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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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The Archers: Part 1
Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) were one of the most influential director/producer/writer teams ever to work in films. From the beginning of their partnership in 1938 [1939 - Steve] until their last formal project together in 1957, they made a total of 17 [20 (or 20 if you count Gone to Earth & The Wild Heart as different films) - Steve] films. All but four [all but 5 (Spy in Black, Contraband, 49th Parallel, Silver Fleet & End of the River - Steve] contained that unique credit, "written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger," a testament to the intertwining nature of their work and talents. The partnership between Powell and Pressburger began when the two met at Alexander Korda's London Films. Powell, who began his career as an apprentice on the productions of the celebrated silent director Rex Ingram, had worked as a propman and sometime actor in late silents. He later became a still photographer, and eventually worked with Hitchcock in that capacity. He also worked as an uncredited screenwriter on Blackmail (1929). He began his directing career with a string of very low-budget thrillers and comedies, known as "quota quickies." In the mid-1930s, he hit upon an idea for a film that would dramatize a true story about the abandonment of an island off the coast of Scotland -- The Edge of the World. Powell's first truly personal cinematic effort, the resulting film, released in 1937, helped him land a contract with Korda Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger began his career as a short story writer. He later wrote screenplays at Germany's UFA studio. Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Pressburger left for Paris. He arrived in London in 1935. Korda, who made a habit of hiring fellow Hungarians, hired him at London Films in 1937. Pressburger's British screenwriting debut was the adventure drama, The Challenge (1938). In 1938, Korda teamed Powell and Pressburger together to work on a film of the novel The Spy in Black. Working from an adaptation by Roland Pertwee, the two of them deconstructed, in Powell's words, "a creaky old story" of World War I intrigue. They reshaped it as a vehicle for the movie's two stars, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. Veidt portrays a World War I German U-boat captain assigned to an espionage mission to destroy the British fleet at anchor off the coast of Scotland, and Hobson plays his contact, an agent masquerading as a schoolteacher working inside the British security zone. The Spy in Black was the beginning of a long and rich partnership between the two men, who would ultimately form their own production company, The Archers, to create films that would evoke their shared creative vision.

Completed in 1938, The Spy In Black was held back from release by Korda until August of 1939, just before war broke out between England and Germany. Set during World War I, the movie was an immediate hit on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in America, where it opened under the fortuitous title U-Boat 29. The new title capitalized on the real U-Boat 29, which had recently made headlines around the world by sinking a British capital ship off the coast of England. Korda's organization ran out of time and credit in England early in 1940. Korda moved to Hollywood for the duration of the war, to complete work on The Thief of Bagdad, on which Powell had been one of several directors. Powell and Pressburger, however, sought to capitalize on their success with The Spy in Black with a follow-up film that would again star Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The resulting film, Contraband, was a surprisingly topical thriller that uniquely captured England's spirit during its awkward transition from peace to war at the end of 1939. This time Veidt plays a Danish merchant who, together with Hobson, helps break up a German spy ring operating in London. The movie was released in America by United Artists under the title Blackout.

Contraband's success led Powell and Pressburger to propose another film dealing with the war, this time from a Canadian perspective. This evolved into 49th Parallel, their most ambitious film to date. 49th Parallel depicts an attempt by a quintet of stranded German U-boat crewman to escape from Canada to the still-neutral United States. Featuring an all-star international cast and initially funded by the British Ministry of Information, the budget was quickly exhausted by the logistics of location shooting across thousands of miles of Canada. However, The Rank Organisation -- already the largest film distribution company in England -- bought out the government's interest in the film and it was completed with great success.

49th Parallel achieved extraordinary popularity in England as well as in America, where it was released by Columbia Pictures in 1942 -- in considerably shortened form -- as The Invaders. Nominated for three Academy Awards® -- the film won Pressburger his only Oscar® for the story. The film's success led movie magnate J. Arthur Rank to seriously consider the production of ambitious motion pictures for the American market. Accordingly, Powell and Pressburger approached Rank with a proposal. They would form an independent production unit, The Archers, based at the Rank Organisation, through which they would make feature films that Rank would distribute. Rank agreed to this idea, but only after he made the mistake of turning down One of our Aircraft is Missing. Essentially a reversal of 49th Parallel, this film told the story of a stranded British bomber crew who make their way through occupied Holland. Rank had misgivings over the title's inherently pessimistic overtones, so Powell and Pressburger made the movie for British National. It, too, proved to be hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The script earned Powell and Pressburger another Oscar® nomination, their fourth for 1942.

The Rank Organisation became home to The Archers and, in time, to independent production units headed by David Lean and Carol Reed. The Golden Age of British cinema began, and flourished over the next decade. Powell and Pressburger's first film for Rank, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, however, seemed less than auspicious at the time. The movie depicts the life of a career military officer from 1902 through 1943, and his gradual decline into obsolescence in the face of modern warfare. Originally called The Life and Death of Sugar Candy, the Colonel Blimp title was appropriated from the popular satiric comic strip character created by David Low. Shot in Technicolor, with an enormously long script, Blimp was an ambitious project in wartime--but the Ministry of Information also believed it to be a dangerous one for its depiction of an aging, out-of-touch British general. The government, and most of all Prime Minister Winston Churchill, wanted the public and (equally important) the Americans to believe that all such officers had been purged from the services. The Ministry did its best, at the behest of Churchill, to halt the movie's production and then to prevent its export to America until the end of the war. Heavily cut before its release, Blimp nevertheless was among the finest films to come out of the war, a superbly crafted piece of cinema regarded today as the team's first masterpiece.

While Blimp was in production, The Archers produced one non-Powell/Pressburger film. The Silver Fleet was directed by Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley, and produced in association with its star, Ralph Richardson. It proved less successful than the duo's own movies. Powell and Pressburger also wrote, produced, and directed a 46-minute short entitled The Volunteer (1943), depicting an actor and his dresser both joining the Fleet Air Arm. For their next feature film, Powell and Pressburger decided to look inside the English people--at the fears, desires, and aspirations that preoccupied them amid five years of war. The result was A Canterbury Tale, perhaps the most spiritual of all their collaborations. It tells the story of modern-day pilgrims to Canterbury, who encounter a local magistrate preoccupied with English history, and is frustrated by wartime dislocation. The movie found an audience in England, but was not released in America until long after the war. Ultimately, the U.S. distributor, United Artists, grafted on new framing footage featuring Kim Hunter, who didn't appear in the original movie, and John Sweet.

I Know Where I'm Going! came about due to Powell and Pressburger's desire to keep working while waiting for the Technicolor camera equipment that they would need for their next proposed film, A Matter of Life and Death. Although it superficially resembled A Canterbury Tale in its criticism of materialistic concerns, I Know Where I'm Going! had a more tightly focused story, which allowed its timeless, "magical" elements freer reign. Set in the Scottish Isles, it tells the story of a headstrong young woman whose plans to marry a rich businessman are thwarted when she becomes stranded in a storm and meets a young naval officer. Curiously, though its release was delayed in the United States, it became the first of Powell and Pressburger's movies to be released in America uncut.

The two previous Archers films could not have prepared audiences for their next release, A Matter of Life and Death. The film had two seemingly disconnected inspirations. The first was an article read by Pressburger, about an R.A.F. sergeant who had jumped out of a stricken plane without a parachute and lived. The second was a request by the Ministry of Information that The Archers make a movie that would address the deteriorating relationship between Britons and Americans. The Archers would have proceeded immediately, but for the fact that the military, and rival producer Gabriel Pascal (hard at work on Caesar and Cleopatra ), had priority on the only available Technicolor equipment. The Archers finally got the equipment in 1945. The movie that resulted transcended all expectations. It featured a richly drawn fantasy plot, with visuals designed on a breathtaking scale. The movie was an astonishing cinematic conjuring trick, about an R.A.F. officer who survives a leap from a burning plane without a parachute and falls in love with the American air controller with whom he has made contact. Amidst a series of hallucinations caused by his injuries, the officer finds himself on trial before a heavenly tribunal. A Matter of Life and Death (released in America as Stairway to Heaven) was virtually the last film of World War II, released over 18 months after the fighting in Europe had ended. It was the first movie ever to receive a Royal Command Performance, and remains one of Powell and Pressburger's most beloved films.

The Archers: Part 2

Available on laserdisc from
The Criterion Collection
     Available on VHS tape (NTSC) from
Home Vision Cinema
Black Narcissus
49th Parallel
I Know Where I'm Going
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Peeping Tom
The Red Shoes
The Tales of Hoffmann
The Elusive Pimpernel
Peeping Tom
The Tales of Hoffmann