Thursday, February 14, 2008

Honey-Baked, Spiral-Sliced

49th Parallel (1941)
directed by Michael Powell
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

After 49th Parallel, the falsest statement in movies is that Laurence Olivier was a great movie actor. To be sure, he belonged to an older generation (when "stagy" didn't mean what it does now), and he was first and foremost a theater man. Perhaps Olivier preferred the theater, but he enjoyed movies enough to make them throughout his life, and the movie-going public rewarded him: nominations, awards, box office success. Johnnie the Trapper is possibly the hammiest performance I have seen on film, not boisterous (a "vigorous, honest plainness" is how the character was probably imagined) but embarrassing. No Orson Welles pay-for-play cameo ever touched it.

Michael Powell, on the other hand, brings even to this paycheck propaganda the humanity and wonder that defined his best collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. The northern wind is always present here, avatar of thoughtful solitudes. It begins outside - the evergreen gales - but the camera waits indoors. First, an old man whistles as he walks through his cabin. The whistle inside matches the wind. Later, at night - wind still blowing - a clock chimes warmly, and a soldier begins to snore. In both instances, protagonists draw out the loneliest aspects of nature and wilderness and welcome them like a friend or a hot fire. No experience is separate from the space where it occurs; all you need to make it better is the right sort of man.