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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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powell and Pressburger Revisited
Hotel Splendide +
The Fire Raisers
Director: Michael Powell
Film Engineering Company
Producer: Jerome Jackson
Screenplay: Ralph Smart *
Story: Philip MacDonald, Ralph Smart
Directors of Photography:
Geoffrey Faithfull, Arthur Grant
Editor: A. Seabourne
Art Director: Charles Saunders
Sound: M. Rose
Jerry Verno (Jerry Mason)
Antony Holles ('Mrs LeGrange')
Edgar Norfolk (Gentleman Charlie)
Philip Morant (Mr Meek)
Sybil Grove (Mrs Harkness)
Vera Sherborne (Joyce Dacre)
Paddy Browne (Miss Meek)
Michael Powell (bugging device operator) *
United Kingdom 1932
SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.
In Hotel Splendide and The Fire Raisers, Jerry Verno and Leslie Banks play characters dear to the film-makers and audiences of the quota/depression years: impecunious go-getters trying to improve their station in life.
When we first meet Verno he is in his boss' office, pretending to be in charge. When he is discovered, he beats a hasty retreat and returns to his desk, back with the other accountants who are all reading a newspaper story released that day on the reward offered for the return of a necklace stolen by 'Gentleman Charlie'.
The essential plot (Verno inherits a hotel where a stolen necklace, wanted by the police and by criminals, is hidden) and the characters of the film are re-established within the first five minutes. Powell uses the newspaper to connect the three separate elements of he story. From the shot of Jerry and his colleagues reading the article, we dissolve to a location shot of Scotland Yard and then dissolve again to see two policemen discussing the article on the desk in front of them. We do not see the faces of the policemen, we only her them talking while the camera is fixed on the newspaper between them. We then move to another close-up of the newspaper, this time being read by Gentleman Charlie (Edgar Norfolk). When Charlie mentions his rival (Pussy Saunders) to a confederate, we cut to 'Marconi' who is listening in on their conversation with some headphones. Marconi is seen in three shots and is played by Michael Powell; this marks the first occasion in which he appears in one of his own films, having previously appeared in a couple of Rex Ingram's films and in Harry Lachman's Travelaugh series. He was to do it again in The Edge of the World, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, The Volunteer and most famously in Peeping Tom as the sadistic father/film-maker.
Before entering films, Powell (like the Verno character) had worked in a bank and then went on to live and work with his father who owned a hotel, the Voile D'Or at Cap Ferrat, near Monte Carlo. He would later return to run it on his father's death. In Hotel Splendide, upon learning of his inheritance, Verno storms into his boss' office, boasts of his new wealth and leaves the firm, burning all his bridges behind him. When we next see him, he is on a train on his way to the hotel in Speymouth, wearing top hat and tails and smoking a big cigar. As he blows smoke rings, we dissolve to what he imagines his inheritance will look like. This is shown by way of a painting of a palatial first class hotel; when he arrives at the hotel, we see the painting again, but it slowly begins to melt as we dissolve to the less grand reality of the rundown second class hotel that Jerry has in fact inherited. Thus, his dreams seem literally to evaporate.
The Fire Raisers
Director: Michael Powell
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Producer: Jerome Jackson
Assistant Director: Bryan Wallace
Screenplay: Michael Powell, Jerome Jackson
Director of Photography: Leslie Rowson
Editor: D.N. Twist
Art Director: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
Recording: A.F. Birch
Leslie Banks (Jim Bronson)
Anne Grey (Arden Brent)
Carol Goodner (Helen Vaughan)
Frank Cellier (Brent)
Francis L. Sullivan (Stedding)
Laurence Anderson (Twist)
Henry Caine (Bates)
George Merritt (Sonners)
Joyce Kirby (Polly) *
Wally Patch (Price, the trainer) *
Ben Welden (Bellini, Stedding's henchman) *
Danny Green (Stedding's henchman) *
United Kingdom 1933
Total running time approx. 130 mins
One can't help but sympathise with Verno, and with the film-makers too. Although it is perhaps too fanciful to suggest any real similarity between Verno's character and Powell's own background, the makers of this 'quota quickie' wanted to make films, not simply enough celluloid to satisfy the legal requirements of the quota Act. In this sense the hotel, and Verno's enthusiastic attempts to help revitalise and refurbish it in order to attract as many customers as possible, echo the enthusiasm and ambition of the young Powell. In reviewing the film, C.A. Lejeune commented on this and compared it to Josef von Sternberg's first film, calling it:
'A valiant effort on the part of Michael Powell to make bricks with the very minimum of straw; a British crook comedy that approaches the economies much as von Sternberg did in The Salvation Hunters and does a professional job in spite of, and largely because of, them.' (The Observer, 24 April 1932).
Lejeune was later to complain that Powell had really outgrown the type of films he was being allowed to make. But it is clear that at this time Powell's main efforts lay in trying to inject his projects with as much individuality and style as he could squeeze into a shooting schedule of a mere two weeks.
The use of the painting in the film is typical of the limited resources of the producers of 'quickie' pictures, but also points to the straightforward facility and accessibility of Powell's nascent visual style. There are a number of well handled scenes, such as the one early on when Verno is first shown around the hotel's rooms. This might have been rather repetitious, especially since the budget only seems to run to two different room sets. So Powell positions the camera opposite the door on the inside. On entering, Verno simply gives an officious 'Nice view', and on each new room, Powell brings the camera a little closer to the door, until we reach the final one. Here we can see nothing other than the door through which he enters, and next to it the shadow of a lavatory chain, at which point Verno only just manages to stop himself saying 'Nice view'!
However, the best scenes are at the end of the film. Saunders appears to have got away with the box containing the diamond necklace, and all the hotel's gusts (who all want the necklace) are looking for him. The last part of the film is set at night, and is very atmospherically filmed, with an effective use of high angle shots and low key lighting (most of the lights in the hotel are off) and long shadows. Seeing that his cat is still in there, they decide that Saunders must still be in the hotel, and so decide to follow it. Ingeniously, when the cat begins to move, this is filmed with a subjective camera, so that rather than try to deal with an unruly cat, we get a very low angle tracking shot which makes its way in between the hotel's guests.
What is perhaps most unusual in this scene is the use of music, which aside from the opening and end credits, is restricted to this one scene. In this case, the music is Gounod's 'Funeral March of the Marionettes', well known today as the theme tune of the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It begins with the subjective camera shot and then continues as Verno and the others, following the cat upstairs, ending up outside Saunders' room. In some ways this can be seen as a tentative beginning to Powell's idea of 'composed cinema', in the sense that the scene is precisely cut to the music. This must have been filmed intentionally with this in mind, as there is no dialogue whatsoever as they all walk through the hotel.
At the end of the film, Saunders has been unmasked, as have two undercover police officers (which was why we didn't see their faces at the opening of the film), and Jerry recovers the necklace, and will get the reward. From a close-up of the necklace, we dissolve to the painting of the hotel, which this time begins in its 'melted' state, and reconstitutes itself as the hotel of Verno's dreams.
Powell and producer Jerry Jackson's ability to make the most of their limited resources and their fast turnover soon got them noticed. On the strength of these in fact, they obtained a contract to make four films for Gaumont British, then run by Michael Balcon. Gaumont British and British International Pictures were at that time the two biggest companies in the British film industry, so this was a considerable step up for Powell and Jackson.
The team was meant to provide its own scripts and shoot them for a cost of around £12,000, more than twice the amount they had been used to. In the event they only wrote two of their own films (Fire Raisers and Red Ensign), which were book-ended by two pre-prepared scripts based on stage plays (The Night of the Party and The Phantom Light).
If British cinema (the 1927 Act and its Documentary Movement) was the inspiration behind the development of Red Ensign, a story about ship building quotas, then it is definitely American cinema that Powell looked to in developing The Fire Raisers, particularly Warner Brothers' popular series of topical crime melodramas.
Powell's film was based on the then current newspaper story about Leopold Harris, an insurance assessor convicted of arson. In the film the character is named Jim Bronson and is played by Leslie Banks, while the head of the arsonists' gang (the 'fire raisers') is played by Francis L. Sullivan. Both Banks and Sullivan played equivalent roles in Red Ensign. In all these films, and in Powell's own, the main characters' get-rich-quick schemes, after a period of social success (and access), come back to haunt them, with usually fatal results. The rise and fall of Jim Bronson recalls the road to ruin of many protagonists of such 1930s Warner Brothers crime melodramas as The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Five Star Final (all 1931), The Mouthpiece, Silver Dollar, and The Match King (all 1932) All these were more or less based on real events and people, and starred actors like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Warren William, who could easily have played Bronson.
As in the above films, the narrative of Powell's film moves at great speed, with much rapid cutting and recourse to montage. There are two scenes that patiularly stand out in the film. In the first, Bronson's assistant Bates (played by Henry Caine) is being interrogated by Sullivan and his men (some of whom seem to speak with an American accent!) who suspect him of having double crossed them. Bates in fact has, having let them be infiltrated by Twist (played by Laurence Anderson), who is working for Lloyd's, who have been losing a great deal of money to the fire raisers. Bates has been tied to his chair and is being beaten but we don't see this. Instead, as Sullivan repeats the line 'How much does Twist know, Bates?', Powell cuts from Bates to the faces of each of the men interrogating him. As the questioning continues the camera gets closer and closer to the men's faces, and the editing gets faster and faster, until reaching an extreme close-up of Bates' face, when he faints. We then return to a medium shot.
In the most atmospheric and eerie scene of the film, Bronson returns to the office where Bates was tortured. Coming after the intense interrogation sequence, it is a relief that this is mainly filmed in medium shot. When he enters the office, looking for Bates, the finds that the furniture has been overturned and documents have been scattered all over the room. As he takes this in, we become aware of a faint tapping sound. Bronson looks around, and sees a window blind cord tapping against the glass. He then pauses and realises that there is another noise, coming from inside the large wall safe. He opens it to find Bates inside, bruised and near death from asphyxiation. The scene, played with no music or any overt emphasis, is all the better for its almost matter-of-fact understatement and air of cold brutality.
The last part of the film, directly following on from the one described above, is a race to the rescue in the manner of 'the father of American film,' D.W. Griffith, cross-cutting as it does between three planes of action. In the first, we follow Bronson as he races to the shop where Twist has been tied up. We then see the bomb that has been left in the shop with Twist. These two are then intercut with the frantic efforts of Bronson's wife (played by Anne Gray) to reach him by telephone. Although the incendiary device goes off, Bronson manages to free Twist. When he is about to jump from the building into the net of the fire brigade, he pauses, and we cut to his wife as she calls him; this is almost to suggest that he can hear her, and is the kind of supernatural touch that permeates so many of Powell's films. But it is also very much in the style of Griffith, who frequently cuts away from the action to show the loved ones at home (as in the last charge of the Civil War part of The Birth of a Nation, for example).
Although something of an anti-hero, Banks' insurance assessor is shown to be energetic, arrogant, ingenious, ambitious and unorthodox, adjectives that could certainly have been applied to Powell himself. In Red Ensign and The Fire Raisers Banks lays variations on a typical character of these years, that of an impecunious pragmatist who wishes to improve his lot (and finances) in life as quickly and expeditiously as possible, frequently with little or no regard for the law. This is alo linked to hypergamy (lusting after a person of a social class superior to one's own) in The Fire Raisers and Something Always Happens. As in The Night of the Party and Her Last Affaire, the protagonist is in love with the daughter of his main adversary.
However it would not be long before Powell himself made the jump to bigger, better, and more personal subjects.
Sergio Angelini, National Film and Television Archive