain kind of violence, like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) which she hated even though she liked many of his other films. At times she wrestles with a film, where the reviews move back and forth between what she likes and what she dislikes in the film under consideration, weighing the good and the bad against each other as she writes.

Powell was born in 1901 and after studying at Oxford she began working at the Sunday Times in 1928. She became their film critic in 1939, and in 1946 she was elected president of Fipresci, The International Federation of Film Critics. She stayed at Sunday Times until 1979 after which she spent 13 years writing criticism for Punch. She also returned to Sunday Times, writing about films on television up until the day she died, in 1995. That shows how committed she was to both films and film criticism. 

Beside films, her great love was Greece, a country where she spent a lot of time during her life. First as part of her first husband's archaeology expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, then doing war service during World War 2, and then as a friend and lover of the country. She also wrote several books about Greece, which I have not read but am curious about, in particular An Affair of the Heart (1957).


The London Film Critics' Circle has (or at least had until 2019?) an annual award called the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film, and its first winner was Dirk Bogarde. He wrote a beautiful introduction to The Golden Screen, about his friendship with Powell. Here is a sample from it: "Playing a small part in a not very remarkable French film she said of me tartly, but not unkindly, 'Given too little to do Mr Bogarde does far too much.' Which was precisely what I did. And how I learned from that phrase." They became friends and remained so for life it seems.

Another connection between Bogarde, Powell, and Greece too, is that she was a friend of fellow philhellenist Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom Bogarde played in Powell/Pressburger's lovely Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). It is set on Crete, although due to lingering fighting there after the Greek civil war, filming took place in southern France. I do not know how she felt about that film, but she did love the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. The one exception was Peeping Tom (1960), which she, like many other British critics, eviscerated in her review. But she regretted this later and wrote an apology, in Sunday Times of course. I can quote it in full I think, and notice that this second review is prefiguring the contemporary idea of the "elevated horror film":

Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country's most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer.

With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom. See it, and spare a moment to respect the camerawork of Otto Heller.

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