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

(Empire magazine: April 1990)

In a National Cinema even at best noted for a restraint verging on dullness, Michael Powell (who died in February) was always a maverick talent. This flamboyant director - who was born in Canterbury, Kent in 1905 - got his start in movies working for the American silent director Rex Ingram (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) in mid-1920s France. In Britain, he made his directing debut in 1931 and consolidated his skills with a long run of "quota quickie" B-movies extending into the late 30s. His first critical breakthrough was with The Edge of the World (1937), filmed on location in the Orkneys with an emphasis on myth and dreams distinct from the then-vogue for factual documentation.

He and his long term collaborator, scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger, first worked together on The Spy in Black (1939), a moodily romantic tale of World War 1 intrigue. Powell next made an important contribution to the impressive Arabian nights fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (1940). With the onset of another war, Powell and Pressburger came into their own, making a series of propaganda dramas which were both original as entertainment and a searching insight into the national character. 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) led to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) with Roger Livesey as the well-meaning but old-fashioned army officer nobly out of step with changing times. In 1944 there was A Canterbury Tale, a poetic but downright weird study in Anglo-American relations and in 1946 A Matter of Life and Death, which literally took the British Cinema to new heights of imaginative splendour via a magnificent stairway from a Technicolor Earth to a black-and-white Heaven.

What that film did for mortality, Black Narcissus (1946) did for religious orders, The Red Shoes (1948) did for ballet and The Small Back Room (1948) did for the civil service - all highly unusual but compelling stories of obsession. Then came the marvellously over-ripe Gone to Earth (1950), with Jennifer Jones as the tempestuous young woman literally hounded to death by her own passion, while Tales of Hoffmann (1951) marked an opulent return to the world of ballet. The partnership with Pressburger ended amicably in 1957 after two indifferent war movies, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). But the best was yet to come. By far Powell's most daring film and the culmination of his directing career was Peeping Tom (1960), in which a young man obsessively films and murders women. As well as being an emphatically sleazy black comic thriller (filmed in lurid Eastman colour), this movie uncompromisingly confronts the very dangerous issues of voyeurism as entertainment. It was almost universally misunderstood and reviled along with its maker by the critical powers of the time and Michael Powell's career as a movie director was effectively destroyed.

Thirty years on, the new critical consensus (including Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola) acknowledges that Powell's work, particularly during his 18-year partnership with Pressburger, represents some of the most consistently challenging, innovative and imaginative Cinema ever created.

Tom Tunney

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