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Night Ambush

Night Ambush(1958)

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It would seem that it's impossible to love movies and not be a Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger cultist - their brand of grandly gestured cinema inspires crazed, indecipherable, passionate devotion and ardor. Their eighteen features over some 35 years are varied and yet strangely cohesive; they do not resemble other films, especially other British films, and it's not a question of whether you're in love with a Powell/Pressburger film (Powell directed, Pressburger wrote or co-wrote, they both produced), but which one. Many stump for the exotic Technicolor ballet-rhapsody The Red Shoes (1948), but others - especially women - can tend toward the mysterious proto-feminist dream film I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), which, famously, so overwhelmed New Yorker staff writer Nancy Franklin that she made a pilgrimage to its Scottish isles, and revisited them again for a documentary about the film's legacy. The Tales of Hoffman (1951) might be the best opera ever put on film, and Brits of a certain generation cannot let go of either The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or A Matter of Life and Death (1945). I'd hate to choose, but the very strange, very serene wartime saga A Canterbury Tale (1944) would certainly have a fighting chance at the top of the pile for me. And so on.

Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), otherwise and less poetically known as Night Ambush, was one of their last productions together, and it's reasonable to guess that it's no one's favorite Powell/Pressburger. The competition is simply too stiff. Late in the '50s, as their partnership begin to wane for a number of reasons, the two filmmakers made a few films in the straight-chinned, stiff-upper-lip mode about British missions during WWII, perhaps feeling rueful about the more ambiguous, less flag-waving films they made while the war was in full boil. This sneaky, low-key adventure is the true story (based on the eponymous memoir by W. Stanley Moss) of how a handful of British agents infiltrated Nazi-occupied Crete in 1944 and with the help of crowds of Cretan Resistance fighters kidnapped one General Kreipe, spiriting him across the island and, via Allied ships, to Egypt. It's a classic bit of British derring-do, and the film plays it that way, half-lidded, faintly amused and fantastically polite. (The treatment of Marius Goring's captured Nazi is never less than tea-time solicitous.) Snatching the general and his car turns out to be the easy part, and traversing the rocky Cretan landscape under the German's noses proves to be substantially more difficult, though never tough enough to quite ruffle Dirk Bogarde's Leigh Fermor, whose Anglo savoir faire is beguiling if, it was reported, aggravating to his director, who apparently wanted more sweat and suspense.

Ill Met by Moonlight, whose title Moss grabbed from A Midsummer Night's Dream, has more in common with the cool British heist movies of the '60s than most war films, except it's far from cynical. It is, in fact, brimming with that sense of righteous self-assurance common to American and Brit WWII films (but not, it should be noted, Russian or Japanese war films, perhaps for obvious reasons), so the plot's tension emerges in relation to how exactly the scheme will be pulled off, not whether it will or not. Having the movie shot on location in Crete helps a good deal - some of the floridly romanticized images are studio-made (Powell took "moonlight" seriously; the film is thick with lovely, fake Mediterranean lunar mood), but the particularities of the Cretan mountainscape are worshipfully treated, just as the Scottish hills were so often in earlier Powell/Pressburger films. Crete itself gets a grand, proto-European Union salute; amidst the wartime espionage, the filmmakers reveled in the native music, dance, drinking habits, goatherd humor and diffident hygiene habits, in a kind of brotherly homage to a fellow nation and its heroic Resistance peasant-warriors.

It can sometimes by shocking how frequently Grand Illusion-style chumminess and respect was accorded the Nazis in postwar films - you can dismiss the urbane caricatures of, say, Casablanca as being a product of the historical moment's tunnelvision, but after the war, you'd expect a more appalled and ferocious response. Instead, Allied-nation film industries coddled the Nazi image, deflating it into gentlemen megalomaniacs and Hogan's Heroes-style buffoons, perhaps until, decades later, we could gain some serious perspective on what the Germans had genuinely accomplished in the late '30s and early '40s. Old films are often charmingly naive, but in this paradigm the naivete may well be willful, self-preservative, banking our collective, reactive horror for a future date when the generation that had to fight the Germans and then live with them after the war had begun to die off. Come the 1980s and beyond, a new version of the story behind Ill Met by Moonlight would have had a different tone indeed, in the unlikely event such a quaintly courageous war story would ever interest a producer.

Outrage, in any case, was not one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's fluent modes of discourse - they preferred rapture, quiet menace, mystery, fatalistic nerve, romantic swooning. They remain one of the most addictive and essentially cinematic voices in the medium's history, as well as arguably England's reigning two-headed movie god, and so, since we're all Powell/Pressburger completists, the long unavailable Ill Met by Moonlight remains essential. The new DVD edition from Hen's Tooth Video is bargain-priced and so comes with an utter lack of supplements.

For more information about Ill Met By Moonlight, visit Hens Tooth. To order Ill Met By Moonlight, go to TCM Shopping.

by Michael Atkinson