Ill Met By Moonlight

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): *** 1/2

Ill Met By Moonlight (a.k.a. Night Ambush) is about the only Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger collaboration I'd never seen. Why this is important: they are among my favorite filmmakers of all time. At their creative peak, the fruitful collaboration in the 1940s and '50s -- Powell was generally the director/co-writer and Pressburger co-writer/producer, and they dubbed their team “The Archers” -- gave us such lovely gems as The Red Shoes, (my personal favorite) I Know Where I'm Going, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death.

While it’s hard to imagine a film by those two being rather underrated, here we are. The 1957 Ill Met By Moonlight came after they'd done their best work and was initially dismissed by some critics on first release, including the NY Times' Howard Thompson who sniffed that it was a "second-rate WWII British adventure drama." The fact is that it *is* second-rate -- for Powell/Pressburger, who set the bar rather high with the masterpieces, but deserves a reappraisal, thanks to this new DVD from Henstooth Video. It’s not exactly Criterion in terms of quality and extras, but bless them nonetheless: The film had been trimmed down to 93 minutes for its initial US release, but the restored disc gives us the original uncut 104 minute widescreen version.

This WWII story, based on the book by W. Stanley Moss, is set in a Crete occupied by Germany during the war, in which artisans are led by British officers to kidnap the island's German commander. In what seems, even at the start,  a very respectful kidnapping, as kidnapping goes – the captors develop a charming, sly rapport with their enemy captive – it eventually reverts back to war gamesmanship as the arrogant general proves manipulative.

In a way, the long march through Mediterranean rugged terrain puts to mind the later WWII adventure The Guns of Navarone – which I coincidentally watched again quite recently -- a film that had more of an epic scope and taut action pace. While the story is a tad convoluted and a bit slow of pace at times, it is full of the Powell/Pressburger touch -- the humanity of its characters revealed in small surprising moments.

It also has a naturalistic, authentic--for the time--location, atmosphere, and Cretin culture and people, in which even goats and donkeys figure prominently. While the script occasionally lacks pace it is still full of charm and wit (one character asks another how far it is to their destination, the response is "One cigarette, maybe two.") And the story, suspenseful enough, is played fairly straightforward, unpretentiously.

A young Dirk Bogarde heads the cast as the British Major who is nicknamed “Philedem" by his Greek allies. Marius Goring, who was in a couple of other Powell/Pressburger films, plays the German General, making him a worthy adversary with a bit of impish humor even as he remains steadfastly the enemy. Prolific British character actor Cyril Cusack plays an agent named Sandy, who mans their radio post and has stubbornly not bathed for months – pulling rank, as it were.

It’s fun, also, to see a young Christopher Lee in one of his earliest films, playing a small role as a German officer who becomes suspicious of undercover allies fronting at a dentist’s office.

The disc for this black and white film looks sharp and clean, not impeccable but lovely given the print they had to work with. The only extras are subtitles and the theatrical trailer. All told, Ill Met By Moonlight is far from one of the Archers’ best works, but for both their many fans and for WWII buffs, it’s full of rewards.

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