The Masters  
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 Roger Mellor

Million Dollar Movie
(Michael Powell's autobiography - part II)
By Caryn James
NY Times

As Michael Powell recalls in "Million Dollar Movie," his most notorious and possibly most brilliant movie began with this cheery, polite exchange between him and a screenwriter:

" 'Mr. Powell, how would you like to make a film about a young man with a camera who kills the women that he photographs?'
"I said, 'That's me. I'd like it very much.' "

So "Peeping Tom" took shape. The 1960 film was widely reviled and virtually ended Powell's career after two decades of making lavish fantasies with dark undertones, like "The Red Shoes." Today, when even the simplest bank transaction is captured on videotape, "Peeping Tom" seems eerier and more prescient than ever in its brutal honesty about the power of the camera. Powell lived to see "Peeping Tom" called a masterpiece, and I wish he were still around -- if not to make movies, at least to be the mischievous inspiration and twinkle-eyed artistic conscience of those who do. That was the real-life role he played supremely during his last years, when he became a father figure to directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. When he died in 1990, at 84, he left behind this book, the final half of his conversational, eloquent, endearing autobiography. Powell was only 10 years younger than movie making itself, and his memoirs offer a fierce defense of the art and a firsthand history of English film making through most of the century.

The first volume, "A Life in Movies" (1987), carried his story through "The Red Shoes" in 1948. "Million Dollar Movie" picks up when he is still at the height of his career as half of the Archers -- the name for the partnership of Powell and the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made all his finest movies except "Peeping Tom." Powell describes their daring "Tales of Hoffmann," the best example of what he called a "composed film." Here is an opera film as purely visual as a silent movie, filled with music and dance, puppets and actors. Its extravagance demonstrates why Powell lost patience with any collaborator who warned he was going too far.

He remembers Jennifer Jones, drunk on location in the English countryside while making "Gone to Earth," desperately unhappy and trapped in her love affair with the producer David O. Selznick. He directed his great friend David Niven in the costume drama "The Elusive Pimpernel" and recalls the actor's response to some elaborate disguise for his stealthy, heroic character. "Micky, old chum," Niven said, "are you sure we're on the right track with this Lon Chaney stuff? I don't think my public is going to go for 'Niven, the Man With a Thousand Faces.' " Each anecdote re-creates the sensory images you would expect from Powell, who lovingly details everything from the simple crispness of the air to the elaborate set designs.

By the mid-1950's the Archers were falling apart, and at this point "Million Dollar Movie" might have become a catalogue of frustration. Instead, it is a chronicle of common sense and perseverance. Powell depicts the sad end of the Archers in the context of a floundering film industry. The English studios were all too ready to water down their movies when faced with a weak postwar economy and Hollywood bullies. And in some of the book's most tantalizing sections, Powell enthusiastically describes movies that never were. There was the Archers' life of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, abandoned after much research in Israel; Powell's version of "The Tempest," with James Mason and Mia Farrow; the near-miss of turning Graham Greene's play "The Living Room" into a Rex Harrison movie.

Throughout, Powell weaves in details of his private life. A long, convenient first marriage left plenty of time and room for affairs. Yet nothing competes with his passion for movies. After all, as he writes in one of his pithier remarks, "Art is the child of sex and religion," three areas in which too much reason is deadly. No one understands that better than Martin Scorsese, to whom the book is dedicated and who begins his introduction, "There was always a mystery about Michael Powell," a way of revealing the deepest truths while "leaving something magical untouched." As a child, Mr. Scorsese discovered the Powell-Pressburger films on the television program "Million Dollar Movie," which inspired the book's title.

In 1984, after his first wife's death, Powell married Thelma Schoonmaker, the great editor of Mr. Scorsese's films, including "Raging Bull." Powell's eyesight was failing in his last years, and he dictated "Million Dollar Movie" into cassettes to be transcribed and read back to him by his wife. He finished a draft, but did not live to revise and edit it. Though Powell's style was always digressive and sly, it is poignant to realize why this volume is so much looser in structure than the first. While dictation enhanced the flavor of his speech, it also makes the book far too long and repetitious even for his fans. The low point is an 80-page section describing, minutely, the filming of "The Battle of the River Plate," one of the Archers' last, and now one of their least-loved, movies.

Thelma Schoonmaker Powell's brief explanatory notes are always helpful and occasionally stunning. Powell mentions taking a taxi in Los Angeles in the late 70's, when he was senior director in residence at Francis Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. His wife adds: "Michael did not reveal that after years of failure to get his projects off the ground, he could not afford a car. He lived quite happily within walking distance of the studio, in a slightly run-down apartment with no telephone, television or radio." He was determined to depict himself as a survivor, though he foxily says he walked to the bank to cash Zoetrope's checks before they could bounce. And if he writes disappointingly little about the vicious reaction to "Peeping Tom," there are explanations for that, too. In a note Powell dictated to his wife when he feared he might not survive to finish the book, he said he wanted to deal with "Peeping Tom" quickly. He proposed piling up the most lethal critical quotes, "the more shocking the better, one on top of the other," and letting the film's status as a classic speak for itself. That he did. A typical reaction called his movie "the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing." Writer's strategy aside, Powell's reticence about "Peeping Tom" suggests not a lack of bitterness but a hurt too deep to discuss, the kind that comes when an artist bares his soul and has it stomped on.

Though Michael Powell was happy when his movies made money, he was shrewd about the difference between art and commercial success. He was grateful, he writes, to have escaped making a Hollywood film, "the movie of the Oscars, those statuettes that should be engraved with the words: 'So far, and no further.' " He speculated that the words on his gravestone should read: "Film director and optimist." [They do. See my trip to Avening]

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