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
Crown v. Stevens +
The Phantom Light
Crown v. Stevens
Director: Michael Powell
Warner Brothers First National Productions
Executive Producer: Irving Asher
Screenplay: Brock Williams
Based on the novel: 'Third Time Unlucky':
Director of Photography: Basil Emmott
Editor: A.E. Bates
Art Director: Peter Proud
Sound Recording: Leslie Murray, H.C. Pearson
Beatrix Thompson (Doris Stevens)
Patric Knowles (Chris Jansen)
Glennis Lorimer (Molly Hobbs)
Reginald Purdell (Alf)
Allan Jeayes (Inspector Carter)
Frederick Piper (Arthur Stevnes)
Googie Withers (Ella Levine)
Mabel Poulton (Mamie)
Morris Harvey (Julius Bayleck) *
Billy Watts (Joe Andrews) *
Davina Craig (Maggie the maid) *
Bernard Miles (detective) *
United Kingdom 1936
SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.
Crown v. Stevens and The Phantom Light, each in their own way, are two 'quota' films that Michael Powell made which look to the future, with an eye firmly set on the light at the end of the tunnel. Phantom would be the last of the films he made with his producing partner Jerry Jackson, with whom he had made thirteen films in succession, while Crown was his penultimate 'quota' film and the last of these that survives intact. His following assignment, The Man Behind The Mask (which does exist, but in a much truncated form with a private collector in America), released only three weeks after Crown, introduced Powell to producer Joe Rock, who had promised to fund his first truly 'personal' project, which would eventually be made as The Edge of the World.
Crown v. Stevens was one of a series of five films that Powell made for producer Irving Asher at Warner Brothers' Teddington studios, and is a crime melodrama that, had it been made a few years later, would probably have been labelled as a film noir. It tells the story of a man (played with aplomb by Patric Knowles) who becomes involved in the machinations of a murderous femme fatale, played with strength and conviction by Beatrix Thompson. The cinematography is by Basil Emmott - Julian Hagen's regular cinematographer was at Twickenham - and the screenplay by Brock Williams, both of whom also worked in the same capacities on three earlier films Powell had made for Asher: Something Always Happens, and two 'lost' films, The Girl in the Crowd and Someday (Emmott also shot another 'lost' Powell feature, The Brown Wallet). The Girl in the Crowd gave Googie Withers her first role, and she turns up again in Crown as does Glennis Lorrimer, probably best known to audiences as the girl in the 'Gainsborough' opening logo. In its ambiguous tone and rich cinematography, Crown recalls Her Last Affaire and, with the latter, is one of the few genuinely 'dark' films made by Powell in this period.
Much more characteristic, and one of his most popular films of the 'thirties, was The Phantom Light, which was in fact re-released as late as 1950 (in a slightly cut version), and until 1989 was one of only five of his 'quota' films thought to have survived. It is also, of all his early (pre-1936) films, the one that seems the most overtly like his later work. This is not so much for its plot (Graham Greene accurately described it as '... an exciting, simple story of wreckers on the Welsh Coast'), but for its theme of Celtic mysticism, its fairytale and other-worldly atmosphere, and the way it emphasises nature and the elements.
The Phantom Light
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: Gainsborough Pictures
Producer: Michael Balcon *
Associate Producer: Jerome Jackson
Scenario: Ralph Smart
Dialogue: J. Jefferson Farjeon, Austin Melford
Presented by: Julius Hagen
Based on the play: 'The Haunted Light' by:
Evadne Price, Joan Roy Byford
Director of Photography: Roy Kellino
Editor: D.N. Twist
Art Director: Alex Vetchinsky
Music Director: Louis Levy *
Sound: A. Birch
Binnie Hale (Alice Bright)
Gordon Harker (Sam Higgins)
Donald Calthrop (David Owen)
Milton Rosmer (Dr Carey)
Ian Hunter (Jim Pierce)
Herbert Lomas (Claff Owen)
Reginald Tate (Tom Evans)
Barry O'Neill (Captain Pearce)
Mickey Brantford (Bob Peters)
Alice O'Day (Mrs Owen)
Fewlass Llewellyn (Griffith Owen)
Edgar K. Bruce (Sergeant Owen)
Louie Emery (station mistress)
United Kingdom 1935
Total running time approx. 145 mins
Of all the films he made in this period, this has the most location work, and is the one that most clearly benefits from it. It successfully disguises the stage origins of the film, but it is used by Powell to create a number of interesting effects. Most of them stem from the presumed haunting of the lighthouse, but are linked to a general air of the unreal and supernatural that is present from the very beginning, when the train emerges from a tunnel into what seems to be a highly unreal atmosphere. As it pulls in, shrouded in steam, a woman dressed in a cape and a wide-brimmed, long pointed hat, in other words like a witch's hat, approaches it. However, in Kevin Gough-Yates' words, the '... witch-like figure in silhouette near the track turns out to be a woman in local costume.'
It is also typical of this film that these manifestations are proved to be completely rational. The air of fantasy that permeates so many of Powell's films certainly gets its first expression in this film. Powell himself said that the film is '... a fairy tale really, for particularly in films there are such opportunities for visual notes and shocks and things.'
The dream-like atmosphere of the film is achieved partly from the use of gauze on the lens, which are used throughout the first part of the film, before Harker gets into the lighthouse. This initial part of the film, with its train journey, strange portents and its use of the sound of the sea, the waves and the gulls, has been compared by Kevin Gough-Yates (in his 1973 book on Powell) to the opening of "I Know Where I'm Going!", which was made in 1945, ten years after The Phantom Light. When the latter was reviewed by Today's Cinema, it complimented it as an 'adroit blend of comedy and melodramatic action', notable for its 'eerie atmosphere of impending sensation' (Today's Cinema, 10 January 1935). When the film was released again in 1950, it commented much the same, and added (in its own style) that 'This star-director combination of particular interest in the light of current achievements, pointing promise of alter eminence in both spheres,' (Today's Cinema, 25 October 1950).
If the film clearly looks forward to The Edge of the World, and has similarities in its early part to "I Know Where I'm Going!", then the latter part of the film has decided affinities with Black Narcissus (1947). Stripped to their essentials, the two stories are strikingly similar; both the new lighthouse keeper and the nuns come to take over a post whose previous incumbent left under mysterious circumstances. They are both new arrivals in a strange, foreign place (they even speak a different language). They eventually arrive at their outpost, which is high up, exposed to the elements that will directly and indirectly shape their destiny. They are both there to do a job, and refuse to waver from it, or to compromise these rules of their employment (or order). Both stories end with one of the characters falling to their death from a great height.
Although in embryonic form, the development of the theme of man against the elements is accomplished in very similar terms. The characters inhabit an enclosed, claustrophobic world that is constantly at the mercy of nature and man, and even of supernatural forces. This sense of claustrophobia continues to grow, so as to create finally a siege mentality for the characters.
Obviously, in the case of The Phantom Light, this can in part be attributed to its stage origins, and one can see how Powell is doing his best to get out of the studio and on location. This is the exact opposite of the case with Black Narcissus, where conventional wisdom would have dictated that it be shot on location, but it was all shot in the studio instead. The atmosphere, however, remains fundamentally the same, as does the main plot.
Both stories are characterised by the presence of characters that appear to have gone mad. When we first see Tom Evans (played by Reginald Tate), he is presented in exactly the same way as Sister Ruth (played by Kathleen Byron) is at the climax of Black Narcissus: he rushes through a door looking directly at the camera, his hair windswept, his face covered in perspiration and his eyes wide open. When we see Tom prowling around the lighthouse, this is shot in the same way as the stalking of Sister Clodagh, in that we barely see him, but instead concentrate on his prey. In this sense he embodies those external elements that have been steadily putting pressure on the characters through the film.
Between the end of his contract with Gaunt British and the release of his first personal success The Edge of the World in 1937, Powell worked on a further ten films. Powell has referred to the period in which he made these films as '...the last month of my purgatory,' and although some of them (Her Last Affaire and Something Always Happens) do stand out from the rest, as does Crown v. Stevens, they invariably need to be contextualised to be fully appreciated. The recovery of eight full-length features of the last ten years has been particularly valuable in this regard, though they do also provide ample pleasure of their own in an era of British film-making dubbed by Ian Christie as an 'undiscovered country'. Leslie Halliwell's popular film guides are one useful way of obtaining an idea of the more mainstream appreciation of Powell's early work.
As late as 1989 Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion credits The Edge of the World as Powell's directing debut, mistakenly regarding all his pe-1937 work solely as a screenwriter. This was partly redeemed in the 1991 edition of his Film Guide (edited by John Walker), which included comment on three films of the period. However, the bearing on these formative years (and films) goes much deeper than that. Powell has spoken of the period as his 'long, patient apprenticeship', and these films often given early glimpses into his later works, and perhaps even a clearer understanding of the genesis of some later films.
The time has now come where we can usefully assess these early works in terms both of their relevance to his later work as well as their intrinsic worth, both responses to the general neglect that they have suffered through the years. A number of the films, as I have mentioned earlier, have definite similarities and connections with his later work. The quota and the 'quota quickies' had a profound effect on the British film industry and dominated Powell's early films, but it is possible to speculate that their influence on him may have had more lasting effects.
Initially, Powell's work for Korda resembled the kind of films he had been making for years. The Spy in Black reunited him with produce Irving Asher, and it was another thriller subject, as was his following film Contraband, which was based on a script by Brock Williams. It was on these two films, however, that Powell began his long association with Emeric Pressburger.
Establishing The Archers in 1942, Powell and Pressburger inaugurated a series of increasingly ambitious and idiosyncratic films; Powell has often stressed the fact that until 1947 these were all original screenplays and not adaptations. His pride in this is easier to understand if one remembers how many of the films made in Britain during the 1930s were adapted from books or plays.
That Powell's films with the inception of The Archers should have been so bold and so at odds with the mainstream can in the main be traced to elements in his ambitious but under-financed films of the 1930s, and attributed of course to the collaboration with Pressburger. These films were variously accused of being dilatory, unfocused, undisciplined and even subversive. C.A. Lejeune, an early champion of Powell's work, reviewing The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943, concluded it with the exasperated 'What is it really about?'
However, Powell's films of the 1940s can also be seen as constituting a reaction to the confining limitations of the 'quota' films, with their minuscule budgets, short shooting schedules and their total avoidance of any kind of experimentation. As early as 1938, Powell said that '... many so-called second features were really mass-produced mediocrities and did the cinema much harm' (Film Weekly, August 1938). In view of Powell's background in these films, it is perhaps no surprise that given the chance, he wanted to get away as far as he could from the intense discipline and rigour of the style and content that was imposed in making them. Much the same can be said for Alexander Korda, who began directing in Britain by making ''quota' films for Paramount.
After his last feature-length production as overall producer and director, Age of Consent in 1969, Powell returned to making shorter, lower-budget films with The Boy Who Turned Yellow, which also reunited him with Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Christopher Challis in 1972. In many ways, Powell's career turned full circle. In 1978 he made his BBC Return to The Edge of the World to bookend a screening of that film, reunited with some of the cast and crew of his first breakthrough film. Subsequently he went to work for Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios. While he was there, he collaborated on Coppola's 'electronic cinema', a labour-saving technique that has much in common with the 'independent frame' experiment that Powell ran at Rank in the late 1940s.
Powell's early and newly rediscovered films (only three of which have so far been showed on television) are a valuable resource in themselves as well as primers for Powell's better known later work, and films such as Crown v. Stevens and Phantom Light now run no risk of being forgotten.
Sergio Angelini, National Film and Television Archive