One of the current programs at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films is “Behind the Convent Walls: Bad Habits and Naughty Nuns,” a pretty self-explanatory series that collects subversive films about nuns falling prey to temptations of the flesh. Programmer Daniel Frankel has selected some trashy “nunsploitation” fare, including Jess Franco’s Les Démons as well as some comedies (Sister Act, Nasty Habits). Among the more prestigious selections are Jacques Rivette’s New Wave feature The Nun and the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger joint Black Narcissus, one of the lauded British filmmaking duo’s most lush Technicolor marvels.
Collectively known as the Archers, Powell and Pressburger made some of the most notable films released circa World War II. Their output during the 40s, considered British cinema’s golden age, is easily one of the great stretches in cinema history. Because most critical evaluation of British films released between 1940 and the early ’70s tends to favor socially conscious kitchen-sink dramas or Ealing comedies, the Archers’ films are aesthetically unique even within the context of the period. Their films find a visionary middle ground between realism and expressionistic fantasy, usually taking the form of melodrama but adapting such wide-ranging genres as the historical epic and musical. My five favorite Powell/Pressburger films are below.
5. A Canterbury Tale (1944) The narrative elisions in this enigmatic fantasy are absolutely fascinating. As Dave Kehr notes, the film is essentially plotless, but the story gaps are filled in with the kind of brilliantly mysterious characterizations that made the Archers famous. It’s probably the one film in their oeuvre that can be described as an acquired taste, but those receptive to its unique rhythms will find plenty to savor.
4. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) Similar to Canterbury Tale in its weaving of myth and romance, this black-and-white drama is a great film about self-discovery, as the jokey title suggests. Some of the earliest flourishes of the Archers’ more expressionistic later works are found here, most notably the “Tartan dream” and Corryvreckan whirlpool sequences. It’s also perfectly entertaining as a sort of screwball comedy—Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey have infectious chemistry.
3. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) A great rumination on humanism and mortality, this was initially designed to improve Anglo-American relations following WWII, but any propagandist element has been twisted to better fit the filmmakers’ fantastical vision. The bright and dynamic imagery here still astounds, a Technicolor feat that stands as some of the most inspired and bravura filmmaking in the Archers’ canon.
2. The Red Shoes (1948) The definition of vulgar beauty, this lush psychodrama features some of the most garish cinematography ever put on screen, but the genuine emotion it stirs, coupled with Powell’s classical framing and a commanding central performance by Moira Shearer, results in pure elegance, a wondrous melding of form and content. This is usually the first Archers film people see because it’s the filmmakers’ most famous film, but it’s also something of a measuring stick: if you’re held up by the inconsistent ending, don’t bother watching anything else by them.
1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) A singular achievement that’s also—because of its intricate plotting, rebounding structure, and ultradynamic characters—one of the most effortlessly rewatchable films ever, despite its nearly three-hour runtime. Like A Matter of Life and Death, this also started as a propaganda project, and though the film is certainly pro-England, it’s reluctantly so. Jabs at the British military class circa Churchill land with stinging accuracy, but the film’s equally as diffident toward fascism and geopolitics. In Clive Candy, you have one of the great movie protagonists, a clear inspiration for Wes Anderson’s Monsieur Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which actually borrows a line from one of this film’s more famous sequences: “The war starts at midnight!”