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49th Parallel: The Criterion Collection

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated twice before 49th Parallel (1941) — both under contract to J. Arthur Rank — but this wartime production is generally considered to be the first full-fledged pairing of their two talents, and it was as "The Archers" that they would go on to deliver some of the most-loved titles of the British film industry, including A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). Pressburger's script tells the episodic story of the surviving crew of the German submarine U-37, which has crossed the Atlantic and reached Canadian waters, only to suffer a shortage of food and fuel. After raiding a cargo ship and being spotted by the Canadian defense forces, the U-boat is forced to flee to safer waters — in this case, the iceberg-strewn Hudson's Bay, where they intend to seize a Hudson's Bay Company trading post. However, after U-37 is sunk by the Canadian Air Force, the small landing party of six Germans finds that they have no choice but to drive their way into Canada, and hopefully further south to the United States, which is still a neutral country and will have to offer them asylum. The group's disciplined leader, Lt. Hirth (Eric Portman), finds himself at odds with Lt. Kuhnecke (Raymond Lovell), a practical-minded engineer, but before long the men take control of the small trading post and its two inhabitants, the Chief Factor (Finlay Currie) and French-Canadian trapper Johnnie Barras (Laurence Olivier). From there, they manage to overwhelm a seaplane responding to a distress call and fly south, now disguised in ordinary trappers' clothes. But their odyssey only seems to begin at that point, eventually taking those who survive to a religious commune, a city, and then the distant Rockies, aware that the entire world has taken interest in the U-37 survivors and the increasingly tense manhunt for them.

49th Parallel may mark the first notable collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but it still serves as a bridge-work of sorts — Powell had already shown an interest in difficult, remote location work with his excellent The Edge of the World (1937), and both The Spy in Black (1937) and Contraband (1940) were wartime efforts (Powell also left the production of Rank's The Thief of Bagdad in 1939 to undertake a quick production of The Lion Has Wings). Therefore, the duo's common interest in the war effort against the Third Reich — one an Englishman, the other a Hungarian refugee — made something along the lines of 49th Parallel seem all but assured. Nonetheless, in a era when movie studios were only too happy to turn out quick propaganda pieces for public consumption (often with government support), the ambitious scope of the film is impossible to ignore, with Powell dragging his central actors and crew across Canada for four months, while interior work was later completed on British soundstages. But if the cinematography was a product of sheer determination, the casting was something far more efficient, and clever. Aware that the film would require marquee names, Pressburger's script (essentially in four acts) ensured that top-billed Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier would only have to provide a minimum of their time (they also worked for half of their normal pay). Howard is quite good in his role as a British ethnographer living in high-country seclusion, with the dry wit and stiff upper lip that has come to define British heroism; however, Olivier stumbles badly as the trapper Johnnie, offering something like dinner-theater comedy with a foghorn of a French accent. Two other stars, Anton Walbrook and Raymond Massey, earned supporting parts as well, but the sharpest irony of 49th Parallel dervies from Eric Portman, as the ruthless Lt. Hirth, who becomes the unexpected protagonist of the piece, the only character who links each sequence to the next, and the one whose stakes are by far the highest. If he's not quite a hero, he's at least something of an anti-hero, and — like the remarkable ability of Capt. Bligh, after losing the Bounty, to command a rowboat full of men over a thousand miles of sea — it's impossible not to admire Hirth's unshakable resilience and uncommon discipline in the face of long odds. But then again, that's one of the movie's more subtle points, potentially lost amid the regular speeches defending freedom and democracy. After all, if this is how tough the Nazis are when facing defeat, what are they bound to be like when contemplating victory?

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Criterion's two-disc DVD release of 49th Parallel — an update of their 1990 Laserdisc release — offers splendid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a very good, if not pristine, black-and-white source-print, while the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is clear and legible. The presentation is the complete cut of the original film, and notably not the American-released The Invaders, shorter by 18 minutes. The scholarly 1990 audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder serves to remind us of what learned commentaries used to be like (and can still be) before they devolved into idle chatter between directors and stars, while Disc One also includes a theatrical trailer. Three additional items round out Disc Two: the 1943 short film "The Volunteer" (46 min.), which Powell & Pressburger created in support of the Fleet Air Arm (Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier star); audio excerpts from Michael Powell's dictation recordings for his 1986 autobiography A Life in Movies; and a 1981 episode of the BBC Series "Arena" featuring a look at Powell & Pressbuger's careers, with interviews of both and appearances by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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