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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 Neal Lofthouse

Those studio enigmas, Powell and Pressburger
A stocktaking of their work in 'Gone to Earth and all that!'
Of all of Britain's film-makers, this team must be the most erratic. From flights of fascinating fancy it gives us somersaults in the same film. You never know what's coming next.

By Stephen Watts
Picturegoer November 4 1950.

There used to be a familiar publisher's slogan which claimed that it was impossible not to be thrilled by Edgar Wallace. In a different sense, it is for me impossible not to be thrilled by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I mean the men themselves in this case; not their work.

I have known them and their work, as long as they have been together, which is twelve years. I have never had a dull conversation with them. And on leaving them I have never felt entirely happy. Stimulated but uneasy, would be a fair description of my feelings.

Their films have sometimes had the same the same effect on me, but not always. On some occasions "stimulation" would be too mild a word, on others "uneasy" would be a gross understatement of my feelings.

It is easy enough to put a finger on what one likes about bald, blue-eyed, soft-voiced Powell, and short, shrewd Pressburger, with his thoughtful remarks in Hungarian-accented, but eloquent English.

They are, to their backbones and fingertips, men of cinema. They are enthusiasts about and devotees of the medium in which they work. They are restless, bold, imaginative experimenters, prodigous workers, and they have total confidence in themselves.

Micky Powell will invite your opinion on his latest project, but you feel his interest is conversational and academic: his mind is made up. He thrives on argument, but never budges an inch.


If you were to say flatly that an idea was bad, it would bring merely a glint into his pale eyes and you would know you had fortified his determination. "I'll show you," his whole manner says. "You'll see who's right."

When a picture is a big sucess, such as The Red Shoes, he is not merely, as some producers are, grateful. He simply implies that the public has shown good sense in liking it.

It would be easy, too, to write a facile eulogy of this film-making team by selecting the fine things it has done, for its extraordinary record is dotted with memorable brillances.

Perhaps when everything else about its latest picture, Gone to Earth , is forgotten, one will recall the final fox-hunting scenes as a model of their kind. Going further back, one remembers the tension of the climax of 49th Parallel, the fight as the train approached the U.S.- Canadian frontier.

Similarly, one thinks of the Kentish landscape so magnificently realized in A Canterbury Tale, the whirlpool scene in I Know Where I'm Going, the strangely effective celestial atmosphere of A Matter of Life and Death, the bomb scene at the end of The Small Back Room , the rich, wonderful colouring of Black Narcissus, and of course, the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes.


And yet - and yet ... That uneasiness always comes creeping in when I cast my mind back over the Powell-Pressburger pictures. Take their most famous film, The Red Shoes. It is ungenerous, when a film has done so much good for the prestige of British films abroad (to say nothing of dollar earning), to go back and pick holes?

I do so only to trace my own uneasiness.

But what was The Red Shoes about - what did it say? Reviewing it when it was first shown, I wrote: "The story is the feeblest part of the picture - having nothing new to say it winds up in an insufficiently motivated, hasty and melodramatic ending." I still think that is a fair comment.

It is a tribute, if slightly back-handed, to the writing-producing-directing team of Powell and Pressburger that one should have so much enjoyed and admired a film with so trite and unconvincing a story.

A girl is dedicated to ballet. She falls in love and marries. The Svengali-like - or Diaghileff-like - [Or Powell-like?] impresario spurns her, the pull of the ballet is too strong, she returns, loses her husband and commits suicide.

It is not just another version of the old love-verus-career story, one of the most hackneyed screen plots? True, the career in this case happens to be set in a beautiful and engrossing art, but the cliche is still there.

To me the conflict was unreal. "A dancer who depends on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a dancer", said Anton (Svengali) Walbrook in the picture. To which I would say - tosh!

Yet that line was roughly the premise on which The Red Shoes was built. Thank heaven for those wonderful ballet scenes. It is their effect on me that makes me think of The Red Shoes as a fine picture.

Or take A Matter of life and Death, a film I defended strenuously against those who dismissed it as a total failure. For me it was far from that. It had the great virtue of being wholly cinematic, it had imaginative novelty, great beauty and high technical accomplishment.

And yet ... you remember the trial scene when great figures of history made speeches? [No. Which 'great figures of history' made speeches? Unless he counts Abraham Farlan as one] I have rarely been made so restless in a cinema seat. The film bogged down in ordinary bromidic words.

Once again the brutal conclusion is that the picture had nothing to say - except what had been said a thousand times before.

I think, too, of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, of I Know Where I'm Going, of A Canterbury Tale (a nasty little story, handsomely disguised), of Black Narcissus - and always, if one takes the trouble to go beyond the superficial and sporadic attractions (which live best in the memory) it is the same analysis of tremendous erracticness and a haunting, almost eerie sense of emptiness.

Good to Awful

This erraticness is the most extraordinary characteristic of Powell and Pressburger. Like the celebrated child, when they're good they're very good, but when they're bad they're awful.

Even their technical accomplishment seems to desert them and you have things like the ending of I Know Where I'm Going - the bringing together of boy and girl in an almost cynically slapdash and casual way.

The emptiness brings me back to the charge of "nothing to say". Goodness knows, one doesn't want films packed with "message". But there should be a central purpose, a backbone of conviction.

Have Powell and Pressburger any convictions? On the evidence, I would say only the conviction that their mission is to make bigger, better and "different" pictures. Of their sincere belief that the sky's the limit and nothing is barred in exploiting the potentialities of the film medium, I have no doubt.

What then is the lack? This may offend them, but in my opinion it is a lack of knowledge of and interest in human beings.

In these last twelve years of their partnership, when have they got to grips with real, ordinary people?

I argued with them the desirability of making The Elusive Pimpernel. They were convinced they could do something new and different with it - and they may have suceeded. But the withdrawal from normal, contemporary life is significant.

So, too, with their latest, The Tales of Hoffmann, which is a pure essay in musical fantasy. Even in The Small Back Room, if you remember, the love affair was a curious, unconvincing sideline - the bomb, with the opportunities it provided for cinematic treatment was the ultimate hero.

Wanted: Discipline

I have deliberately said little of Gone to Earth. I have little to say. I thought it an astonishingly bad film, but it gave another instance of what I am arguing.

The three main characters were the merest puppets - the wild, half-out-of-this-world girl and the two men who might as well have worn labels marked "Sacred and Profane Love".

I find it incomprehensible that here Powell and Pressburger could have ever stood back from their work and viewed it in normal terms of life as we know it. No, the parts were treated as greater than the whole, the wood was ignored while the trees were in close-up.

Now don't misunderstand me. Over all, British films have been better for Powell and Pressburger. I would rather have them than many a timid, pedestrian, unimaginative writer, producer or director about whose work I would not bother to be so analytical.

I look forward to their future films - if only because one never knows what they'll be up to next. But I think they have need of discipline, of closer contact with life, of greater concern with the broad and total effects of what they put on the screen while they are up to their clever tricks and flights of fancy.

I said they stimulate me. Now I hope that this or some such frank probing of their weakness may stimulate them to pictures one can wholeheartedly admire and which do not any more inspire a curious and nagging uneasiness.

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