In October of 2010, British director Danny Boyle, Oscar winner for directing “Slumdog Millionaire”, was quoted as saying this: “I remember always being disappointed that British films weren’t that visual. They were a bit boring and I always find that frustrating.” He was saying this in response as to why his films tended to be filled with highly charged visuals. So, in essence, he was saying that his style was a response to what he didn’t see in the British films of his youth.
In line with his thought, there is a common belief that has persisted that British films of the past for the most part have tended toward the quietly sedate, with the same basic English manor settings, everyone speaking veddy veddy proper English, and nothing overly dramatic truly occurs. This has led quite a few to write off the period before the early to mid-60’s as not worthy of much attention and interest. In reality, though, this could not be farther from the truth.
Unbeknownst to quite a few, there was a period unofficially known as the “golden age” of British cinema that lasted from approximately 1934, beginning with Hitchcock’s original version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, and ending with the last great comedy from Ealing Studios, “The Ladykillers”, in 1955. In between this period you will find not just the great British Hitchcock thrillers of the 30’s, but also the exciting Gainsborough Studio melodramas of the 40’s starring James Mason, Margaret Lockwood and others, such as “The Man in Grey” and “The Wicked Lady”, and ending up in the late 40’s and early 50’s with all the great Ealing comedies such as “The Man in the White Suit” and “the Lavender Hill Mob” among others. Interspersed in that period were great works from both Carol Reed and David Lean along with others, making for a truly rich and varied period of British moviemaking.
During that same period there were some standout examples of visually exciting films. Though the list to follow doesn’t cover all of them and doesn’t intend to , these would probably be the best examples to start with to get a real taste of the flair that existed in an unfairly maligned period of British filmmaking that is ripe for discovery or rediscovery. The list is in priority order and is as follows:
(1) Black Narcissus (pictured above-1947)- Beginning in the late 30’s, director Michael Powell began a period of moviemaking that has few equals in ingenuity and originality and that extended to his visuals. Black Narcissus is arguably his crowning Technicolor achievement, shot by one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Jack Cardiff, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his efforts. A stunning film, it captures, mostly through visuals, the effect of a convent high in the Himalayas on a group of nuns stationed there, going from reverie to madness. Lush, intense, poignant, and suspenseful in equal measure, with a wordless sequence towards the end that is one of the most powerful scenes ever filmed, Black Narcissus is a Technicolor masterpiece.
(2) Stairway to Heaven (1946)-Another Michael Powell gem. He, along with co-director Emeric Pressburger, were truly unique visual storytellers and this film is a prime example of that. The story of a British pilot played by David Niven who is shot down and supposedly dies and goes to heaven but pleads his case to return to earth for the woman he loves, the movie is a stylistic marvel, with scenes on earth shot in vivid color and scenes in heaven in black-and-white, with jaw-dropping shots of both a heavenly court and a real stairway to heaven. Truly an original.
(3) The Red Shoes (1948)- Still another Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger gem. They made some of the best movies of that time or of any time, both visually stunning and complex, like fever dreams come to life, and The Red Shoes, along with Black Narcissus, would be them working at the height of their Technicolor powers. Highly stylized and a favorite of ballet fans everywhere along with Martin Scorsese, who lists this as one of his favorite films of all time, it is about a ballerina torn between two men, with superb dance sequences and color that almost drips from the screen. A wonderful film in every way but especially visually.
(4) Oliver Twist (1948)-Another superb director, David Lean, working at the height of his craft directing the best adaptations of the work of Charles Dickens. Using vivid black and white as a palette, Lean, along with another great cinematographer, Guy Green, creates indelible images and sequences that have stood the test of time. The opening sequence where Oliver’s pregnant mother walks across the stormy moors about to give birth, along with the sequence of Bill Sykes about to commit murder, are some of the most creatively shot scenes ever filmed and are textbook examples of true visual storytelling.
(5) Great Expectations (1946)- David Lean again, with another Dickens adaptation, but once again with classic black-and-white images that fill the screen. The opening scenes in the cemetery where Pip first runs into Magwitch are some of the most suspenseful ever filmed. Beautifully shot from beginning to end and an Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, once again by Guy Green, Great Expectations is another wonderful example of the high level of visual storytelling existing at that time.
(6) The Third Man (1949)-Director Carol Reed, along with cinematographer Robert Krasker who won an Oscar for his work here, creates some of the best black-and-white images of the era using post-war Vienna as the backdrop. It’s the story of a writer played by Joseph Cotton looking for the mysterious Harry Lime played by Orson Welles. Light and shadow along with unique camera angles are used to great effect, especially in the chase sequences toward the end of the film, and the first shot of Orson Welles, with a beam of light used to illuminate him, is one of the greatest entrances in all of film.
(7) Night and the City (pictured above-1950)- Another great example of black-and-white cinematography from that era, this time night-time London. The film traces Harry Fabian, played with great relish by Richard Widmark, a hustler in the London underworld whose time is running out. Filled with striking imagery, it’s arguably the best example of film noir cinematography in a film not shot in the U.S.
(8) Brighton Rock (1947)-Another fine British director, John Boulting, making one of the best movies of the era. Richard Attenborough makes for a memorable villain as Pinkie, a loathsome small-time hood, but its the visuals that really make this film stand out. Outstanding use of editing in various scenes, particularly an opening sequence involving a chase and eventual death, makes this an outstanding example of British filmmaking of the time.
(9) Green For Danger (1946)- The best movie that Alfred Hitchcock never directed. A comedy-suspense classic, this exciting underseen gem is one of the best examples of building tension through visuals that anyone can see. Set in a rural English hospital during World War II where a killer is loose, and starring the inimitable Alistair Sim as an amusing Scotland Yard inspector called in to investigate, this is one of the best films of the 1940’s both visually and otherwise and deserving of far more attention.
(10) Odd Man Out (1947)- Carol Reed again, along with Robert Krasker, and another great film of that era, but once again, it’s the visuals that help make it so. Starring James Mason as a wounded IRA leader hunted by police after a robbery, the great editing and crisp black-and-white imagery add to the suspense and impending sense of doom that fills every frame. A beautifully filmed classic that has been imitated but never bettered.
These are some of the best, if not the best examples of highly visual British films that defy the staid stereotype so unfairly put upon the ones from the past. See them if you can, relish them, and get a chance to appreciate that there’s more to movies from Great Britain than what may have met the eye up until now.