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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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.

A lot of the documents have been sent to me or have come from other web sites. The name of the web site is given where known. If I have unintentionally included an image or document that is copyrighted or that I shouldn't have done then please email me and I'll remove it.

I make no money from this site, it's purely for the love of the films.

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From Stephen Onyskay (posted to rec.arts.movies.past-films)

The films of Powell and Pressburger

I had been meaning to jot down some thoughts on this thread for the past few days. In the meantime it disappeared from my server, so I have to start a new thread ...

Powell and Pressburger definitely rank among the best of British filmmakers. The fact that Bob Morris of all people can merely "give David Lean the edge" tells us as much :) Anyway, IMO Alfred Hitchcock is the most famous British director, David Lean is the most celebrated, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger make their presence felt in the top ranks as the most imaginative.

Ask anyone to name a British motion picture director and chances are they'll say Hitchcock. Lean, on the other hand, is less well known than his films (especially Lawrence, Zhivago and Kwai) but he has received the most nominations, Oscars and other accolades. Powell and Pressburger managed one Oscar between them (Pressburger for writing the original story for 49th Parallel) despite creating a collection of finely crafted, beautiful films remarkable for their inventiveness and scope. I am thinking here of such things as the premise behind A Matter of Life and Death and its execution on the screen, the passage and stillness of time in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale, the images themselves in The Tales of Hoffmann and The Red Shoes, and so forth.

Bob Morris wrote that "The Red Shoes, while a great film, is not Lawrence of Arabia." If we have to compare a Powell and Pressburger film against Lawrence, then I think the better comparison might be between Blimp and Lawrence. For one thing, this reveals at once that The Archers and Lean were making different kinds of pictures. The Lawrence property had been offered to Powell but The Archers never took it up; Lean of course did such a magnificent job with it.

Patrick Kearney wrote that he "was not too impressed by the 'restoration' of the b&w sections [of A Matter of Life and Death]. The grading seemed slipshod to me, with variations in contrast that I found distracting. The sound was also uneven. The colour sequences, however, were wonderful." A Matter of Life and Death was filmed in a combination of Technicolor and Dye-Monochrome. The Dye-Monochrome segments had a different look than black and white (more pastel and "pearly") even in first release. I didn't notice the marked problems in contrast during these segments that you noted. Was it that the contrast varied from scene to scene or that it varied across the screen image at any given time? I must admit here though that I once saw AMOLAD projected from a worn 16mm IBTech print (each splice was accompanied by a loud boom) which might cloud my judgement somewhat on the restored version. By the way, does anyone know off hand whether Dye-Monochrome was used on any other film?

Were The Archers insiders or outsiders? I agree with Gene Stavis on this one. Powell and Pressburger were operating from within the industry for a good part of their careers. They were independents on the inside with a knack for producing finished films that went against the expectations of the executives and distributors.

Alan Head asked about Kathleen Byron's relationship with Michael Powell, the popularity of Powell and Pressburger across the pond, and some other neat stuff. If you enjoyed Ian Christie's Arrows of Desire, I would really recommend Powell's two volumes of autobiography (A Life in Movies and Million-Dollar Movie). He mentions that Kathleen Byron once pulled a loaded gun on him .... [Powell claimed that she was naked at the time. Kathleen strenuously denies this, saying "If I'd wanted to shoot him I certainly wouldn't have taken my clothes off first."] The Archers have a dedicated albeit dispersed viewership in North America -- "cult following" is probably the right term; as much was reflected by the audiences for the Champagne Piper-Hiedsieck Classic Film Collection that made the rounds here recently. Most popular in Toronto were The Red Shoes, AMOLAD, Blimp and Peeping Tom. Martin Scorsese's work to "popularize" Powell and Pressburger has helped a great deal.

Helen Elsom wrote "IMO The Thief of Bagdad is an honorary P&P film. I have a very soft spot for their first ever effort, The Spy in Black". Just watched The Spy in Black again last month with a friend who had never seen it. You're right it is easy to have a soft spot for this one -- witty, tense and clever. I second your motion for The Thief of Bagdad.

As for getting hold of the films, now is probably a better time than ever before. It is necessary to do some hopping though between PAL and NTSC, video and laserdisc. I'll try to list some of what's available below but I also wanted to say that the National Film Theatre (London) screens many of Powell and Pressburger's foremost films on a regular basis (something of a perpetual release); and they are shown, though much more sporadically, at the regional cinemas. They are also broadcast on television every now and then.

Here's a rough list of what's on the market. Where I can remember, I've tried to list a distributor in parentheses. I'd be interested to hear in particular of any Australian releases of Powell's made in Australia films (last time I was Melbourne-way there were no signs; any news?)

(a) NTSC Laserdisc
Black Narcissus (Criterion)
The Challenge (HBO Video)
49th Parallel (Criterion)
I Know Where I'm Going! (Criterion)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion)
Peeping Tom (Criterion)
The Red Shoes (Criterion; also an out-of-print Paramount)
The Spy in Black (Image; out-of-print)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Criterion)
The Thief of Bagdad (Pioneer)

See the Voyager Company's web site for details about the Criterion releases. All the Criterions have running commentary and several have extensive supplemental sections. The Red Shoes is one of the very best examples of a Technicolor transfer to laser (The Macdonald/Eddy Sweethearts also comes to mind as do RAH's restorations). See Voyager's web site which also includes an essay on The Archers.

The Battle of the River Plate (Cinema Club)
A Canterbury Tale (Connoisseur)
The Edge of the World (Connoisseur)
I Know Where I'm Going! (Connoisseur)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Pickwick)
... one of our aircraft is missing (?)
A Matter of Life and Death (Pickwick)
Red Ensign (Connoisseur)
The Silver Fleet (Connoisseur)

Black Narcissus (Studio Masters)
A Canterbury Tale (Home Vision)
Contraband [also as Blackout] (?)
The Edge of the World (some dupes off 16mm)
The Elusive Pimpernel (Home Vision)
49th Parallel (Studio Masters)
I Know Where I'm Going! (Home Vision)
Ill Met By Moonlight [also as Night Ambush] (?)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (VidAmerica; this release is severely edited/truncated)
The Red Shoes (Paramount; out of print)
Stairway to Heaven [also as AMOLAD] (some dupes off 16mm)
The Small Back Room (some dupes off 16mm)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Home Vision)
The Wild Heart (?; out-of-print Selznick cut of Gone to Earth)

Connoisseur Video: 10A Stephen Mews London W1P 0AX
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Home Vision: (800) 262-8600
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Kindest Regards,


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