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.

A lot of the documents have been sent to me or have come from other web sites. The name of the web site is given where known. If I have unintentionally included an image or document that is copyrighted or that I shouldn't have done then please email me and I'll remove it.

I make no money from this site, it's purely for the love of the films.

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The View from the Audience

By Steve Crook

Who are Powell & Pressburger?
There once was a man called Emeric. Actually he was called Emmerich because he was born in Hungary over 100 years ago. He was a great storyteller and creator of original stories. He travelled all over Europe but through various circumstances he finished up in England and he liked what he found there.

There once was a man called Michael. He was always interested in telling stories and especially in making films to tell those stories. He was an Englishman and was also born more than 100 years ago.

Emeric and Michael met, and they discovered that together they could create and tell wonderful stories though the films that they made. Films that still enthral and intrigue people more than 60 years after they were made.

Michael was an Englishman with a world view. He was interested in things that were happening all around the world at a time when many of his fellow countrymen were quite insular, only concerned with what was happening in Britain.

Emeric was an outsider looking in. He could see things in the British character that the British often didn't notice in themselves. But they recognised these characteristics when they were pointed out to them.

Two totally different people, complete opposites in many ways. But when they came together the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. From the beginning of their work together they dared to be different. They took risks, they did things their own way.

They also aimed for a very high quality in all their work. I am still often amazed at the trouble they took over the tiniest little thing that is only on screen for a very short while. But they still made 17 films together from 1939 - 1957. That's almost a film every year. Nowadays, with all the benefits of modern technology, it can take 2 or 3 years to make a film, and the result often isn't as good as the films these people made. How many modern films are such classics that they will still be viewed at a retrospective like this one, 60 or more years after they were made?

Some film makers explain every little thing that is going on. They must assume that their audience isn't very clever. Powell & Pressburger never explained things in great detail, they assumed that the audience could follow a complex story. They gave clues but often left ambiguous endings. In A Matter of Life and Death did Peter really meet the conductor and take the ride on the escalator, or was it just all due to the brain damage? In The Red Shoes was Vicky driven to her end by the shoes? Did she fall or did she jump? Did she die or was she just badly injured? Powell & Pressburger films leave you with plenty to think about and they do leave clues and hints to the answers that can be spotted after repeated viewings.

The stories are always beautifully complex but complete with no real plot holes or loose ends. The characters are often driven to extremes of emotions but they remain some of the most believable and human characters in any film while at the same time being highly cinematic.

How did they make their films?
Powell & Pressburger soon developed a reputation for making interesting films of a very high quality. So all the leading actors, cinematographers, designers, composers and other crew members in the country were soon queueing up to work with them. They could select from the very best in every field. They gathered around them a group of like minded people. People who wanted to make high quality films who were prepared to take risks and push themselves to their limits to produce their best possible work. They called this group of people The Archers and most of their films began with an arrow hitting an archer's target.

From 1942 they signed each film "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger". This was their way of declaring their independence and total control over their films. Martin Scorsese, a major admirer of The Archers who knew Michael & Emeric well, once said that they were like "experimental film-makers working inside a totally commercial system". They were funded by the people who ran the main studios in Britain but as long as their films remained popular and made a profit they managed to keep the studio bosses at bay. Nobody was allowed to interfere with their film.

The vast majority of the films they made together were from an original story by Emeric. Once he had the basic outline for the story he would talk it through with Micky. They were both very experienced in making films having been working in the business since the 1920s and they knew what would work well in a film. Emeric wrote his story with the final film in mind, the story didn't have to be adapted to make the film.

Micky & Emeric would work together on the screenplay, deciding what scenes were required, how they would be staged and what the people would do. The final stage was the actual dialogue, the words spoken by the actors. Although this was of course very important, in some ways it wasn't as important as the preceding stages. It's the structure of the story and the idea behind it and how it wcould be shown on screen that is the most important thing. Without that, it doesn't matter how clever the dialogue is, the film won't work very well. Emeric spoke quite good English and he knew the idea that he wanted each character to express in every scene but he sometimes didn't know the best way to express it in English, so Micky helped him with that as well.

They did all their own casting, they never used a casting director. Micky and Emeric had both seen a huge number of films over the years and they both had remarkable visual memories so they could recall an actor who they had seen many years ago who they thought would be suitable for a particular role. Micky also saw just about every play that was staged in London and the provinces and he could remember all of those actors as well. A lot of actors who had never worked on a film before but who had done some good work on stage in the live theatre were given their first chance to work in films by Powell & Pressburger.

Micky would scout locations and Emeric would do any research required. A lot of their films make a lot of use of location shooting, a lot more than most other British films of the time which were often studio-bound - and it often shows. But they liked to get out into the countryside and the landscape often takes on the characteristics of another character in the film. The in-depth study and the detail of their research is often astounding. It's things like that which make the films so watchable again and again, there's always something new to see every time you watch them.

When they had the cast & crew together and the script was written, they started making the film. But sometimes an idea didn't work out as well as they hoped and sometimes someone had another idea for how to make it even better. They were quite willing to change things part way through a shoot. Emeric was always on hand to make sure that any changes fitted in with the story. The Archers really were a collaboration of artists, everyone was equally important and they were all encouraged to make their own contribution to make the end result as good as possible.

Although Micky Powell was the main director he was more like a conductor or ring-master than an autocrat just issuing orders. He worked in collaboration with his cast and crew, accepting their ideas and suggestions. However, the ultimate decisions rested with him.

As Micky had helped with the writing of the script, so Emeric helped with the direction. Emeric was one of the few people who could tell Micky when he tried to go too far. Micky appreciated Emeric's judgement and trusted his friend implicitly. It wasn't the case, as some have assumed or implied that Emeric was just Powell's scriptwriter. They were both involved deeply in every aspect of the production. Emeric, as the more diplomatic of the two, would also act as the producer. He was better at dealing with their backers and with anyone else who wanted to interfere.

They were independent film-makers in that, once they had their funding in place, they had total control over the subject of the film, who was in it, how it was made and the content of the film. But they knew that they were in a commercial system and their films had to appeal to the public and make a profit. They did all make a profit. Some of them made a large profit, some made a smaller profit, but they were all quite successful with the general public. Most of their major films were made during World War II when there were hugely important events happening. Powell & Pressburger knew that it took about a year to make each film so they had to try to predict events that would be topical of or interest a year in the future, and they often managed that as well.

As well as their backers, the major British film studios, they also had to contend with the British government. They knew people in high places in the government and would often listen to suggestions that they would make for the sort of film that the government wanted to be made. But they would never let themselves be dictated to by the government and even when they took the suggestion they made the film their own way, often in a manner totally unexpected by the people who had suggested it. Famously, for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the government and Prime Minister Winston Churchill explicitly said that they didn't want Powell & Pressburger to make the film. But the Prime Minister had to be reminded that we live in a democracy. The Archers made the film anyway, and it turned out to be a huge success.

When the shooting was finished, Micky would take off for the hills of Scotland for a walking holiday to clear his head. Emeric would help the editor, especially with the music used in the film. Emeric used to play violin in orchestras in Hungary and in Germany and was a good musician.

When Michael returned to the studio they would finish off the editing and then begin promoting it. Michael was usually the front-man for this but Emeric would usually be there to restrain Micky from being too excessive and throwing in a few pearls of Hungarian wisdom.

It wasn't just Powell & Pressburger themselves that made the films, it was the whole team known as The Archers. Different people would join this team for different films. Some would just work on a few films, some would work on many different films. Hardly any of them were contracted to work for The Archers on more than one film at a time but they would often drop other projects for a chance to work with such a team. The cast and crew were recruited from all over the place. Age or nationality made little difference, the only qualification for joining was that they could do their job superbly well and were prepared to give their total commitment to the project. They were rewarded with a chance to work for the best team in existence and they could contribute ideas to that team, they didn't just have to follow orders.

People like designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, cinematographers like Erwin Hillier, Jack Cardiff & Christopher Challis, composers like Allan Gray and Brian Easdale. Actors and actresses as well, many of the actors can be seen in quite a few of their films.

A lot of these members of The Archers were rewarded with prizes and awards like the Oscars and awards from other academies and film festivals. They were all highly regarded.

What are the films like?
So that's who made the films and how they were created, but what of the films themselves? What subjects did they cover? What genres can they be classified in? What styles did they use?

They made films in Black & White and they made films in colour. They made some films in black & white long after everyone else, including themselves, had been making films in colour. They did it for artistic and stylistic reasons, not just because it was cheaper. They made wartime dramas that didn't show much of the war but showed the effect it had on people. They made romantic films and they made films imbued with a mysticism that doesn't owe allegiance to any particular church or religion but goes back much further than those things. They made films about high art like ballet, operetta and opera. Their films often included many of these elements all in the one film. Their films often had elements of comedy, they punctured pomposity.

They always assumed that the audience was as intelligent as they were. There are quite long passages where people speak in other languages in their films, but they never used subtitles. What the people are saying is obvious from the context and the body language even if a member of the audience doesn't speak the language being used. Powell & Pressburger both started off working on silent films and both knew how to put an idea across without language.

Many of their films were made during World War II when Great Britain was fighting for its very survival against Nazi Germany. It was a time of fierce nationalism when the world was in flames, but they never went for the easy option of making out that all Germans were evil Nazis. In both 49th Parallel and the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp they had Germans who were not only good but were quite heroic.

Their films often featured strong, intelligent women, often as the leading character, at a time when women in most films were just there to look decorative or to faint on cue.

The only genre that can be said to cover all of their films is that wonderful genre "A Powell & Pressburger film". They covered a wide range of subjects and the films were made in a wide range of styles. The only common element is quality, and quality in depth. Alongside that is the innovation and the audacity with which the films were made.

When they made 49th Parallel (1941) they had the whole of Canada to work in and the Canadian government giving them whatever help they needed. When they made A Canterbury Tale (1944) they found that they couldn't film inside Canterbury Cathedral, so they rebuilt the Cathedral in the studio and did it so well that it even fools the guides at the real Cathedral. When they made I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) their leading man couldn't travel to the islands of Scotland where they were filming, so they used a double so cleverly that nobody noticed. When they made A Matter of Life and Death (1946) they created a complete other world. When they made Black Narcissus (1947) which was set in the Himalayas, rather than mixing some location footage with the studio work they re-created the Himalayas in the studio and did it so well that the designer and cinematographer were rewarded with Oscars. When they made The Red Shoes (1948) they created their own ballet company and staged a 15 minute ballet as the highlight of the film. They seemed to know no limits.

I am often reminded of the French Revolutionary Georges Danton (1759 - 1794) who said "Il nous faut de l'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace" ("We must be bold with more audacity, always with audacity") I think that applies to The Archers very well.

The films are in some ways very British, but they are unlike most other British films. They were made for a world audience and they take their influences from around the world. They go way beyond the shores of Britain in the characters and the situations those characters get involved in which could be situations or people in any country in the world.

The films are very visual and are beautiful to watch. This was written into them from the beginning with Emeric writing the original story in a way that could be converted into a visual experience by the hands and eyes of Micky Powell.

They often don't have clear cut goodies and baddies. In Black Narcissus, everything that goes wrong seems to be the fault of Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), but it isn't that simple. She's a good character, doing her best.

They were never afraid to go to extremes in many aspects of the story. In A Matter of Life and Death It's completely crazy that they should be able to take June's tears as evidence, and capture it on a rose. Yet it's perfect and it works.

They were never afraid to push the emotions, of their characters and of the audience, to extremes way beyond what any other film-maker would dare to do.

It's not just that they dared to do these things in one or two films, they did it again and again - and it worked again and again. I don't know how they did it, how they could be so brilliant time and time again and produce such an amazing body of work. I suspect that sometimes they wouldn't be too sure exactly how they did it. They just let their emotions and artistic talent flow in a fairly much unrestrained manner.

What is their legacy?
So why should we still be so interested in these old films that were made before many of us were born? For some people, the films were made before their parents were born. Some of them aren't even in colour, they don't use any CGI, it hadn't been invented back then. The soundtracks aren't in surround sound. There aren't even many huge explosions or lots of dead bodies in most of them

If all you are looking for in a film is the latest escapist CGI and 3D from Hollywood, then they may not be for you. But if you want to see a very well made film, with a great story that makes you care about the characters in it. If you want to see a film that will make you stop and think about life, love & people and what's really important in life, then try watching these old films. They may well surprise you.

They have surprised a lot of people over the years and a lot of film-makers, actors, directors, musicians and other artists have got at least one Powell & Pressburger film in their top ten. Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George A. Romero, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, Bertrand Tavernier, Raoul Ruiz, Brian de Palma, Danny Boyle, Tilda Swinton, Kate Bush, Jarvis Cocker, Courtney Love, Manolo Blahnik, Alison Goldfrapp, Quentin Tarantino and many others have declared their admiration for these old films and many of them have been influenced by the films in many different ways.

There are still people writing books and making documentaries about them. Academics write PhD theses about them. There are academic conferences about the films around the world where lots of people with lots of letters after their names try to analyse and understand the films. There are fan gatherings where people travel thousands of miles just to be at the place where the films were made to see if they can experience some of the magic.

For a long time in the 1960s & 1970s the films were almost forgotten and were just about impossible to see anywhere. But a few people remembered them. They remembered how they were so different to any other films that they'd seen before or since. Some of those people worked hard to not just films the films and see them again but to find the people that made them as well, and to get to know them.

Martin Scorsese did the most to make people aware of these films and he became close friends with Powell and Pressburger. They supported his work when he wanted to take risks and they made suggestions which were incorporated into some of his films. Martin has also led the drive to do a full restoration on some of their classic films. This involves going right back to the original negatives, digitising every frame at an extremely high resolution and repairing every little piece of damage. This takes years and costs millions of dollars for every film that is restored like this. But the results are stunning and the effort is well worth while.

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