January 2, 2017


Michael Powell (1905-1990) b. Bekesbourne, England.

Michael Powell

There can have been no more British film-maker than Michael Powell, whose active cinema career stretched over half a century, almost from the very beginnings of popular cinema itself. A chance meeting in France in 1925 introduced Powell to the film business and, on returning to England, he soon became one of the most prolific of the British directors at work on an endless stream of ‘quota quickies’ whose shooting schedules measured in days and ludicrously low budgets were often all too apparent on screen. It is easy to dismiss these films as inconsequential, as Powell later did. Easy, too, to hail them as early milestones in the oeuvre of the future cinematic master. In truth, the quality of the 23 films made over this five-year period varies wildly. Like other British features of the era – including minor classics such as The Ghost Camera (1933) and Death on the Set (1935) – some retain great charm, while others were all too obviously produced as quickly and cheaply as possible as a straight job of work. Often ingeniously made (given the budget restraints), there is little in these ‘quickies’ – other than the striking location work in The Phantom Light (1935), later to be amplified in the Scottish trilogy The Edge of the World (1936), The Spy in Black (1939) and I Know Where I’m Going! – to suggest the direction which Powell’s work was to take. With the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger – it often takes a non Englishman to pinpoint the British character accurately – Powell’s Archers Productions observed varied aspects of being British, though not always to unanimous critical acclaim. A celebration of the British countryside and its heritage, A Canterbury Tale (1944) was savaged by critics, while an affectionate portrait of a blustering old gentleman soldier, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) brought on its creators the wrath of a government led by no less a figure than Winston Churchill. Yet these were British preoccupations: the beauty of the island and the quirks and curiosities of its people. Powell’s films could be tough; 49th Parallel (1941), romantic; I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), exotic; Black Narcissus (1947), realistic; One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), topical; Contraband (1940), intensely fantastic; The Red Shoes (1948), grittily thrilling; The Small Back Room (1949), dazzling; A Matter of Life and Death (1946) or shocking; Peeping Tom (1960), but all were shot through with an indefinable sense of humour and the eye of a poet. The waywardness in his choice of film subjects – often labelled ‘vulgar’ or ‘tasteless’ – left Michael Powell a less accessible figure than the much-feted Alfred Hitchcock, so that while the latter was honoured with a knighthood in 1969, despite having become an American citizen some years earlier, neither Powell nor Pressburger ever received official recognition in Britain. When Hitchcock – Powell’s near contemporary – left for America at the first opportunity in 1939, he gained international prestige, larger budgets and improved studio facilities and production values. He also sacrificed a great deal of artistic freedom, being often forced to accept studio contract stars against his wishes, while his films lost much of their humour and charm – compare The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent with Under Capricorn, The Paradine Case or the overlong remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Although he considered making the same move in 1937, Powell remained in England where the Archers’ films inevitably attracted less international interest, although The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus were among the most honoured of British films by the American Academy. As writers /producers/ directors, Powell and Pressburger retained total control over their productions, each of which was recognisably of their making. By the time Michael Powell finally reached Hollywood in 1980 it was altogether too late. At 75 he was too old (for insurance purposes), the business conglomerate led studios had no place for such a maverick, and there was no Emeric Pressburger at his side. His best offer – as an advisor to Francis Ford Coppola – ended with the collapse of Coppola’s adventurous but ultimately doomed Zoetrope studios. The enforced idleness of Powell’s final decade and the frankly inferior quality of late efforts such as The Queen’s Guards (1961) and Luna De Miel (1959) did little to damage his reputation among the British film community. Many others also place Powell alongside Albert Hitchcock and Carol Reed as the three greatest directors Britain has yet produced. Hitchcock, it has already been noted, cannot truly be claimed as a British director at all from 1939 onwards. Carol Reed‘s early career had promised much, reaching its peak between 1946 and 1951 but much of his later work – including The Agony and the Ecstasy, Trapeze and the hugely successful Oliver! – bears no great directorial stamp and could have been made by almost anybody. Unlike with either Reed or Hitchcock, at the time of Powell’s death there was still the feeling that he could have achieved even more in the years to come. Of the three, Powell remains the most idiosyncratic, remarkable (and British) of British film-makers, and, particularly during his collaboration with Emeric Pressburger made more great films than was fully appreciated at the time but which are now finally recognised as national treasures. Source material gratefully provided by James Howard.

Michael Powell: by James Howard

(Published by BT Batsford Ltd, ISBN 0 7134 7482 3)

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