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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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Submitted by Nicky Smith

A Life In Movies
(Michael Powell's autobiography - part I)

TLS October 31 1986

Red-blooded realist

Alexander Walker

Michael Powell
A Life in Movies
705pp. Heinemann. £15.95.

Not the least remarkable aspect of Michael Powell's memoirs is how they present the whole man in what is really half a life. In spite of the length of A Life in Movies, it ends (for now anyway) with The Red Shoes in 1948 and Powell aged only forty-three. But so much experience of men, movies and women is crammed into its feat of total recall, rivalling the late Compton Mackenzie's, that the eighty-one-year-old author seems to have lived many lives. If not as a film-maker, he could plausibly have presented himself as a globe-trotter, conservationist, hotelier, novelist, even a womanizer.

He proclaims his Englishness with the vigour of a patrial being quizzed by Immigration. ("I love England. I have mirrored England to the English.") But what singles the book out is its Continental tilt. And what makes it virtually unique among the memoirs of English film-makers is the open (but rarely chauvinist) relish for the beauty and company of women, on-screen and off, in bed and out of it. It is a red-blooded example in a usually thin-blooded genre; it will be read with pleasure by people who are not cinéastes and who want a "life", not simply an account of an art-form.

Powell's pleasures were cultivated without guilt - this also distances him from his English peers. Probably they were acquired on that cosmopolitan inter-war Riviera - his father (le capitain) ran the Voile d'Or hotel - where he saw the European cinema of Clair, Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Lubitsch and Seastrom flowering all round him. Thanks to a chance encounter at a party given by his father for the American unit at the nearby Victorine studios in 1926, "Mickey" wound up with Rex Ingram shooting Mare Nostrum. He gives a most valuable account, as well as a highly entertaining one, of that far-off silent era of expatriate Hollywoodites - photographer John F. Seitz, art director Henri Menessier, Alice Faye and Antonio Moreno. Likewise, Powell's description of Korda and the profligate way the Denham empire was ruled have historical importance. Korda sent him round the world by flying boat - "It was pure Jules Verne" - to find Burmese locations. Powell sent back cables from every "splash-down": "Could you imagine whole Persian Gulf to choose from collided ... with westbound flying boat. Awaiting replacement from Karachi." That movie was never made. One that was, The Thief of Bagdad, got under way with the briefest of remits: "I would like you, Mickey, to take Sabu and a film unit down to Cornwall and start making it." That was all; it was Korda's method of effectively cutting out the pedantic German director whom he had already signed. Powell convincingly stakes Korda's sometimes hazy claim to have aided the war effort by giving details of how the magnate made good his peace-time promise to Churchill that he would have a propaganda film (The Lion Has Wings) ready within a month of the start of the war.

His book also repairs some of the blanks in the puzzle of who did what in the Powell-Pressburger partnership, as in his account of his colleague announcing: "Excuse me, I am Pressburger" (spoken with a Continental bow), and then popping up like the dormouse out of the pot, holding a Denham script meeting spellbound with a reworked scenario read from a six-inch roll of paper.

Powell had his chance to go to the United States. He admired American movies for their "lively energy". But Hollywood was another country: they did things differently there. He opted for independence - and kept it until his production company, The Archers, began losing money and then the confidence of Rank who released The Red Shoes without even a première.

Powell's writing is full of delights. On entering Korda's office: "The furnishing of the room was civilized, by which I mean it was full of books in five languages." There is not one line of theory in the book (though there are a few misspellings that the publishers should have caught). It is bound to upset academic critics who have extravagantly lauded The Archers for setting their faces against realism and for attempting "daring experiments in reducing the importance of narrative", as Ian Christie put it in his recent Arrows of Desire (reviewed in the TLS of May 16).

Here is first-hand testimony that they did nothing of the kind. The Archers aimed in exactly the opposite direction from the one in which the "New Critics" are pulling their own bow-strings. Colonel Blimp, for example, springs directly out of a realist, narrative tradition going back to One of Our Aircraft is Missing, where a titled middle-aged rear gunner, played by Godfrey Tearle, gave Hugh Burden's young idealist "skipper" a dressing-down based on his experience of life. David Lean, who was editing the film, had the scene dropped. "It's nothing to do with the plot. It's the sort of idea you could make a whole film about", he said. Powell adds laconically, "So we did."

[This is quite an amazing review, only partly about Powell's autobiography. A lot of it is the reviewer having a rant (subtle at the start, less so towards the end) about the younger critics who were threatening his position. He sets up targets of his own imagining and then twists things to his own advantage to score what looks like a hit with every one. Let's not forget, this was the critic who still referred to Peeping Tom as a "snuff movie" in the documentary A Very British Psycho (1997)]

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