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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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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse

Obituary: Michael Powell

(30 September 1905 - 19 February 1990)

The Independent, 21st February 1990.

     "When I try to rationalise my attraction to Michael's and Emeric's films, I think it is because they seem to encompass all the humour and fun of American films, the grace and beauty of Italian films - as well as their hysteria and excess - yet they remain distinctly British, although very different from the realist British films, which I also like."

     That was the American director Martin Scorsese expressing his admiration for the cinema of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (quoted from his introduction to Ian Christie's "Arrows Of Desire", the first full-length study of the writing-producing-directing partnership). Having frequently acknowledged Powell's influence on his own work - however unlikely such affinity may appear to the casual spectator - Scorsese clearly did not regard his encomium as merely the chore of a professional prefacer, the sort of dutiful tribute one artist is expected to pay to another.

     Later in the same text, for instance, he remark's of Powell's fey comedy-drama "I Know Where I'm Going", in which a determined young Wendy Hiller, setting off across country to marry a millionaire, finds her plans agreeably foiled by the charm of a virile if penniless laird played by Roger Livesey : "Recently, it was one of the two films I screened at the British Film Institute for someone that I'm in love with, as a way of trying to say what I couldn't say in my own words."

     After years (not to say, decades) of neglect, indifference and even contempt, Michael Powell was finally to emerge as an authentic hero of British cinema, one of this country's very few film-makers whose work arouses not only respect but passionate enthusiasm.

     Powell's circuitous trajectory towards greatness that was belatedly thrust upon him began in Canterbury, where he was born in 1905. Precociously detemined to work in cinema, he gained an introduction from his father (who owned a hotel on the French Riviera) to Rex Ingram, a prestigious Irish-born Hollywood director (of Valentino's "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", notably) who had set up a studio at Nice and whose floridly pictorial style Powell was never to forget. Subsequently, on his return to England, he drifted through the film industry as cameraman, editor, scenarist and, ultimately as director of numerous "quota quickies", the modest low budget little thrillers churned out to meet the requirements of the 1927 Cinematograph Act, which stipulated that up to 30 per cent of motion pictures screened in the United Kingdom be home-produced.

     It was Alexander Korda who impressed by "Edge Of The World", a semi-documentary melodrama filmed by Powell on the island of Foula in 1937, proposed a collaboration with Pressburger on an espionage thriller, "The Spy In Black", intended for Conrad Veidt. The two men continued to work together (so intimately that neither was to claim the single credit of "writer" or "director") and eventually founded an independent production company, named "The Archers", whose trademark was an arrow piercing a bull's eye. (What makes Christie's such an inspired choice for the title of his book is that the verse which, in Blake's "Jerusalem", rhymes with "Bring me my arrows of desire" is "Bring me my chariots of fire", a nice encapsulation, therefore, of two diametrically opposed visions of British film-making.)

     The bewildering diversity and eccentricity of Powell's cinema tends to preclude easy encapsulation: for him, apparently, nothing was in its proper place unless one tripped over it. Thus he turned one opera and one operetta - Offenbach's "The Tales Of Hoffmann" and Johan Strauss's "Die Fledermaus - into two deliriously flamboyant ballet films (the latter updated and re-titled "Oh... Rosalinda!!). Commissioned in 1946 to devise a propaganda film as a contribution to easing the then strained Anglo-American alliance, he came up with "A Matter Of Life And Death", a witty phantasmagoria about a pilot plummeting headlong from his blazing aircraft and, though already booked into the hereafter, surviving.

     Subtly metmorphosing David Low's dangerously insular and hidebound archetype into a choleric, endearing fuddy-duddy, he made "The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp"(1943) a valedictory toast to precisely that British military caste that Low abominated. And from a pallid Rumer Godden novel about a group of nuns cloistered in the Himalayas, "Black Narcissus", he produced a quite extraordinarily potent concoction of stylised settings, exquisite colours and rampant (if repressed) eroticism.

     Powell, indeed, had a most un-British fondness for shriekingly Expressionistic visuals in rich, saturated Technicolor. Confronted with the dramatic colour tones of "Black Narcissus" or "The Red Shoes" or even a (for him) relatively conventional wartime drama like "The Battle Of The River Plate", one is minded of painting by numbers, except that here the artist appears perversely reluctant to instructions concerning the relation of number to colour, or else follows numbers inside his own head, or else is wholly innumerate. The consequence of such wilful inconstancy is that, though they do not really look like anything else, his films bear precious little resemblance to what we are accustomed to think of as "British".

     Of his Pressburger-less productions the finest by far (and possibly his masterpiece) was "Peeping Tom" (1959), a work whose violence and sexual candour disgusted critics of the period but has since been rehabilitated as a masterly exploration of filmic voyeurism, a confirmation of the cinema as an implicitly pornographic medium. Thereafter, however, perhaps increasingly strait-jacketed by his own ineradicable Britishness and by our national cinema's (former) sense of decorum and terror of eroticism, he found himself becoming more and more artsy-fartsy; and the decline in his work would culminate in such truly baffling aberrations as "Honeymoon" (1958), "The Queen's Guards (1961) and "They're A Weird Mob" (1966).

     Though at one time, he was involved in an advisory capacity with Francis Ford Coppola's short-lived Zoetrope operation, and the odd project was vaguely mooted, Powell devoted his last years to a mammouth autobiography. With his death the British cinema has lost the most indispensible of its creators.

     Gilbert Adair

     Michael Latham Powell, film director, born Bekesbourne Kent 30 September 1905, married Frances Reidy (died 1983; two sons), 1984 Thelma Schoonmaker, died Avening Gloucestershire 19 February 1990.

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