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October 04, 2005

Two by Michael Powell

Ill Met by Moonlight
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - 1957
Carlton PAL Region 2 DVD

They're a Weird Mob
Michael Powell - 1966
Roadshow Entertainment PAL Region 4 DVD

I was hoping to cover these films last week to coincide with Michael Powell's 100th birthday. Better late than never.

While I am still hoping to see as many of Michael Powell's films are are available, I feel like there is a need to review his career with a bit more balance. While Powell is rightly championed for The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom, some of his films are less interesting than others. For some people, this may sound sacreligious, but to put it in perspective, my love of John Ford's films does not include Donovan's Reef, nor would I force anyone to see a Frank Capra film made after State of the Union. That said, my perspective is that the more films I see by Michael Powell, the more uneven I consider his overall filmography.

Ill Met by Moonlight was the last film by The Archers, that is written, produced and directed by Powell and Pressburger. It's a World War II story about a couple of British soldiers working with Crete partisans to kidnap a German general. As a genre film, it is kind of like The Guns of Navarone or The Dirty Dozen, but with more of an emphasis on thrills and chuckles. Without being too critical, I would say the film appealed to the twelve year old boy in me.

Dirk Bogarde is fun to watch, hiding behind a mustache speaking Greek. Michael Gough, an uncredited David McCullum, and Christopher Lee as a very tall German soldier also appear. The lightness of tone virtually undermines any suspense in the story. The craftsmanship is still here, with the obvious visual motif of shots of the night sky. Beginning with Mikis Theodorakis cheerful, Greek folk style music, Ill Met by Moonlight comes off as a boy's adventure film rather than the dramatization of men on a mission.

If Ill Met by Moonlight is a disappointment, They're a Weird Mob is almost a disaster. The film is based on a novel that was purported to be the autobiography of an Italian, Nino Culotta, in Australia. As it was, the book was written by an Australian, John O'Grady. This fish out of water story made me think of Preston Sturges' The French They are a Funny Race, presenting an English gentleman's view of the French. In both cases, you have filmmakers who have done so much better work in the past that watching these films is painful. The DVD includes a television documentary on the making of the film which is both useful and horrifying. According to this documentary, They're a Weird Mob was made not only to sell Australia to the world (the film made at a time when the country was actively trying to attract immigrants like future Ozzie Mel Gibson), but also to revive the Australian film industry.

As it turned out, Michael Powell was not the one to save the Australian film industry. He did get the opportunity to make one last feature, the much better Age of Consent, in which he finally got to work with James Mason who played against the then unkown Helen Mirren. They're a Weird Mob is saddled with heavy handed humor, and almost every cliche about Australians. We see Walter Chiari struggle with the slang, lots of beer drinking, and the "boys" playing in the mud. The film also stars two men who are almost axioms of classic Australian cinema, Chips Rafferty and John Meillon. Powell's discovery, Clare Dunne, is a redhead like Deborah Kerr and Moira Shearer. Her career as a movie star began and ended here. Not only did Powell reuse some music from Ill Met by Moonlight, but further reseach reveals that the screenplay, credited to Richard Imrie, was really by Emeric Pressburger. As such, They're a Weird Mob is a reteaming of The Archers that has substantially missed the mark.

Posted by peter at October 4, 2005 04:23 PM


Wow, out on DVD finally! Powell said he had a lot of affection for "They're a Weird Mob," but sometimes filmmakers mix up the fun they had making a picture with how good the thing actually is.

Personal trivia: I read "They're a Weird Mob" during a period in which I was having a tumultuous liasion with an Aussie. I didn't find it all that funny, but I told him I did. Yet another instance of our ability to ignore real-life foreshadowing, no matter how fast we pick up on it in the theater.

Posted by: Campaspe at October 5, 2005 10:36 AM