By 1957, Powell and Pressburger were moving towards the annulment of their partnership. It had been an almost decade-long decline.
‘Gone to Earth’ was a slab of melodrama, ‘The Elusive Pimpernel’ a bit of pantomime camp, ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ a failed attempt to recapture the magnificence of ‘The Red Shoes’, and ‘O … Rosalinda!!’ a self-indulgent flop, audiences showing either a singular lack of interest in operetta or an understandable caution in approaching films with three exclamation marks in the title.
Their last two outings were a return to the war movies that had made their name; but whereas the eight-film run of classics between ‘The Spy in Black’ in 1939 and the ‘A
Matter of Life and Death’ in 1946 were made during the war years (the latter in production just as the war was reaching its conclusion), ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ and ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ came ten years afterwards: would that curious alchemy which made art of the propaganda film still function in retrospect?
Well, not with ‘The Battle of the River Plate’. Although a decent enough account overall of the sinking of the Graf Spree, Powell’s decision to film the movements of ships at sea resulted a highly cinematic footage utterly at odds with the patently studio-bound falsity of the rest of the film.
Which leaves us with ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’, their swansong, its box-office swelled by Dirk Bogarde in his dishy, matinee-idol prime, and again another account of an actual incident from the war.
The source material was a book by W. Stanley Moss recounting the exploits in Crete of Major (now Sir) Patrick Leigh-Fermor, an authentically individualistic English hero (as T.E. Lawrence to the desert, so Leigh-Fermor to the Mediterranean), and his successful kidnap of a high ranking German officer.
Powell and Pressburger’s take on Leigh-Fermor is romanticism writ large. Bogarde’s swooning performance is entirely in keeping with the sense of hero-worship with which Powell saturates the film. P&P favourite Marius Goring essays the German general with distinctly more gravitas.
And herein lies the enigma (and pleasure) of the film. Goring’s career office is a professional, but courteous with it: a Nazi and a gentleman. (P&P had been daring enough to portray ‘good’ Germans even in the war years: the harmless Vogel (Niall MacGinnis) in ‘49th Parallel’ and the dignified Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’.) Leigh-Fermor, however, is portrayed as a gentleman amateur. Ian Christie, in his wonderful study of Powell and Pressburger’s films, ‘Arrows of Desire’, describes Bogarde/Leigh-Fermor as “dressed as a comic-opera bandit when we first see him”. He goes on:
“… the whole story is framed, not only by its Shakespearean title but by a reference to the Odyssey … If the [film’s] realization does not live up to its promise or ambition, it remains nonetheless an intriguing stage in the military ideology that runs from Blimp … a defiant assertion of the gentleman-amateur ideal at a time when Britain was learning its new role in the world of superpower conflict and the end of Empire” (‘Arrows of Desire’, Faber & Faber, p.78).
Which is absolutely spot-on. Everything from Bogarde’s dashing leading man status to Goring’s good grace in defeat to the studied poignancy of the ending (the German officer tries to ‘buy’ the affections of a local Cretan child, with a view to leaving clues to his whereabouts, only for the lad – his loyalties hitherto in doubt – to be revealed as unswayable in his devotion to Leigh-Fermor). Which only makes the film’s far-and-away best scene that much more effective in its swift, no-nonsense efficiency.
Leigh-Fermor visits his contact, a dentist, in a Nazi-held town. Unbeknownst to him, he is followed. When the Nazi patrol (its sergeant a young Christopher Lee, speaking German like a native) burst in, Leigh-Fermor finds himself hustled into the dentist’s chair, a white bib-like cloth draped around his neck. Terrified of dentists, L-F plays along, not batting an eyelid when the patrol come stomping in, but losing his cool as soon as the dentist, hands shaking from fear, starts up the drill. The Nazi sergeant has his suspicions and pulls the cloth from his neck; L-F is clutching a pistol under it. He summarily executes the German soldiers. There’s nothing do-or-die or remotely heroic about the scene; he does it because he’s scared of dentists.
Seven years after ‘The Blue Lamp’ and just five after ‘Hunted’, and a full decade or more before the darker characterisations of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’, the anti-romantic-hero element of Bogarde’s cinematic persona is revealed in a brief lightning flash. So too the adaptability and menacing screen presence of Christopher Lee. And between them, a scene effective enough to transform what could have been Powell and Pressburger’s death rattle into a respectable send-off.