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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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Original at The Austin Chronicle October 1996

The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Archers Deluxe

by Chris Walters

They called themselves the Archers, the director from Canterbury and the Hungarian-born screenwriter whose partnership resulted in Black Narcissus , The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann, and many other movies now seen as touchstones of exotic cinema. Why the name was chosen is no longer well-remembered, but from 1939 to 1956 the Archers' witty logo -- a target decorated with badly aimed arrows, a final shaft thwacking into the bullseye -- announced pictures that fell far outside the dry center of the British film industry yet found large audiences in the home islands and all over the western world.

The Archers were director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and 40 years after their collaboration ended it is increasingly evident there was nobody like them, then or now. Committed to the emotional use of color and movement in a country that distrusted strong feelings, they introduced traditional British values to eroticism and passionately modernist technique, and invited them all to dance. Ardent antirealists, their work fell out of favor when a grinding realism took over British movies in the Sixties, and many years passed before their films enjoyed delighted reappraisals on both sides of the Atlantic. Not until the Eighties and Nineties did Powell's startling talent become widely recognized for its brazenly meteoric modernism. Influential fans such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola led the Michael Powell bandwagon, praising the master who inspired them so.

Thanks to the Austin Film Society and the British Film Institute, sparkling new prints of the key Powell & Pressburger movies are now being screened locally for the first time in eons. And the six pictures remaining in the series include five of their most important works, along with a shocker Powell made by himself in 1960:

* Black Narcissus (1947) may be the greatest movie about repressed passion ever made. High on a windswept bluff in the Himalayas in a building once used for a harem, an order of missionary nuns are reduced to emotional rawness by altitude, isolation, and an intractable clash of cultures. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) succumbs to ravenous hunger for a handsome plantation overseer, and in her hysteria imagines the mother superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), as her rival for the overseer's affections. She seeks release in violence, in a heart-stopping sequence that outdoes Hitchcock because it is plausible, rooted in emotion rather than contrivance. Sexual tension whips through the movie like the icy Himalayan wind you can hear in almost every scene.

* Stairway to Heaven (1946), originally titled A Matter of Life and Death and recently restored, treats the idea of pleading before a heavenly court for a way out of the afterlife with eccentric humor. The movie steps from one world to the other with a delicacy seldom managed by other afterlife stories.

* The Red Shoes (1948) is probably the Archers' best known and beloved movie. This quintessential ballet film is a knowing and affectionate backstage story, full of detail, about a Russian ballet impresario who blows hot and cold and an aspiring dancer, played by Moira Shearer, who actually could dance. Powell, writing his memoirs, knew why it caused a sensation. "We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now that the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for art."

* The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), based on Jacques Offenbach's fantasy opera, deploys lavish decor and choreography in a hymn to the transcendence of the female spirit, personified by Moira Shearer, Pamela Brown, and Ludmila Tcherina, actresses who ran the gamut from angelic to vampy. The color red is a major character here as well.

* The Small Back Room (1949) handles the story of a crippled munitions expert struggling against disability and bureaucracy with expressionism rather than the earnest realism apparently required by the material. Like Black Narcissus, it trembles with nervous tension, though of a different kind.

* Peeping Tom (1960), made by Powell without Pressburger, shocked audiences when it was released a few months ahead of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Unlike the better known movie, it still shocks people today and is frequently cited as the forerunner of the modern horror film. Powell delved too far for anyone's comfort into the nastier implications of voyeurism as a way of life with this story of an introverted film studio camera operator who films women as he kills them. To make matters worse, there was the mechanical plot device that doubles the victims' terror and the killer's thrill of spectatorship, plus the way Powell calmly observed the action while he slipped dark little jokes under the covers, so to speak. Years before perversity became commonplace in movies, Powell was prescient about the frenzy born of continuous watching, and how mass entertainment acted as midwife.

Peeping Tom was greeted with real rather than appreciative horror, and Powell's career fortunes waned (though he was able to make a few more movies). Pressburger began a new career as a novelist, and Powell went off to Australia for his last several projects. He ended up in the U.S., teaching at Dartmouth, working as a senior director-in-residence at Coppola's doomed studio, Zoetrope, and married movie editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who won an Oscar for editing Raging Bull and whose longtime creative collaboration with director Martin Scorsese is well-established). She helped Powell complete the two volumes of his autobiography, A Life in Movies -- now out of print and hard to find [Since been reprinted. Often available secondhand] -- and Million-Dollar Movie, published last year, five years after his death. The story of the Archers is told in those books; in Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter by Pressburger's grandson, Kevin McDonald; and in Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger by Ian Christie.

Numerous are the reports of people who tried to talk Powell out of sharing full directing and producing credit with screenwriter Pressburger, telling him that it simply was not done and how profits would have to be shared down the middle. Powell felt their duties overlapped so much that fairness demanded the unusual arrangement. According to Kevin McDonald, overlap was only the half of it:

"The true secret of Michael and Emeric's collaboration is something which cannot be explained. It was the uncanny empathy they had for each other's ideas: `He knows what I am going to say even before I say -- maybe even before I thought it -- and that is very rare... there was an inner response,' said Emeric, using a typical metaphor, `like a violin that would respond to an outside sound if it is tuned in a similar way.'".

All movies are screened on Tuesdays in the Texas Union Theatre at 8pm. Admission is free.
[This was a few years ago - Steve]

Other P&P reviews