Thursday, January 12, 2012

Michael Powell-Palooza: Four of the Most Gorgeous Movies Ever Made in Color, Tonight on TCM

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 12:02 PM

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Many, many years ago — we're talking double digits, folks — Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema announced a rare Nashville screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 film Black Narcissus, a hothouse study of nuns in a remote mountaintop convent beset by temptations as pervasive as the scent of jasmine. I wrote this breathless piece exhorting people to rush out and see one of the most stunning movies ever made in color — only to attend and find a battered print that had deteriorated to a single shade of Pepto-Bismol pink.

I ran into moviegoers who harbored grudges about that for years. If any of them are out there, I'll pass along the notice that Turner Classic Movies is showing Black Narcissus and three other Powell-Pressburger classics tonight as part of its month-long salute to cinematographer Jack Cardiff. You'll understand the tribute once you see these movies (and the accompanying Cardiff documentary Cameraman at 10 p.m.). Color is emotion, and the intensity of those bloody reds and seething blues is directly proportionate to the ache they express.

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First up is 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (7 p.m.), hated by Winston Churchill (lousy as wartime propaganda, he felt) but loved by just about everyone else, which traces the 40-year career of blustery soldier Roger Livesey. After Cameraman comes 1946's A Matter of Life and Death, aka Stairway to Heaven (11:30 p.m.), a stunning, seldom-shown romantic fantasy in which downed pilot David Niven defies the afterlife for the love of Kim Hunter. Heaven is black and white; color is reserved for the here and now, for the heat of touch and passion and love.

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At 1:30 a.m., TCM is airing the one Powell-Pressburger film everyone knows: 1948's The Red Shoes, a portrait of artistic obsession to make the recent Black Swan look relatively chicken. And then there's Black Narcissus (4 a.m.), an erotic fever dream pitched on (and in a climactic scene, literally over) the brink of hysteria.

Ideally, you should (or could) see these on the big screen. When a few years ago The Belcourt showed a flawless new print of The Red Shoes, a movie that struck me in an initial TV viewing as florid and overwrought — which goes double for Black Narcissus — the sumptuous visual scheme and outsized emotions suddenly looked properly scaled. But tonight on TCM, it's safe to say you won't have to worry that the movies will turn out bismuth pink.

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