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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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From "Million Dollar Movie" by Michael Powell

   And then one day I saw somebody reading a bulky book called A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema and out of tired curiosity I looked to see if I was in it, and what they said about me. And this is what I read, in David Thomson's book:

   Michael Powell, b. Canterbury, Kent, 1905 [a filmography followed]. There is not a British director, working in Britain, with as many worthwhile films to his credit as Michael Powell. Yet in an age of Richardson and Schlesinger, Powell has had hardly any adequate critical appreciation. The sadness is that he can easily be written off as an eccentric decorator of fantasies. Against persistent British attempts to dignify realism Powell must have seemed gaudy, distasteful and effete. All three ingredients contribute to his vision, but so do an imaginative evocation of the erotic and the supernatural, a pioneering enthusiasm for visual autonomy always likely to break out in passages of stunning delight, the adherence to what Raymond Durgnat once called "High Tory" values, a wicked sense of humour and private jokes, and, most distinctive - like Colonel Blimp's dreams - an unsettling mixture of emotional reticence and splurging fantasy. Thus, as late as 1969, Age of Consent, a mild beachcombing anecdote, is lit up by baroque passages of Helen Mirren, naked, and underwater.

   It is revealing that Peeping Tom was dismissed in Britain as wayward nastiness. Worst of all, Powell may have been inhibited by the feeling that his imagination was un-British. Powell has stayed English - despite the merry excursion to Australia - when he cried out for the geography of light and shade that von Sternberg illuminated on the Paramount sound stages. Even when Britain rediscovered horror in the late 1950's, as 0. 0. Green has remarked, Powell was ignored. Green compared Powell and King Vidor, whose Duel in the Sun Jennifer Jones was reduced to Country Life fretfulness by Powell in Gone to Earth: "Vidor, intellectually, perhaps, less sophisticated, or at least less cautious, than Powell, has retained just that Wagnerian authenticity of emotional excess which gives his films that genuine mysticism, a Nietzschean pantheism. But Powell lived in a class and a country which suspects, undermines, is embarrassed by, emotion; his diversity of qualities rarely find their holding con text."

   As if in early accord with that verdict, Powell left Dulwich College for the studio Rex Ingram had set up in Nice. He assisted the ex-Dubliner, ex-Hollywood director, on Mare Nostrum (26), The Magician (26), and The Garden of Allah (27). Undoubtedly that experience encouraged his interest in the expressionist treatment of the supernatural; Ingram's splendid isolation may also have confirmed a young man's belief in "artistic' cinema. It was several years before Powell's own films showed such strange fruit. He slogged away for some time in England as a cameraman, writer, and director; only in the late 193os do his films seem his own.

   Thereafter, they struggle with great clashing virtues - with marvellous visual imagination and uneasy, intellectual substance: I Know Where I'm Going [sic] is excused by its resort to faery; 49th Parallel is a strange war odyssey, with escaping Germans wandering across Canada - naive, very violent, at times unwittingly comic, but possessed by a primitive feeling for endangered civilisation; an interesting sequel is One of Our Aircraft is Missing - English fliers getting out of Holland; yet A Matter of Life and Death is pretentious and tedious. But the two Conrad Veidt movies - The Spy in Black and Contraband - are exciting and atmospheric studies in Langian intrigue; The Thief of Bagdad is delightful; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a beautiful salute to Englishness. After the war, Powell expanded, attempting to fuse the talents of painters, designers and dancers. In fact, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman [sic] and Oh Rosalinda [sic] underline the search for respectability in his work. Visually, they are too often silly, overdressed, inspired by what Green calls "Ye Olde junke Shoppe" aspect of British visual culture. Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns, startling whenever Kathleen Byron is involved. The Small Back Room profits from the use of unexpected expressionism on an ostensibly realistic subject and quivers with nervous tension. Equally, The Elusive Pimpernel has gorgeous moments despite a routine swashbuckling story.

   After about 1950, dejection seemed to set in, only to be dispelled by Peeping Tom, Powell's most completely realised and intellectually sombre film. Full of dark jokes - including his own presence as the cruel father - it also shows Powell's sense of the cinema's own contribution to frenzy. The central character is a moving portrait of the imaginative young man who is unsociable with real people but familiar with the stars of movies. He is a shy focus puller who takes film of girls using a tripod that contains a swordstick. The stuck victims goggle horribly at the picture they make in the reflector above the camera; and so reaction stimulates the spectacle even further. The film was reasonably criticised as an exercise in de Sade's principles, and it is the one work in which Powell has discarded an inhibitions.

   I was staggered, overwhelmed. I had taken myself at the world's valuation for so long now that any praise tended to bring tears to my eyes, and here were not just the standard phrases, the ordinary short, quotable piece. Here was the opinion and the report of a real scholar, a scholar of English, and a scholar of film. What he said about me, I knew was true. Who should know, but I? But that somebody else had understood, and was so percipient, and so generous; it bowled me over, staggered me.

   I read it again, and again, and as soon as I had a little money, instead of buying a bottle of whisky, I bought Thomson's book. I thought of nothing but gratitude, and the wish to talk to this scholar, whose opinions were so pithy, trenchant, and bubbling with concealed laughter, and sometimes suppressed fury.

   I wrote to him. If he believed what he had written, I thought he might be pleased. He was. He answered by return, a long letter. And finally he explained that he was Director of Film Studies at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and, as head of the department, he had some say in the invitations the college were able to issue, occasionally, to distinguished artists in other mediums, and he would like to know if he could propose me for this honour, and this post of "artist in, residence"'.

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