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Emeric Pressburger
Films and Filming; April 1988

   In David Thomson's long entry on Michael Powell in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, he perversely manages not to mention Emeric Pressburger even once. In a way this is less insulting to Pressburger than to Powell, who felt that the creative contribution of his Hugarian-born (on December 5th, 1902) collaborator was great enough to merit the co-producer, co-writer, and co-director credit on all the films they made together since One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Previously Pressburger was screenwriter only on The Spy in Black (1938) - their first film together - Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel (1941), the picture that gained Pressburger an Oscar for best Original Story. In fact, although they shared the chores of a producer, Pressburger's contribution was mainly as writer, most of the films stemming from his own original ideas, while Powell was in charge on the studio floor.

   Like the Korda brothers, Pressburger brought a European touch into the British cinema. He had studied at Prague and Stuttgart then became a screenwriter at the Herman UFA studios before arriving in England in 1936. It was Korda who propitiously introduced Pressburger to Powell. The curious mixture of the very English Powell with the very middle-European Pressburger gave their films such a special flavour. I like to imagine that the friendship between Roger Livesey's Clive Candy and Anton Walbrook's Theo Kretschmer-Schuldorff [sic] in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) reflected their relationship in some way.

   It is interesting to speculate how Powell might have developed without Pressburger's influence. He had made 23 quota quickies and the Flaherty-like semi-documentary The Edge of the World before the famous meeting of minds. Might he have become another David Lean or Carol Reed? People could point to the individual quirkiness of Peeping Tom as a good example of Powell solo, but it came after his association with Pressburger. His other post-partnership films were minor to say the least, and Pressburger's one directorial venture Twice in a Lifetime [Twice Upon a Time] (1953), a trifle featuring twin girls, a ballerina and a composer (Hugh Williams), was a flop. The pair were obviously far more cheese and wine than chalk and cheese.

   It is difficult for an outsider to determine which of the two contributed what to the films. It is generally assumed that Pressburger was instrumental in having Germans as the most sympathetic characters in The Spy in Black and Contraband, both starring the charming Conrad Veidt, in Blimp, and in The Battle of the River Plate (1956) with Peter Finch as Captain Langsdorff. Although anti-Nazi, 49th Parallel follows the journey of German fugitives through Canada led by the suave Eric Portman. Was it Pressburger who devised one of the less happt moments in the film when intellectual Leslie Howard, living in the wilds of Canada with a Matisse and a Picasso in his tent, punches a Nazi and shouts "That's for Thomas Mann, that's for me"?! Curiously, Powell cast German actor Carl Boehm in the role of the English Mark in Peeping Tom, although his accent is never commented on. He even has an English father - Mr Powell himself. A further important German influence on the films came from the production designers, Hein Heckroth and Alfred Junge, both of whom were interned as enemy aliens during the war.

   Powell explained their working methods in an interview with Kevin Gough-Yates in 1973, "What we always did was that he would write the script and then I would rewrite it completely in my version, sometimes with very little change and sometimes with a very great deal of change. The changes would be because I was naturally interested in how to present it, how to create the actual atmosphere of the place, and how to get over Emeric's story line in the most effective way". For example Pressburger had written the script for The Red Shoes for Korda with Merle Oberon in mind some years before meeting Powell. However, Powell insisted the female lead be played by a ballet dancer rather than using a double, with even a 20-minute ballet included. Pressburger's interest lay more in the Diaghilev (Walbrook) / Nijinsky (Shearer) relationship.

   Powell is best qualified to sum up Emeric Pressburger. "I love his mind. My mind is child-like, whereas Emeric's is like an 150-year-old child. There were many things I didn't understand of his but I had an implicit belief in what he was driving at."


Emeric Pressburger died on February 5th, aged 86.

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