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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Report by: "SammyRice"

I thought someone might have already written a report on this event, but as they haven't, here goes.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear the two old masters in conversation. On arriving at the entrance to pick up my ticket, I was surprised to see them both parked in easy chairs in the Pictureville foyer, posing for photographs and signing copies of proffered books (incidentally the NMPFT has published a booklet on Jack Cardiff - see or for details). The turnout was impressive for a drizzly Saturday afternoon. The format for the event was more or less a chronological Q&A accompanied by clips on film, video and dvd. There was, as expected much P&P content. However the first clip shown was from 'Sons and Lovers' (the fight by the railway) for obvious reasons. The first question put to both men was how difficult is the transition between being Director of Photography and Director of the Film. Both were adamant that professional demarcation is the right approach, if you are DP you do that job, if you are Director you put your faith in the DP you have hired. Jack noted that directors have enough to do without interfering with the cinematographer.

JC recalled Micky Powell giving him his big break after watching him shoot the 2nd unit footage of the animal heads for Blimp. Like much of the discussion it was a familiar tale (very interesting, how would you like to shoot my next picture?and that was it") but a pleasure to hear the discussion and see the interplay between the studious Mr Cardiff and the self confessed amnesiac Mr Francis. Freddie recalled that Micky never walked off the set, he always ran. Both agreed that the joy and sometimes the pain of working for Powell was his impetuous nature, but that in Jack's words he was "by far the best director I ever worked with". He recalled with some enjoyment the first day of shooting on AMOLAD, showing MP the novelty fade in achieved by simply breathing on the lens. Freddie Francis recalled some lively arguments with Powell as Camera Operator, including one where MP stormed off the set, however he noted "people say he was a bully, but he did it to test people, he used to respect people who stood up to him? and I stood up to him".

If I have a criticism of the event it would be the unevenness of the clips chosen to illustrate their work. A familiar question on the difficulties of making the transition between black and white and Technicolour in AMOLAD was followed by the opening scene between Peter and June, which was cut before the transition to black and white. This seemed a waste of an opportunity. Actually one other complaint, voiced by the interviewees themselves was that every time a clip was shown they had to vacate the stage and stand at the side of the screen, which seems at little disrespectful to such distinguished Octogenarians. As Freddie noted "when we come next time, can we have wheelchairs?"

A question about the demarcation of roles between Powell and Pressburger led to another oft told but amusing anecdote (tinged with pathos). Jack recalled one of Emeric's last public appearances at a screening ("when he had even more trouble getting on to the stage than I do now") and a tumultuous ovation met by the remark " Thank you for that wonderful applause?a trifle late" Both recalled EP as the perfect foil to MP's 'explosive' enthusiasm. JC noted that EP would stand by and say "very good Michael, but don't forget that in the next scene you have to do such and such. and of course MP had forgotten, but Emeric knew. He was a wonderful writer and a wise man." JC was very engaging on his early rootless life, the benefits of his theatrical upbringing and an almost incidental move into the industry he graced with such distinction. He is proud of his appreciation of acting and direction alongside his technical skills, noting a scene in Black Narcissus where Deborah Kerr's performance so impressed him that he didn't notice a lamp going out in the background. ("Michael turned to me and said 'I suppose you'll want to do it again, Jack' but I shook my head and said "they'll be watching her"). Towards the end of the discussion the 'composed sequence' from Black Narcissus was shown (on DVD) - Kathleen Byron's make up still prompts audible intakes of breath from the audience. JC then retold his famous anecdote about the sequence cut from the final copy thanks to "my bright idea" about pouring droplets of water onto the rhubarb leaves to signal the coming of the Monsoon. The other clips shown to illustrate the genius of Jack Cardiff were the riot scene in Young Cassidy, Jack noting how he shot all but 4 minutes of the film but the reviews concluded that all the best sequences had been shot by John Ford, and the end sequence of The African Queen.

The extracts used to pay tribute to Freddie Francis focused entirely on his career as a DP (so no crucifix climax from Dracula Has Risen >From the Grave). Extracts from The Elephant Man, Glory, Cape Fear and The Haunting were shown. Unfortunately the Bradford shot "Room At The Top" extract was plagued by technical problems and had to be abandoned. Freddie was mischievously amusing and winningly forgetful, being prompted from the front row. He recalled how his first meeting with Scorsese for Cape Fear spent five minutes discussing the film and two hours being quizzed about working with Michael Powell.

The open Q&A session at the end produced some insights and some amusing banter. Their shared laments about the state of the industry included the consistent lack of good producers in the UK (unlike Korda who knew that the skill of a good producer was in using other people's money) and the baleful influence of Film Schools. Both were thankful that they had not suffered directorial interference in their role as DP's. JC noted that in the good old days the DP was asked to achieve an effect, mood or look, now such requests are more likely to be phrased as "I want you to use such an such a lens, shoot on new stock as its much faster and we need it for this scene". A question on the future of cinema led to JC repeating his view that celluloid will go due to the advance of digital. FF countered "I've been retired from the business for 3 years so I haven't got a clue about digital". Both also felt that "all leading ladies look the same these days" (discuss).

What shone out like a key light from both men was their belief in professionalism, being able to do the job well and achieve the look the Director asked for. Perhaps those in attendance who wanted tips and technical anecdotes would have been slightly disappointed by the discussion but Jack in particular made some beautiful unprompted observations. However it was a wonderful opportunity to here two men who embody the greatness of British cinema, its combination of professionalism and artistry. I'll leave it to Freddie to sum up their approach in answer to a question about the challenge of cinemascope - "I view life through a viewfinder anyway, you just have to change the dimensions."

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