09 August 2012

On The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Last night I got an opportunity to see Powell and Pressburger's classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp on the big screen in a gloriously vivid new print. If you ever get the opportunity in this lifetime, please take it.

What a magnificent entertainment The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is. The Archers' tale of an out-of-touch general looking back on his life, loves and losses, is a supreme achievement made at the height of World War II that would have been completely suppressed if Winston Churchill had his way. Luckily, the Bulldog had more pressing matters to attend to than measly old cinematic censorship. The finished film ably documents the progression of a man who was once the pinnacle of soldiering, the pride of his profession, who failed to adapt to the times. The unwritten rules established so long ago were now broken and the soldier failed to notice. What is the purpose of a life in a world that has no more use for it?

The filmmaking on display in Blimp is masterful without ever once feeling showy. The editing is phenomenal, in particular during the two very different unfoldings of the same scene, shown as bookends to the film. The opening version gives us just enough information to latch onto while keeping other items, like the face of a certain "Mata Hari", a secret. In between the film contains a beautiful moonlit, snow-filled crane shot, a handful of ingenious montages marking the passage of time, some superior blocking of characters in the striking Technicolor frame, and other exemplars of consummate craftsmanship, but it never once distracts from the supreme focus of the picture, that being the relationships of the characters.

There is a stunning scene in the no-longer-the-Greatest-Movie-of-All-Time, Citizen Kane, where Everett Sloane's Mr. Bernstein recalls seeing the merest glimpse of a pretty girl several decades ago and how not a day goes by without him thinking of her. Colonel Blimp contains an extension of that obsession with the idealized woman Edith Hunter permeating the lives of both Roger Livesey's Clive Candy and Anton Wolbrook's Theo. Edith is played by the wonderful Deborah Kerr, who appears twice more in the picture as women who tantalize Candy with their resemblance to the one that got away. He ends up marrying one, Barbara, a woman he met in a convent on the night of the armistice, and employing the other, Johnny, as his driver. The triple crown of acting is justly awarded to Livesey, Wolbrook, and Kerr with this film. They are all fantastic. The story calls for something entirely different from each of them and they all deliver with complete aplomb.

Livesey has the arduous task of carrying the picture. Since it is Candy's life story he is in nearly every single scene. He must convincingly show us the progression of the soldier, from that of the orders-defying, duel-taking upstart to the blustery, cantankerous blowhard several decades (and wars) later. Livesey makes it all seem so easy. His natural grip on the character is so great that as the picture progresses one can't really get a bead on how old the actor underneath the ample make-up is. He embodies the frustration and loneliness of the senior Candy with an understanding that seems impossible for his years. (He was a mere 36 years old at the time of shooting.)

Meanwhile Deborah Kerr must successfully inhabit the lives of three different women from three different time periods whose only real connection is their physical resemblance. One could show a brief clip from anywhere in the picture and know exactly which of the three women Kerr is portraying at that moment. Her Edith is headstrong, a woman who wanted to make a name for herself and so moved out of the comfort of England to Germany to teach. Her first doppelgänger Barbara is loyal and supportive but less adventurous, a more dependent creature. One can see that the desire she stirs within Candy is dimmed in comparison to the crystalized memory of Edith. Johnny is a louder, more free-spirited sort who is deeply devoted to Clive but in an entirely platonic way. All three possess echoes of each other while remaining steadfastly their own persons.

But the beating heart of the picture is Anton Wolbrook as Clive's dear friend, the German soldier Theo. The two meet mere moments before they are scheduled to duel one another over a diplomatic slight affected by Candy. They end up next door to each other at a convalescent home where they lick their wounds, play cards, and bond. Wolbrook has significantly less screen time than either Livesey or Kerr but his presence is felt throughout the picture, running along strong like an undercurrent. He is Candy's conscience and confidante. He is also flawed man, possessed with the same pride that affects Clive, but he is honest and loyal to a fault, charming and heartbreakingly beautiful. To see Wolbrook play Theo so buoyantly in the early scenes, his English non-existent but his wonder and goodwill overflowing, and then decades later as a broken and defeated man, escaping Germany after losing his wife to death and children to the Nazi party, is nothing short of captivating.

Calling The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a mature work makes it sound stodgy and boring, which it never is. The film is in fact quite funny and dizzyingly entertaining. While watching the film one is happy to just be in the company of these people, witnessing friendships unfold and loves blossom. However, despite the laughs and camaraderie, the longer one spends away from the theatre, the poetic poignancy of it all settles in. This is that blasted maturity at work. The older one gets the closer the film's losses hit home. As Candy stands at the ruins of his house, looking down at the water with his best friend and the ghost of his wife, we all inhabit the past, burrowing back into the recesses to see all the ones--the friends, family and lovers--that got away.

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