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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Spy in Black: MOMA, June 3 and 6

Many readers of this blog are hip to this film already, but Michael Powell's The Spy in Black , at MOMA on June 3 and June 6, doesn't come around all that much, and it's quite good: to my mind, clearly better than its companion piece Contraband, and the approximate beginning of Powell's most intensely creative period. (Not coincidentally, it's also the first time Powell worked with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, whose loopy grandeur seems to have kicked Powell up to a higher level of artistic ambition.)



Blogger David said...

I love it. Ran it again recently and was struck by how much better it was than I expected. And Powell's propoganda films are always so wonderfully off-message - here the German spy is sympathetic and moving!

May 30, 2007 3:13 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

And the sympathetic German comes back in Colonel Blimp. I wonder how much grief Powell and Pressburger got for indulging that penchant during wartime.

Against that, there's the really negative depiction of the enemy in 49th Parallel. But making the audience invade Canada along with the enemy is such a wild idea that this film seems more radical than the other two....

May 30, 2007 4:55 PM  
Blogger Jaime said...

Probably a fair amount. But his generosity in those films seems "sporting," and I get the sense from Powell (and Pressburger?) that he was okay with kinds of people but not okay with individual people violating his sense of honor, ethics, good sportsmanship, whatever. Contrast this with Sam Fuller, in whose films we needed only be aware of such delicacies as prostitutes were okay but Reds were not.

I liked CONTRABAND quite a bit (PARALLEL more), so I am eager to see SPY. At last year's Powell retro I was pleased by how well his films have aged.

May 30, 2007 8:54 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

When I think about it, villainy and malevolence don't seem to play much of a role in the Powell-Pressburger fllms. The 49th Parallel is a major exception, but our rooting interests are eerily complicated by the way the story is told. On the whole, P&P seem fairly accepting of people.

The wacky thing about Fuller is that he has such a powerful personal identification with the iconography of evil. So even his protagonists are loaded up with "bad guy" signification.

May 31, 2007 8:18 AM  
Blogger David said...

We certainly know the Archers had serious problems with BLIMP: The War Office prevented them using Olivier in the lead (a lucky break, imho) and Churchill asked in memos whether there wasn't some way to stop the film altogether. When it was made, some critics attacked it for it's alleged "pro-German" slant. Even Pressburger thought afterwards that they were maybe too fair to the Germans.

June 1, 2007 12:57 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

The Spy in Black is really quite excellent. The story is more genre-based than in later P&P films, but the P&P narrative style is all there: the storytelling is pegged right away to light comedy and droll character bits, even though the subject matter is serious business from the beginning; and then P&P keep close to the drama, playing the story arc hard. The direction is a rather complicated balancing act that requires lots of good old-fashioned craft: the left hand is orchestrating story tension all the time, while the right hand increasingly weaves in the grace notes that we associate with P&P, the documentary elements and the mysterious evocations of the calm and continuity of nature.

Lots of the distinction of this movie comes from the terrific story, which creates a real emotional dilemma for the audience as the tortured hero-villain plays out his final, desperate exploit.

June 4, 2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger David said...

Powell tells us that Pressburger amazed him by completely rewriting the story, changing the gender of characters and transforming generic stuff into something really fresh. And that was the beginning od their partnership.

I like plenty of 30s and 50s british stuff, but the war years and their aftermath seem to have created an urgency and daring that enlivened the whole film culture in my country. Almost everybody just got way better! Powell is probably the most extreme example, although EDGE OF THE WORLD proves the talent was there already.

June 6, 2007 12:30 PM  

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