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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.

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Submitted by: Derek Baldwin

Michael Powell
Biography from Blockbuster Guide to Movies and Videos CD-ROM
It won't print to file I'm afraid but I managed to sneak the following out of the back door while the software had its back turned - Derek

Michael Powell
(1905-90), b. Canterbury, England

There is not a British director with as many worthwhile films to his credit as Michael Powell. Yet in the age of Richardson and Schlesinger, in the sixties and seventies, Powell had hardly any adequate critical appreciation. The sadness was that he was written off as an eccentric decorator of fantasies. Against persistent British attempts to dignify realism, Powell must have seemed gaudy, distasteful, and effete. All three ingredients contribute to his vision, but so do an imaginative evocation of the erotic and the supernatural; a pioneering enthusiasm for visual autonomy always likely to break out in passages of stunning delight; the adherence to what Raymond Durgnat once called "High Tory" values; a wicked sense of humor and private jokes; and most distinctive - like Colonel Blimp's dreams - an unsettling mixture of emotional reticence and splurging fantasy. Thus, as late as 1969, Age of Consent, a mild beachcombing anecdote, is lit up by baroque passages of Helen Mirren, naked and underwater.

It is revealing that Peeping Tom was dismissed in Britain as wayward nastiness. Worst of all, Powell may have been inhibited by the feeling that his imagination was un-British. Powell stayed English despite the merry excursion to Australia when he cried out for the geography of light and shade that von Sternberg illuminated on the Paramount sound stages. Even when Britain rediscovered horror in the late 1950s, as O. O. Green has remarked, Powell was ignored. Green compared Powell and King Vidor, whose Duel in the Sun Jennifer Jones was reduced to Country Life fretfulness by Powell in Gone to Earth: "Vidor, intellectually, perhaps, less sophisticated, or at least less cautious, than Powell, has retained just that Wagnerian authenticity of emotional excess which gives his films that genuine mysticism, a Nietzschean pantheism. But Powell lived in a class and a country which suspects, undermines, is embarrassed by, emotion; his diversity of qualities rarely find their holding context."

As if in early accord with that verdict, Powell left Dulwich College for the studio Rex Ingram had set up in Nice. He assisted the ex-Dubliner, ex- Hollywood director, on Mare Nostrum (26), The Magician (26), and The Garden of Allah (27). Undoubtedly that experience encouraged his interest in the expressionist treatment of the supernatural; Ingram's splendid isolation may also have confirmed a young man's belief in "artistic" cinema. It was several years before Powell's own films showed such strange fruit. He slogged away for some time in England as cameraman, writer, and director; only in the late 1930s do his films seem his own.

Thereafter, in vital partnership with the writer Emeric Pressburger, they struggle with great, clashing virtues - with marvelous visual imagination and uneasy, intellectual substance: I Know Where I'm Going is a genuinely superstitious picture; 49th Parallel is a strange war odyssey, with escaping Germans wandering across Canada - naive, very violent, at times unwittingly comic, but possessed by a primitive feeling for endangered civilization; an interesting sequel is One of Our Aircraft Is Missing - English fliers getting out of Holland; A Matter of Life and Death is pretentious in its way, yet very funny and absolutely secure in its dainty stepping from one world to another. But the two Conrad Veidt movies - The Spy in Black and Contraband - are exciting and atmospheric studies in Langian intrigue; The Thief of Bagdad is delightful; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a beautiful salute to Englishness. After the war, Powell expanded, attempting to fuse the talents of painters, designers, and dancers. In fact, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffmann, and Oh, Rosalinda!! underline the search for respectability in his work. But The Red Shoes knows that creative dreams easily surpass reality. It raised people to dance, but it is also a lovely tribute to creative collaboration. And Anton Walbrook's Lermontov - so hot, so cold - is a portrait of Powell himself. With a very personal mixture of wisdom and naivete, Powell treated the artist or wizard as the last potent pagan deity. Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns, startling whenever Kathleen Byron is involved. The Small Back Room profits from the use of unexpected expressionism on an ostensibly realistic subject and quivers with nervous tension Equally, The Elusive Pimpernel has gorgeous moments despite a routine swashbuckling story.

After about 1950, dejection seemed to set in, only to be dispelled by Peeping Tom, Powell's most completely realized and intellectually somber film. Full of dark jokes, including his own presence as the cruel father, it also shows Powell's sense of the cinema's own contribution to frenzy. The central character is a moving portrait of the imaginative young man who is unsociable with real people but familiar with the stars of movies. He is a shy focus puller who takes film of girls using a tripod that contains a swordstick. The stuck victims goggle horribly at the picture they make in the reflector above the camera; and so reaction stimulates the spectacle even further The film was reasonably criticized as an exercise in de Sade's principles, and it is the one work in which Powell discarded all inhibitions.

I was fortunate to know Michael Powell in the last decade of his life. He was in America a good deal at that time: teaching for a term at Dartmouth; as director emeritus with Coppola's American Zoetrope; as treasured Merlin at the court of Scorsese; and in his marriage to the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

I had the chance to watch many of his films with him, discussing them and learning the passion of his vision. It is all the more agreeable now to see Michael's influence spreading: the ardent antirealist has inspired so many people; the man in love with color, gesture, and cinema helped to educate viewers as well as filmmakers - not least in the two volumes of his autobiography, A Life in Movies. The work looks better and better, simpler yet more ambiguous. The great Powell and Pressburger films do not go stale; they never relinquish their wicked fun or that jaunty air of being poised on the brink. To put an arrow in our eye - to leave a nurturing wound - that was Michael's eternal thrill. I do not invoke the figure of Merlin lightly: Powell was English but Celtic, sublime yet devious, magical in the resolute certainty that imagination rules.

Michael Powell's movies include the following 49th Parallel (1941 ), Age of Consent (1969), Black Narcissus (1947), Bluebeard's Castle (1964), A Canterbury Tale (1944), Contraband (1940), The Edge of the World (1937), The Fighting Pimpernel (1950), Gone to Earth (1950), Honeymoon (1959) I Know Where I'm Going (1945), III Met by Moonlight (1957), Lazybones (1934), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Lion Has Wings (1939) The Love Test (1934), Night Ambush (1957), The Night of the Party (1934), Oh Rosalinda!! (1955) One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1941 ) Peeping Tom (1960), Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956), The Queen's Guards (1961), The Red Shoes (1948), The Small Back Room (1949), The Spy in Black (1939), Stairway to Heaven (1946), Tales of Hoffmann (1951), They're a Weird Mob (1966), and The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Copvright 1995. 1996 bv David Thomson. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

IIRC Powell was very appreciative of an earlier biog by Thomson which was in the same vein and, he felt, one of very few truly supportive and accurate portrayals of his work by a UK critic. (Source: will "somewhere near the end of Million Dollar Movie" do?!)

Regard Derek