Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Head In The Clouds
Michael Powell's sense of magic elevates his films above period, above cultural associations, into cinema's throne room.
By Roger Keen.
Although Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger took joint credit for producing, writing and directing in most of the films they made together their roles were always clearly demarked: Pressburger wrote and Powell directed. The ideas and sensibilities behind the films they shared, and together they were a two-headed auteur, a filmic Gilbert and George. Theirs was one of the great collaborations in movie history.
[It was closer than that, Michael helped with the screenplay, Emeric suggested things during the making of the film & Emeric was always present during the editing]
They came together shortly before World War II, and made their names on propaganda pictures, such as 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing; but a special chemistry was brewing, and their films started to show a mythic edge together with playful flourishes and a quirkiness of style. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is far from being a conventional war film, and A Matter of Life and Death is both a war film and a tour de force of fantasy and surrealism.
Looked at now Powell/Pressburger films display a dated, stiff-upper-lipped Britishness which is sometimes comical. This is further underlined by their predilection for ageing, rather lumpish leading men: Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, David Farrar. Yet Britishness was coupled with a taste for the artistic and the otherworldly which was altogether more European, and puts Powell in parallel with directors such as Cocteau, Buneul and Resnais. His pioneering work in forging films as colour, design and music spectacles marks him absolutely as an artist. And in his sense of the phantasmagoric in place, using both actual landscapes, such as the Kent countryside in A Canterbury Tale or the Western Isles of Scotland in I Know Where I'm Going; and sets, such as Heaven and its environs in A Matter of Life and Death, or the heights and jungles of the Himalayas in Black Narcissus, or the ever expanding stage on which the Red Shoes ballet is performed, Powell revealed them as magical places, the topography of a continuous unique dream world which he inhabited, his head in the clouds. It is this sense of magic, brilliantly realised on a technical level in the films which elevates them above period, above cultural associations, into cinema's throne room.
It is fascinating and deeply gratifying that such films ever got to be made. As Martin Scorsese said in a television interview, laughing as he spoke, Powell and Pressburger were "... almost experimental filmmakers, working inside a totally commercial system." This sums it up. What experimental filmmakers would have the resources to build Heaven on Stage 4 at Rank's Denham Studios - then the largest stage in Europe - and fill it with hundreds of extras in a potpourri of historical costumes from different periods? And what commercial filmmakers of 1946 would have the inspiration to do such a thing?
Born in 1905, Mickey Powell started young in the film business, assisting the silent director Rex Ingram in the South of France. He returned to England at the dawn of the sound era, and before meeting Emeric Pressburger in 1937 he directed some twenty-four films, mainly 'quota-quickies' and potboilers. His best and latest work, Edge of the World, about tensions on a Shetland Island, caught the eye of Alexander Korda, then emerging as a major mogul. Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who'd fled Hitler's advance, was already established as one of Korda's top writers. At Denham Studios, Korda teamed up the two men to work on The Spy in Black, a World War I thriller with a quirky plot, which was very successful after its timely release early in WWII. The two became friends and found they were made for one another - Powell the ambitious director who wanted to make serious films, and Pressburger the European writer who was into poetry and philosophy as well as entertainment.
Just before the war Powell got another big break when Korda asked him to co-direct on what would come to be recognised as a great and hugely influential film. Based on an Arabian Nights tale of treachery, love and magic, The Thief of Bagdad was an epic, big budget fantasy - the Star Wars of its day. It is a film of ravishing visual distinction. The gaudy saturated colours of George Perinal's luscious photography are those of story books and fantastic art. The swashbuckling live action only barely keeps at bay the impressionism of the elaborate painted sets and backdrops, constantly pulling you into reverie. The welter of special effects scenes, such as a forty-foot djinn materializing out of a bottle, a fight with a giant spider, flying carpet and horses, superb blac-projection and matte-work, are as enthralling and convincing as any contemporary digital work. In fact The Thief of Bagdad defined an iconographic mode which Powell was to distil and transfuse into the best of his subsequent films - most exquisitely so in the Red Shoes ballet sequence. Moreover the fabulist nature of the tale - a throne and a love lost and won back with the help of a youthful hero - would decisively influence Powell's storytelling.
After the outbreak of war Powell and Pressburger got down to making pictures for the war effort, under the eye of the Ministry of Information. As a production unit they steadily grew in importance, and they gave themselves a name - The Archers - together with a logo - the familiar arrows thudding into a target. In 1942 Rank took over Denham Studios, and with them the Archers embarked on a much bigger and grander war picture, one which met with disapproval from the Ministry of Information - and Churchill himself - because of its theme of long friendship between a British and a German officer, and its criticism of the establishment old guard.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp starts with General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey, effectively aged with a bald head and walrus moustache, taken captive by a young officer during a Home Guard exercise. From here the film flashes back to Candy's younger days in 1902, where he fought a duel, then covers his WWI service before returning to the WWII present. Blimp is a good illustration of the Powell and Pressburger film in transition between the wartime jobbing pictures they started with, and the uniquely auteured cinema they developed onto. Though larger in scale, the visual texture and the use of trickery remain unambitious. It was made in colour but doesn't use colour to much artistic effect; however the bluey-magenta WWI battlefields do have anotherworldly radiance. Passage of time is indicated by jump-cutting Candy's hunting trophies onto the walls of his den, and Deborah Kerr appears as three characters, forever young, in each of three periods dealt with in Candy's life. These are nice touches, but hardly ground breaking innovations. Blimp's sory is an attempt at forging a modern fable, but its message - it is at time anti-war but also anti-Nazi - are garbled. Yet overall Blimp remains a strikingly different film, a departure into new idiosyncratic territory; and in their next two films Powell and Pressburger would be more successful at imposing fabulist strucure onto contemporary narrative.
Early on in A Canterbury Tale there is a cut-on association which Kubrick might have admired - a Chaucerian falcon displaced by a WWII Spitfire. This cut provides the template for the rest of the film, where three 'pilgrims' - a British army sergeant, an American sergeant and a land girl - find their way along the ancient trail to Canterbury, with the guidance of local magistrate and historian Thomas Culpepper - a striking performance from Eric Portman. There, in and around the luminous, mighty cathedral, they receive 'blessings' in the form of fortuitous encounters. Though the final part of the film is truly moving, audiences didn't respond to its sophisticated multilayered subtleties, and it was deemed a failure. This was due in part to its odd subplot, where Culpepper indulges in the perverse activity of pouring glue onto girls' heads, under cover of the blackout, in order to discourage them from fraternising with soldiers. The pilgrims turn detective and uncover Culpepper as the culprit, but they continue to like him. Basically the film was too far ahead of its time - more like a psychologically-aware 60s piece than a wartime one. Now it is regarded as one of Powell's and Pressburger's best.
I Know Where I'm Going contains more of the quirky touches we know and love in Archers films. The opening credits appear as integrated text on physical objects within the scenes, such as the names on a milk float and a plaque on factory gates. Steam comes out of a top hat on a station platform, and the way Joan Webster's dreams of Scottish romance mesh with the night train locomotive wheels is delightful. The plot is a pure adult fairytale. Joan (Wendy Hiller) sets out to marry her rich fiancé who resides on a remote Scottish island, but a prolonged storm keeps her on the mainland, where she unwittingly falls in love with impoverished laird Torquill MacNeil (Roger Livesey). After a life-endangering attempt to get to the island while the storm still rages, she succumbs and accepts that love must reign over money. In a final fabular twist, MacNeil discovers that the curse which has rested on his family of generations has a silver lining. It is a wonderful, charming film, and one can almost believe in Roger Livesey as a dashing young Highland blade.
In their next film the Archers got the casting of the leading man just right in David Niven, who combined Britishness with real film star charisma, and gave his finest screen performance as the endearing and batty Peter Carter. A Matter of Life and Death was the first Powell and Pressburger masterpiece. Their quirky inventiveness and mythic brand of storytelling had been slowly incrementing throughout the work, and now it reached a critical mass where it took a giant leap into the creation of an entirely new kind of film.
Bomber pilot Carter miraculously escapes death when he bales out of his stricken aircraft without a parachute. He washes up on a beach, and in another miracle he meets June (Kim Hunter), the pretty wireless operator with whom he'd conversed in the air, and falls in love. But early on we realize this is no ordinary war adventure when we casually cut to Heaven's entrance lobby, where Flying Officer Trubshawe, deceased, one of Carter's crew, is waiting for his CO. It transpires that a celestial mistake has taken place and Carter should have died but slipped through because of the fog. An emissary, the effete 18th Century dandy Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), is sent to Earth to remonstrate with Carter, who lodges an appeal, initiating a full scale heavenly trial to decide his fate.
A Matter of Life and Death is possibly the most successful full-length surrealistic movie ever made. Successful in the sense that the logic of its structure survives impeccably to the last frame whilst providing a geometrically perfect platform for its otherworldly imagery. Peter Carter's eschatological adventures could be a highly organised hallucination derived from a neurological disorder brought on by his jump, or they could be 'real'; ultimately it doesn't matter, so the two worlds co-exist without strain. And the story is marvellous achieved as a piece of technical film making.
For the first time the Archers used the brilliant cinematographer and Technicolor expert Jack Cardiff, who did much to enhance the film's visual bravura. Cardiff went on to photograph their next two projects - Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes - winning an Oscar for the former. It was envisaged that the earthly scenes should be shot in colour and the heavenly in black and white, but Cardiff advised Powell to use monochrome instead (Technicolor without the dyes), which gave Heaven its highly appropriate 'pearly' quality, and made it possible to bleed colour in and out seamlessly in the transitions between the worlds. The other big contributor was designer Alfred Junge, who was responsible for the spotless, expressionistic Heaven and the legendary moving stairway to Heaven, lined with busts of the famous, and top and tailed by false perspective paintings, making it reach to infinity. Add to that the cosmic painted backdrops, plus the naive 40s sfx, and you have a mysterious artistic quality that makes the film magical.
This facility of high technical perfection which the Archers now had at their disposal was used to its ultimate in Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes and those two films together with A Matter of Life and Death form the three points on the crown of their achievement.
Black Narcissus is set in a remote Himalayan village, but was shot entirely in Surrey ornamental gardens and in the studio. The Himalayas were painted on glass behind the sets, and matting was used where necessary. It gives the film an air which is both chocolate-boxy and strangely authentic; the marriage of photography and design works so well one feels the Himalayan atmosphere in every shot. This arrangement gave Powell huge creative freedom, and he was able to execute the film as an opera of drama, colour and music, without having to worry about the problems posed by real mountains with real weather!
The story, based on a Rummer Godden novel, is a remarkable one, dealing with the somewhat outre subject of sexual jealously among nuns. A small order, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), take over a mountain palace and found a schoola and hospital therein. Friction soon develops between Clodagh and Mr Dean, the local agent (|David Farrar), who lives a wayward lifestyle yet is the nuns' main point of contact and source of support within the local community. The mountain air has a peculiar effect on the nuns, and the most unstable of the group, Sister Ruth - devastatingly played by Kathleen Byron - manifests an obsessive desire for Dean, coupled with a belief that he and Clodagh have something between them. Soon Ruth becomes hysterical, sheds her habit for a seductive dress and red lipstick and escapes the palace and her nunhood. Rejected by Dean, she attempts to murder Clodagh by pushing her off the mountain, but falls herself in the struggle. The irony is that the attraction which Ruth suspected is true, though it remains unfulfilled.
The explosive drama is conveyed through juxtaposing big close-ups of mad eyes and red lips, with white habits in windswept bluish panoramas, the hot and the cold, all set to Brian Easdale's rhapsodic score. Colour, design and music become a palette which Powell uses like Renoir or Matissee to stunning effect. And in The Red Shoes, the Archers' most celebrated film, these elements were to reach their artistic apotheosis.
The Red Shoes plot pivots upon the rather silly, and what we would now describe as 'sexist' notion that a woman cannot have both a successful career and a successful relationship; and Marius Goring, sporting a truly terrible haircut, is miscast in the romantic leading role of mercurial composer Julian Craster. Yet despite those shortcomings it still remains the most profoundly beautiful film in cinema.
Ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), together with Craster, fall under the wing of Diaghilev-like impresario Boris Lermontov - said to be a portrait of Korda, and played to measured perfection by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov uses Page and Craster to create a new ballet, the Red Shoes, which is a great success and establishes both as stars. All is well until their mentor discovers that the two have become lovers. In a jealous fury, Lermontov picks a fight with Craster and expels him from the company, and Page leaves too. Lermontov eventually wins her back, but at a terrible cost.
It sounds like a conventional enough melodrama, and might have been in the hands of anyone other than an artist like Powell. He wanted to make The Red Shoes much more than just another dance movie, so he asked his collaborators to help him go further than ever before. For everything to work they needed to create a trompe l'oeil ballet based around the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale abut a girl who puts on a pair of red shoes and dances, only to find that she cannot stop, the red shoes won't let her, so she goes on and on till she dies. A ballet needs a score, and composer Brian Easdale, who did such good work on Black Narcissus, came up with one which is so entirely convincing one swears it must be from an actual ballet. Next a ballet needs dancers and choreography, and in securing top professionals Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine, and getting them to act so well, Powell pulled off an unparalleled coup.
Powell decided that he wasn't going to shoot the ballet on stage, as viewed by an audience, but instead would turn it into a piece of pure film with no conventional limits, creating a fantasy ballet spectacular involving many phases and sfx scenes, linked together into a continuous seventeen minute routine - a colossal amount of screen time for such an enterprise. So Vicky Page dances unstoppably night and day through Hein Heckroth's dazzling array of sets and costumes, encompassing carnival and bohemian scenes, fugitive fairytale landscapes, grand palatial interiors, her partners turning to cellophane men, to newspaper cut-out men, and back again. Momentarily the figures of Lermontov and Craster appear superimposed upon the Shoemaker, and when Vicky turns to the auditorium there is no one there except Craster conducting, and finally the sea crashes in on the stage and turns to applause. So we are witnessing not just the ballet itself, but Vicky's psychodrama - what performing it means to her.
By overlaying the techniques of film onto those of ballet, Powell achieves a breathtaking compression of time, space and event into a masterly metaphorical language. The Red Shoes stand for potential, talent, achievement, destiny; yet they also stand for obsession, greed, denial, and ultimately self-destruction. The hastily contrived tragedy of the film's ending feels a little botched, and the blending of the Red Shoes myth with Vicky's real life runaway dance to her death is less successful without the ballet to guide it. Still the ballet sequence rests at the heart of the film, an undimmable cinematic jewel, which has had huge influence - most notably on the way musicals were constructed. Gene Kelly for one loved the film, and An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain wouldn't have been the same without The Red Shoes.
But J Arthur Rank didn't like the film he'd financed, and he released it hurriedly, with little publicity, fearing an embarrassing flop. The dread words 'art movie' hung over its head, and like Citizen Kane and It's A Wonderful Life, it would take time for The Red Shoes to become established as one of the great films. Rank's pusillanimity soured his hitherto excellent relationship with Powell and Pressburger, and they went back to Korda and made a string of films for him. These include The Small Back Room, a noir thriller about wartime boffins which contains a dazzling expressionist nightmare sequence; The Elusive Pimpernel, a reworking of the Orczy tale which Powell had been reluctant to take on; Gone to Earth, a period drama about a country girl who has an affair with the squire and suffers a fate too similar to Vicky Page's; and The Tales of Hoffmann, an attempt to do with opera what the Archers had done with ballet in The Red Shoes, using many of the same cast and crew. Hoffmann has a rich visual texture and many interesting sfx, but it lacks the majestic sweep and cohesiveness of The Red Shoes narrative, and it wasn't popular. In truth none of these projects had the same inspirational verve or screen magic as the earlier ones, and it is clear that with The Red Shoes Powell and Pressburger had peaked as a creative team. They were to come full circle, ending their collaboration as they'd started, with a couple of conventional war films: The Battle of The River Plate and Ill Met By Moonlight. Both were rather turgid pieces, and no follow-up offers were forthcoming.
Away from the paternalism of the studio system, Powell drifted. He made one film in three years, Honeymoon, a Spanish co-produced ballet piece which is now forgotten. [Not totally] Then he met Leo Marks, a screenwriter with an intellect to match Pressburger's, but whose current script was not remotely Pressburger material. Peeping Tom was the film which took Powell's career from an unpromising position and plunged it into the depths of hopelessness. The fall in Powell's fortunes is evident there on the screen. Peeping Tom is a low budget movie, devoid of the high photographic and design input which is the hallmark of his classic work. Yet Powell achieves so much through pure direction - in the apt use of angles and viewpoints, in creating fear by implication and in getting fine performances out of his actors. The sinister deployment of filmmaking paraphernalia as the weaponry of a diseased psyche pervades the film with chilling latent horror. And the opening big close up of Mark's eye followed by the viewfinder POV of his stalking camera, set a style which would be imitated again and again in the slasher genre.
Mark Lewis (Carl Bohm) is a film focus puller and compulsive home moviemaker; but his activities also extend to impaling women with a sharpened tripod leg, whilst filming them watching their own distressed faces in a reflector as they die. But it is the film's mission to explain why he does this, and not to exploit the material for any form of sicko gratification. Mark's deviant use of the filmmaking process is presented as a neurosis stemming from his father's similarly filmed abuse of him as a child, where he was the guinea pig in experiments to determine the effects of fear on the nervous system. By deconstructing Mark's motivations, the film invites sympathy for him, and this was too much for the cinemagoers and critics of 1960, who rose up in a combined outpouring of disgust. But somehow the film lacks real visceral horror, because what Mark does is quite unlike what real sadistic murderers do; it is more a fantasy symbolization of dysfunction, which in the storytelling context works excellently. Unfortunately they didn't get it back then.
Powell's post-Peeping Tom film career is a sorry and patchy affair; it is a great tragedy that such a talent went so irrecoverably into a tailspin to a premature demise. As an outcast in a vastly changed business he had to pick up crumbs. There was jobbing work as a TV director, there were a number of nowhere film projects, and there were two Australian films, a zany comedy They're a Weird Mob, and Age of Consent, a beach-romance story concerning a middle-aged artist (James Mason) and his young muse (Helen Mirren). This film has a light, sparkling quality and some of the old Powell magic in the merging of artistic endeavour and film. The underwater nude swimming scenes bear an uncanny resemblance to those in Roeg's Walkabout, made shortly afterwards, and, as this would prove to be Powell's last feature, they register as kind of baton change between an old and a new master.
Another putative film involving Mason, an adaptation by Powell himself of The Tempest, was scuppered by Rank's withdrawal of cooperation. The experience finished Powell as a filmmaker, and he retired into obscurity and penury. Then in the mid-70s a turning point occurred, due to a fortuitous meeting with his most illustrious fan: New York film director Martin Scorsese. As a child Scorsese had seen The Red Shoes and other Archers films and they'd become his favourites, influencing his own style - particularly visible in the rhapsodies of music and colour in the early work Mean Streets. And by this time a new generation of fans was out there waiting to discover Powell and Pressburger films which like the best wine had now matured to vintage status.
Scorsese befriended Powell and paved the way for a move to America, where he taught for a time at Dartmouth University, then worked as a consultant for Coppola at the tail end of the Zoetrope days. In 1981 Powell and Pressburger were presented with a 'long overdue' BAFTA Fellowship; Arena did a retrospective documentary, and many of their films were aired on TV. Once again they were household names, and when Powell died of cancer in 1990 he was mourned as one of the few true geniuses of British cinema.
In the age of video and now DVD, Powell's films continue to be watched and loved, having stood the greatest test, which is the test of time. The best of them are now over fifty years old and still exhibit qualities unsurpassed by modern cinematic art or technique. Thy stand up to repeated and careful viewing, and many are used as teaching aids on film studies courses, particularly in America. In its own special way each one is a gem.