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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Michael Powell (1905 - 1990)
British film director whose works were rarely great earners but whose reputation has blossomed with time.

Born in Canterbury and educated at Dulwich College, Powell came to develop a preoccupation with the supernatural and the erotic somewhat at odds with his conventional background. His first films were unremarkable; the opportunity to show his skill came when he was given a month by Alexander Korda to put together a documentary to prove to the British government that the cinema in wartime was a valuable morale-booster rather than a waste of scarce resources. The Lion Has Wings (1939) successfully made the point. Korda then entrusted Powell with finishing off his deferred fantasy epic The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Thereafter, Powell developed a close working partnership with the Austrian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger (1903-88). Together they created the first major propaganda feature film of the war, 49th Parallel (1941). This story of a Nazi U-boat crew trying to escape through Canada to neutral America carried the message that democratic tolerance was greatly superior to the disciplined determination personified by the U-boat captain. Another war film, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), was followed by the highly ambitious and somewhat surreal Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), (which Churchill attempted to suppress). A Canterbury Tale (1944) was a slightly erotic murder mystery, while A Matter of Life and Death (1946) returned to the supernatural. Outstanding among the partners' later films were Black Narcissus (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), often regarded as the best ballet film ever made, and The Small Back Room (1948).

The Powell-Pressburger liaison gradually broke up in the 1950s, ending more than a decade of achievement. The most unsettling of Powell's solo films was Peeping Tom (1960), a voyeuristic murder story that provoked widespread condemnation. In retirement Powell produced two highly praised volumes of autobiography, entitled A Life in the Movies (1986) and A Billion Dollar Movie (1992). In the closing decade of his life Powell received lavish praise from such distinguished film-makers as Ken Russell, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.

Who's Who in the Twentieth Century: Oxford University Press, © Market House Books Ltd 1999

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