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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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Painters of perversity
A singular admixture of restrained strangeness.

by Richard C. Walls
22nd October 1997

British director Michael Powell (1905-90) is probably best known now as the man most often mentioned in Martin Scorsese interviews, as both a major influence and an inspiration. At first glance the connection between the two directors may seem obscure. Scorsese (The Age of Innocence aside) is known for energetic, hard-assed movies, while Powell is best known for the candy-colored fantasy The Red Shoes (1948). True, he also made Peeping Tom (1960), a uniquely insightful study of a sadistic serial killer, but even then the mood of morose reflection was worlds away from the merciless momentum of a Scorsese film.

Powell started his directorial career helming ultra-low-budget films that few people saw and, having displayed talent where none was necessary, graduated to more respectable features by the late '30s. Of these only Spy in Black ('39), an intriguingly Hitchcockian melodrama laced with German expressionism, is available on video. This was Powell's first collaboration with the Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, a partnership which led four years later to the founding of a production company called the Archers.

Over the ensuing 14 years, the Archers would make 15 films, each bearing the credit "written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger." While this was meant to reflect the symbiotic creativity of the two, it's generally agreed that the scripts for these films were largely Powell-Pressburger concoctions and the visuals distinctly Powell's.

The Powell-Pressburger films of the '40s had the air of being very British and very something else. Though their narratives were often straightforward and even sentimental, with (at least during wartime) a patina of mildly ironic patriotism, there were also undercurrents of mysticism and eroticism, qualities which have led critics to cast back to William Blake and forward to Peter Greenaway for comparisons. Visually, particularly when they used color, their films could become audaciously unrealistic, with little attempt made to disguise their set-bound vistas, awash in gauzy hues.

Though all of the Archers' films are recommended, there are four which stand as pinnacles of their singular admixture of restrained strangeness. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), for example, is a folly by any measure, a 2-1/2-hour paean to the international brotherhood of soldiery, made at the height of World War II (and which Churchill attempted to have banned). A romantic fantasy with the hero encountering, over a 40-year period, three different women all played by Deborah Kerr, it was simultaneously a spoof of and homage to the concept of honor in a world of mechanized mass murder.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a restored version of which was shown at the DFT a few seasons back, is somewhat less ambitious, as a dying RAF pilot argues for his life before a heavenly court (with the typically perverse touch of having the Earth glow with sumptuous color while heaven is bland and monochromic).

Into this potential treacle is inserted a protracted debate over the competing claims of the reasonable system and the irrational man. One expects (and hopes for) irrationality to win out since this is, after all, a film in which heaven and Earth are connected by a huge, slow-moving escalator.

Black Narcissus (1947) is, as the writer David Thomson has pointed out, "that rare thing, an erotic English film." Adapted from a Rumer Godden novel, it's a tale of sexual hysteria among a group of nuns cloistered in some remote area of the Himalayas, represented by a series of willfully unconvincing matte shots. This is Grand Guignol amid the snow-capped peaks, a visual tour de force where little is shown and much is suggested.

The last of the quartet, The Red Shoes, a rendering of a Hans Christian Andersen story into the world of contemporary ballet, is ostensibly the sort of film one would take a precocious child to -- though its view of the consuming passion of creativity is decidedly adult.

What do these films have in common and why is Martin Scorsese so enamored of them? When summarized, Powell's films always sound more than a little laugable and, even in the viewing, there are moments of flat-footed silliness (not all due to the passage of time). But they are first and foremost visual experiences, not stories to be paraphrased. One can appreciate the Powell-Scorsese connection only to the extent that one can grasp that Scorsese is an unrealistic director -- not a creator of hyper docudramas but of counterworlds, purely cinematic and dreamlike.

Powell's most significant post-Pressburger film was the above-mentioned Peeping Tom. In it, a deranged photographer films his victims as he impales them on a swordlike leg of his camera's tripod. By description, the film sounds rather sick. Visually, though, it radiates a serene placidity. Like all of Powell's work, it has to be seen to be properly experienced.

Richard C. Walls writes frequently on the arts for the Metro Times

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