City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

‘Smoke-filled cathedrals’

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Cracking article in The Guardian by JG Ballard on the films of Michael Powell, but also how post-war film was both an escape from. and reflection of, everyday life. The cinemas themselves, those hulking ‘smoke-filled cathedrals’, still dot the streets of British cities, particularly London – though this example in Sheffield was a constant fascination throughout my childhood. They’re everywhere, but now generally derelict or converted for other use. Yet Ballard’s article gives a sense of what they once represented – an “international” and “urgent” spirit in his words – conjuring false memories for me, the thrill of wandering into these gleaming electric palaces, glowing neon looming out of the fog-bound streets.

Several of Powell’s films are unimpeachable classics, and can be seen at the National Film Theatre in London throughout August. Over to Ballard …

“I first became a moviegoer in 1946 when I came to England, a little lost among its grey, distracted people. Since there was nothing else to do, a large part of the population went to the cinema three times a week. In gigantic art deco Odeons, like smoke-filled cathedrals, I saw the postwar films of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Roberto Rossellini when they first came out. Even more exhilarating, I saw Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando and James Dean before they became stars.
On dull afternoons, when I should have been dissecting cadavers, I watched Sunset Boulevard, Orphée and Open City. A completely new culture and social climate were being created, international in spirit and more urgent than almost any novel. I knew it was more important to see T-Men and White Heat than listen to FR Leavis lecturing on Virginia Woolf.”

“Given their enormous impact at the time, it’s surprising how these films have seemed to change in the past half-century. The Third Man now appears to be slightly operatic, a tale of tainted love and penicillin, its rubble-strewn stage dominated by a self-conscious Orson Welles. Yet when it first came out in rationed, shabby Britain, The Third Man seemed grainily realistic. The ruins and rubble on the screen merged into the bomb sites outside most English cinemas.”

The Guardian: The Prophet


2 responses to “‘Smoke-filled cathedrals’”

  1. Colin Avatar

    Thanks for the heads up on this article with its perceptive conclusion. It coincides with my revisiting A Matter Of Life And Death yet again (and for the umpteenth time crying my eyes out and simultaneously marvelling at the film’s playful imaginativeness). I also saw The Edge Of the World for the first time recently, another wonderful experience (


  2. wendy jones Avatar
    wendy jones

    this refers to another part of the diary, but I love , ” where washing & locals hang out………v. neat
    and what must life be like with nary a nose ???/


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