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Submitted by Colin Higgins

An Uncommon Man
Article submitted to the Fortean Times
By: Colin Higgins

     Since his critical reassessment in the late seventies, following years of neglect, the British film director Michael Powell has become a cause celebré, a martyr to the irrational, a stranger at the kitchen sink. Set against the realist hegemony in his native cinema, Powell's canon of doppelgangers and glue throwers, ghostly messengers and sexual obsessives serve as a reminder of another, darker tradition in the domestic arts. Lurid and sentimental, cynical and romantic, Powell's film's map a nation where the mythical, the allegorical and the plain mad threaten to run amok and plunge us into another Britain; misty and with a whiff of sulphur.

     Michael Powell and his screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger, were always the odd couple. Emeric, compact and immaculately dressed and Michael the lanky, keen eyed artisan were the Anglican and Animist. But Powell, born into the Kentish squirearchy had the foreign sensibilities while Pressburger, a Jewish Hungarian émigré, represented the values of English conservatism, in public at least. Their early careers ran a curious parallel. Powell cut his teeth on Rex Ingram's silent melodramas, shot on the French Riviera where his father had a hotel (reputedly won at cards) and which include The Magician, Somerset Maugham's, Aleister Crowley expose. Pressburger, learnt his trade as a writer with UFA, the German studio which gave the world Expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, and M. before escaping Nazi oppression to England. Alexander Korda, the London Films mogul and fellow Hungarian, introduced Emeric to Michael on his Conrad Veidt espionage vehicle, The Spy in Black. It was a collaboration that was to last for twenty-one productions.

     "He'd stood the story on its head, he'd turned a man into a woman and a woman into a man, he'd altered the suspense, he'd rewritten the end, I looked at the producer, he was purple in the face, I looked at the writer he was prepared to faint and I was rejoicing that I was going to be working with someone like this." - Michael Powell on first meeting Emeric Pressburger.

     Sharing a virtually unique screen credit: Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, critics looking for an auteur, a sole progenitor of a film, have always found P&P problematic. Since the 1960's, the valorisation of individual directors at the expense of co-operative enterprise, has relegated such liaisons to the status of industrial product - but P&P were far from that. Despite Powell always being the director and Pressburger the writer, a free exchange of ideas under their Archers production company, which included a stable of technicians and actors, was to prove as iconoclastic as it was dynamic - and create a friendship which lasted for forty odd years.

     And how odd.

     As a body of work beginning in 1939 and ending in 1956, it is difficult not to see Powell and Pressburger's collaboration as experimental cinema somehow operating within a mainstream system. Like experimental film it undermined narrative convention, transgressed good taste, ignored political expediency. At the same time the films are dutiful and sincere: propaganda for a war worth winning or a peace worth striving for. It is this paradox that earmarks their output; the camera easily distracted from the apparent story, the logical theme, the noble cause; to a twilight of immanent suggestions.

     "Blimp was just like me, sentimental, loved women and dogs ... honourable, puzzled, innocent and doing a great deal of harm with his puzzlement and his ignorance and his innocence" - Michael Powell interviewed in 1981.

     Take, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, made in 1943. Here, a once impetuous, now elderly career soldier, Major-General Wynne Candy (Roger Livesey), is forced to confront his younger counterpart in a Home Guard exercise. The subaltern has chosen to kick the game off a day early: "But war starts at midnight ... it was agreed", pleads the old walrus. They fight in Blimps' Turkish bath, with Candy emerging from the waters in a flashback as his own younger self. The film pursues two themes; Candy's enduring friendship with Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, a German with whom he duels and his obsession with three women, each played by Deborah Kerr.

     Churchill was livid. The portrayal of his army being run by elderly Blimp's, moreover, the image of Germans as being a mislead people, rather than icons of incarnate evil, was too much. Memos began to fly. Blimp was made under an agreement that, if war broke out, film production would become a reserved occupation, in return for a steady supply of propaganda. Churchill failed to stop its production but succeeded in having the film cut by forty minutes and it was to be many years before the uncut version was exhibited. The contrasts in Blimp: a misguided but human enemy, youth at odds with age and it's elliptical time structure which were so close to Powell's way of working, detracted from the empirical aims of propaganda. "The suggestion is that if we were exactly like the Germans we should be better soldiers", ran one Ministry of Information memorandum. But it was more than Blimps ambivalence that raised Whitehall hackles.

     Even more distracting from the gung-ho spirit was the love interest, three identical women who intervene in Candy's life. More than a cipher, less than an archetype, these atemporal doppelgangers guide him to something less like love, more like blind obsession.

     In the first instance Edith, the Victorian governess abroad, is a starched, Britannia figure, a call to arms for an uncommitted nation and, being uncommitted, Britain falls for the German. We move to WW1 where Barbara, the frontline nurse becomes Edith's elusive double. Britannia has moved on, but Candy struggles to keep up. Soon after they marry, Barbara dies - the pleasures of the hearthside seem unworthy of warriors - and she becomes Angela, the spirit of WW2 and one with wheels for the old campaigner. As Candy's driver she introduces a world of shooting the lights, big-band swing and total war. Unable to make the transformation, Candy gives way. The pragmatic, modern, younger man gets the girl and we return to the start of the film. Churchill, no stranger to the power of metaphor, saw the danger signs. That the movie was not an attack on "Blimp's", but an affectionate portrait of their unworldly - and increasingly inappropriate - values, was symptomatic of the Archers fondness for allegory and allusion to spell out important truths. But with such tacit creations came accusations of effete mysticism and revision. The myths, half-truths and elisions of wartime had begun to take on a sinister complexity.

     These transformations by the woman in Blimp restate Powell and Pressburger's notion of the essential anima of Britain as a vigilant female. On his morbid pursuit of her likeness, Candy says of Edith, "You might say she was my ideal, if you were some kind of sickening, long haired poet". This sense of place as tangible, a genius locii elevated above mere whimsy by the passion it arouses, recurs throughout their work; the implied made manifest, then idealised.

     In "A Canterbury Tale", 1944, the guardian of Britain's secrets is Thomas Colpepper (Eric Portman), a gentleman farmer and local magistrate with a passion for archaeology. While on fire watching duty, he pours glue into girls hair to stop them consorting with soldiers, who are being distracted from his magic lantern slides on the Old Pilgrims Way. Part Saint George, part Spring-Heeled Jack, the Glueman fills the same kind of space as Powell himself, a secular priest (1) claiming a large stake in our tolerance response. Colpepper the crackpot, cornered by an unlikely trio of sassy landgirl, lovelorn G.I. and thwarted classical organist, becomes Colpepper the Magus, bestowing gifts, restoring lost love, reviving the missing-presumed-dead. Or at least we think he does, the exact source of his power remains vague. For although the film is wrapped in the trappings of English Christianity, the reference points are pre-Christian - shamanism, nature worship, the occult in all its guises. This occlusion, Powell's unwillingness to harness his meaning to an exclusive model; religious, political or diagetic, provides part of his illusiveness and for an audience like ours, much of his allure.

     Unlike Hitchcock, a director with whom he is sometimes compared, Powell liked to keep his spectators on their toes, as much as on tenterhooks. A Canterbury Tale, is a whodunit where the guilty party is revealed at the beginning and, with victim and offender much the same, our moral alignments shift as we ponder not 'who' but 'why' and even 'why not'? The rewards are general closure, a happy ending. But only to a point and only within the confines of the story. As one reviewer wrote, "I carried away from A Canterbury Tale an enjoyment I was loath to examine too closely".

     Powell's squires, like Colpepper, doctors, lairds and farmers are common to many films and are surely Powell himself. They are guardians of the countryside, overseers, preachers, bloodless but watchful. A Canterbury Tale was a sermon on the dangers of post-war materialism to a country that had enough of lectures. It was The Archers first box-office failure.

     "A Matter of Life and Death" 1946, was Powell's own favourite. The story of an airman, Peter Carter (David Niven) who jumps from a burning Lancaster bomber into an English pea-soup fog, thus avoiding his heavenly guide, who happens to be French and guillotine victim, is a highpoint of imagination and technique. Colour and black and white, sophisticated matte effects, a huge cast and the biggest sound stage in the world are all used to effect.

     Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) is hauled before a heavenly court for his misdemeanour where Bob, Carter's "sparks" (Robert Coote), who has been shot to pieces by canon fire, cheerfully suggests that the skipper is a reasonable man and should agree to come too, "unless he's had a few ... beers you know, scotch being hard to come by." In the meantime Carter has fallen in love with the radio operator who took his last call.

     The celestial guide steps from a monochrome hereafter through a pink rhododendron bush on earth to search for the overdue master bomber. He says, "We are starved for Technicolor up there", a reflexive flourish which pre-empts contemporary films but which must, at the time, have provoked hollow laughter in a period of rationing. From that moment said Powell, "I knew there was no such thing as realism, only surrealism". The accusation of morbidity; ironically juxtaposing decapitated aristocrats and lost airmen, wholesale slaughter with a municipal afterlife, was frequent levelled but A Matter of Life and Death provides a potent anti-war message and has added to the description of Powell as the first Post Modernist.

     Against this almost continental fondness for morbid allegory, The Archers showed distinct Englishness in their fetishism with character behaviour and dress. The goggled, leather clad motorcyclist who appears in The Spy in Black (1939) returns for A Matter of Life and Death as Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey). Reeves, a ton-up G.P., makes his sly prognosis from a camera obscura mounted on the summerhouse: "Sally Allgood getting herself dated up", "Ah, the vicar and his sister, not coming here I hope ... " a proto Peeping Tom who's motives had not yet turned murderous. These improbable vistas reach a bravura (if unlikely) conclusion with a scene from behind Carter's eye as the lid, all veins and flapping lashes, closes on the lens in an anaesthetic haze. As a taste of what was to follow, the gum fixated Colpepper was to have originally been a slasher - (recalling perhaps, the 1938 hysteria in Halifax) but it was considered "too sadistic".

     This fondness for the bizarre is forgrounded in Black Narcissus (1947) where a group of nuns slowly go mad in a former harem, before sexual hysteria forces a precipitous bell tower cat fight. The film was shot in the studio to provide a controlled representation of the Himalayas with the final cliff top scene providing a marker to the future, filmed as it is, directly to the musical score.

     The Archers were searching for an approach to the medium that emphasised the artifice they had long hinted at. Rather than make sub-textual metaphors, a strategy that had paid mixed dividends, Powell forced the pace toward an unmediated, theatrical form of film, with the music leading the plot. The Red Shoes, (1948) cuts between the fairytale ballet and the staging of it, from the magical shoemaker to the Zvengali balletmaster, both of whom have the ballerina in their grasp. The final scene has the girl (Moira Shearer) throwing herself in front of a train.

     "On the whole the critics were not unenthusiastic about the film. However it was another matter when we showed it to John Davis and Arthur Rank. (The film went 100% over budget). All they could see was that it was an art film and art films do not spell money. They told us they were going to show it for a week and put it on the shelf. We couldn't do anything with them. In the end it was our most successful film", recalled Powell in 1981.

     The pair went onto make another seven films together, in an increasingly hostile economic climate, none of which scaled the heights of their previous works, though many have, in their own way, signs of the exuberance - or excess - for which The Archers were noted. After The Red Shoes they returned to Korda but Rank's "easy tolerance" was not greatly in evidence at Denham and they were kept tightly to budget and script. After moving briefly back under the Rank banner for "Ill met by Moonlight", a pedestrian war story, the collaboration that had redefined British film, was at an end.

     Undaunted, Powell was ready to try something new. Now hailed a masterpiece, Peeping Tom, (1960) a film that sought sympathy for a cameraman who killed his female subjects with a sharpened tripod leg, was, like much of Powell's work, misunderstood, often wilfully. The difference was that this film abandoned allusion for psychological insight. It was probably too much, too early. The affinity with a misguided character's obsessive motivations that had littered his work and generally proved difficult for audiences was writ large as the misfit turned killer. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer" - was one of the more guarded reviews. Peeping Tom, often thought of as a graphic film, is by comparison with Hitchcock's Psycho - a movie on a similar theme the following year - a sincere portrayal of pathology that avoids gratuitousness. Sincere or not, under the critical onslaught it was pulled from the exhibition circuit and hacked up by cheap-jack producers. Bereft of form and context, not to mention distribution, it ebbed out of popular recall, dragging the rest of Powell's work in its wake. In retrospect its grande guignol ending, with the cameraman impaled by his own camera, is a neat mirror for Powell's career. He went on to make two films in Australia, They're a Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969) neither of which added to his reputation.

     There was one other film that might have revived Powell's career. He had wanted to create a screen version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". A project close to his heart, it containing the vital magic that he saw himself proprietor of. But the wizardry had dried up. The movie got into an advanced stage of pre-production but when it came to generating finance, Powell, an inveterate bridge burner, was to pay for his dyspeptic dealings with producers and the money proved impossible to raise. There is more than an element of irony that two claimants to his mantle of pre-eminent British Magical Realist, Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, were both to make their own versions.

     By the 1970's Powell was living in penurious surroundings in a Gloucester cottage, all but forgotten by the industry and public. The man who directed the first Royal Film Performance, who moved whole armies in the aim of propaganda, who produced the equal of anything Hollywood had to offer, was to be taken to court for non payment of rates. At this lowest of ebbs, David Thomson, in A Biographical Dictionary of Film wrote "There is not a British director, working in Britain, with as many worthwhile films to his credit as Michael Powell ... against persistent attempts to dignify realism Powell must have seemed gaudy, distasteful, effete. All three ingredients contribute to his vision, but so do an imaginative evocation of the erotic and the supernatural ... "

     In 1978, Ian Christie of the British Film Institute organised a complete retrospective of The Archers films. It was an opportunity to see many in an uncut version for the first time. Powell contacted Thomson who invited him to teach in New Hampshire. While working there he visited Martin Scorsese, who had long admired his movies and Frances Coppola gave him a position at his Zoetrope studios. Powell married Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. He died in 1990, three years after Emeric, in the knowledge that their reputations were intact. This year, Thomson wrote, "I never really bought the notion that Michael couldn't work because of one film. Not if he'd been determined. Rather, I think he was ready to withdraw. He was a self dramatist and a wizard in his own mind. He was a genius, yet a very difficult person. It was my hunch that he often designed his life". (2)

     Powell himself, is best summed up in the words of Thomas Colpepper.

"He didn't think what he did was a crime ... some parents have to force their children to go to school. Is that a crime?"

-"You're not going to defend pouring glue on people?"

"Certainly not. But I am going to defend pouring knowledge into their heads, by force if necessary".

-"What knowledge?"

"Knowledge of our country and its beauty".

A fitting epitaph to a filmmaker who provided knowledge and beauty.

(1) Gavin Millar in a 1981 Arena BBC Documentary on P&P describes Powell as a "secular priest ... who would do anything, everything, to protect the uninvaded land ... "

(2) David Thomson in The Independent, 24.3.00

Recommended Reading

A Life in Movies
Michael Powell 1986 Autobiography Pt1

Million Dollar Movie
Michael Powell 1992 Autobiography Pt2
Published posthumously

Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of a Screenwriter
Kevin Macdonald 1994

Arrows of Desire
Ian Christie 1985

Recommended Surfing

PaPAS Web Site
A fansite with many rare articles on Powell and Pressburger, associated actors and technicians.

Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society (PAPAS)

Powell and Pressburger Collaborations.
The Spy in Black (1939)
Contraband (1940)
49th Parallel (1941)
One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)
The Silver Fleet (1943)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
The Volunteer (1943)
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
I Know Where I'm Going (1945)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Black Narcissus (1947)
The End of the River (1947)
The Red Shoes (1948)
The Small Back Room (1949)
Gone to Earth (1950)
The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Oh Rosalinda!! (1955)
The Battle of the River Plate (1956)
Ill Met By Moonlight (1956)
They're a Weird Mob (1966)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)

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