This weekend, after watching Black Narcissus, I ended up watching three more, "Tales of Hoffman" (1951), "Thief of Bagdhad" (1940) and "Contraband" (1940). I'm not sure how to do an LJ Cut - so please forgive my wordiness...
"Contraband" and "The Thief" both star Conrad Veidt - "The man you love to hate" as he used to be billed back during the war. This isn't fair, as he was a truly great film actor, in addition to being a German who left his country of birth from conscience, like Marlena Deitrich. Truly, this can't have been easy to do; I can't imagine it.
Veidt in "Casablanca"
Veidt's courage aside, his performance in both movies are really commanding. Contraband is a fairly standard early war propaganda film, but with some nice Archers twists: One actor plays two roles, and Veidt is a neutral Dane, trying to preserve his country's neutrality against the forces of the Anglo-Nazi spies trying to drive Denmark into the Axis camp. Contraband is moody and nicely paced, but in its 'realistic' approach, it isn't much like the Archers' best efforts.
"Thief of Bagdhad: an Arabian Fantasy" on the other hand is pure unadulterated Powell nuttiness (Pressburger didn't work on this one). It is a complete fantasy, right down to the murderous mechanical Indian doll and the flying clockwork horse. Sabu is wonderful and Conrad Veidt provides the archetypical EVIL vizier/sorcerer. For those who've seen Disney's Alladin, this film will seem terribly familiar: nearly every character (including Veidt's Jaffar) and plot point in it was lifted (stolen) from this picture.
As far as I'm concerned, they lost most of the wonder in the translation to cartoon; this is one of those stories that must look "real" in order to work. Cartoons can do anything, so you aren't surprised when they do. When people do impossible things on film, its much more surprising and fantastic and dreamlike. Like Harryhausen and Schneer's "Jason and the Argonauts" vs. the cartoon version of the same.
SPOILER ALERT - Finally, "Tales of Hoffman" was a revelation. I'd seen it in bits and pieces, but taken all together - it is a dream. Beer steins come to life, a courtesan from Hell slides across a floor made up of the bodies and souls of those she's corrupted, a mechanical woman dances prettily and perfectly before being ripped to pieces (gosh, but Moira Shearer is a game gal). I love this movie, since it seems like it's going to be a very straightforward staging of Offenbach's opera, but it soon goes into the realm of the Archers' fantastical technicolor alternate universe. The only part I didn't like was the final story of Antonia - the only tale that falls short of living in the surreal, and since its the last story, you really want it to be more audacious than the two that came before it.
Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer in "Hoffman"
But this is a small criticism really. These last two are movies I first saw when I was little, when I had a low threashold for boring crap. It's funny how - 35 or so years later - my tastes haven't changed. I'm still measuring a new fantasy movie against "Thief" and "Hoffman" and "Matter of Life and Death". It's amazing how so few movies come close to the standard set in these movies.
Despite the advances in technology by the people in the SFX labs and elsewhere, the people immediately behind and in front of the camera - they're the ones that matter most to the feeling being created and the story being told.