Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
(1905 - 1990; 1902 - 1988)
Three Key Films: “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948)
Underrated: A Canterbury Tale (1944). One of the most idiosyncratic war propaganda films ever made, Powell and Pressburger were asked to make a film that would encourage better Anglo-American relations. The film focuses primarily on an American enlisted man (endearingly played in his only film role by US serviceman Sgt. John Sweet) and a young English woman (Sheila Sim) who has left the city to work on a farm after the death of her fiancé in combat, both of whom are visiting Kent For the first rime. It is a film in which not a great deal happens except that we get to know a number of men and women, much like we come to know Chaucer’s travelers through the tales they tell. The real star of the film is cinematographer Erwin Hillier, whose black and white photography is haunting and unforgettable. Neglected for decades, the film has only recently begun to receive its due.
Unforgettable: In A Matter of Life and Death, RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) and Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) sit on the steps of an infinitely long staircase that rolls past statues of great figures from earth’s history (Lincoln, Socrates, Solomon, Mohammed), as Peter tries to choose someone to act as his legal advocate in his claim against heaven. A gigantic escalator was built for the scene at great expense for the time, but the pay off was one of the most unforgettable images in film.
The Legend: Along with the Coen Brothers, the Archers—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—represent the greatest collaborative directing team in film history. Though in most instances Powell did the lion’s share of directing while Pressburger wrote the initial treatment and did most of the producing, theirs was a true partnership, with both engaging on the final version of the screenplay and working jointly with the cast and crew to make films that comprised a genuine communal venture.
Although the films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were box office successes, they did not receive much in the way of critical acclaim. It is not hard to understand why. They were fantasists, romantic visionaries during a period in which realism was the criterion by which all films were judged. While other filmmakers and studios adopted an increasingly austere visual palette, Powell and Pressburger made lushly colorful films, so rich that a film like Black Narcissus (1947) sits only slightly on this side of garish. Even their black and white films like the masterpiece I Know Where I’m Going! contain arrestingly vivid images that clashed with what other filmmakers were doing at the time.
If the Archers—the name they gave to their partnership in which they jointly wrote, produced, and directed films—were neglected during their peak period during the 1940s, the situation actually worsened in future decades. After they parted amicably in the 1950s (though they would collaborate on a couple of occasions), Michael Powell made a series of increasingly uncommercial films, culminating in a film about a sexual voyeur, Peeping Tom (1960), a film that was savagely attacked by critics, severely injuring his career. By the sixties the Archers were in near total neglect, their films being shown on TV in increasingly decaying prints.
During the eighties, however, several younger critics and directors such as Martin Scorsese (his famed editor Thelma Schoonmaker married Powell in 1984) and Francis Ford Coppola did all they could to call attention to the work of Powell and Pressburger in general and Powell in particular. Today Michael Powell, in one of the greatest critical turnarounds in cinema history, may be the most acclaimed director in the history of British cinema (Hitchcock being considered primarily a Hollywood director). Emeric Pressburger’s reputation has recovered as well, though he is clearly though perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Powell.
Above all the Archers were romanticists. Even a superficially realistic film like the war propaganda film 49th Parallel (1941) engaged in a celebration of the wilds of nature rarely seen in feature film making, filming on location in Hudson Bay and Banff National Park. Powell especially shared much with the British Romanticists, a kindred soul to Wordsworth and the Lake Poets. In Black Narcissus, their deeply flawed but impossibly beautiful study in contrast between the Christian West and Hindu East, they and their cinematographer (the famed Jack Cardiff) and art director (Alfred Junge) use color more hauntingly than in any British film that preceded it.
Powell and Pressburger have never been as celebrated as filmmakers as they are at the present. Their films are studied throughout the world and marvelously restored prints of their films appear each year (Criterion just released a breathtakingly beautiful Blu-ray edition of Black Narcissus). If anything, their star is still on the ascendant. Robert Moore