Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Films of Powell and Pressburger

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have developed a cult following in recent decades due to the increased exposure of their work through revival showings and the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray releases. Powell and Pressburger societies,fan clubs, tribute blogs and other websites devoted to their films are now in abundance. 

What makes the Powell and Pressburger films so endearing? Their unique style for one thing. Just as a Hitchcock film is instantly recognizable, so are Powell and Pressburger's movies in spite of the completely different subject matters they tackled. They created mesmerizing films that were different than any being made by their contemporaries; different in subject matter, set design, cinematography, and dialogue. Color was their forte and they were pioneers in the use of the new medium. Some of these productions ( Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ) still rank among the most beautiful ever filmed. Each was of superior quality and well ahead of its time. Together this team utilized cinema to its maximum potential and elevated the art to new standards.  


Michael Powell was working as director on the WWI drama The Spy in Black ( 1939 ) for British film magnate Alexander Korda when he met with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, who was asked to do some rewrites for the film. There was an instant kinship and they were once again working hand in hand for Contraband and The 49th Parallel, two anti-Nazi propaganda thrillers released through Korda. The pair adopted a joint writer-director-producer credit for their next production One of Our Aircraft is Missing before they broke from the reigns of studio production companies and incorporated their own company under the banner of The Archers, utilizing an archery target as their logo. 

"He knows what I am going to say even before I say it - maybe even before I have thought it - and that is very rare. You are lucky if you meet someone like that once in your life." - Pressburger on Powell

The team would collaborate on 13 films before the disbandment of The Archers in 1957, but the string of work made back to back between 1943 and 1950 ( notably I Know Where I'm Going, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes ) remain their greatest contributions to world cinema.

While Pressburger is generally credited for writing the screenplays and Powell for directing, they often stepped into each other's realms and contributed ideas for the betterment of each film in its whole. Pressburger produced the pictures and also enjoyed being closely involved in the final edit, especially in the way music was being used since he was a musician himself. 


"...Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement," Pressburger wrote in a letter to Deborah Kerr explaining why she should join them for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. 

In the era of the studio systems, creative freedom was something all directors longed for and this was a driving force in their decision to create their own production company. With full control of their output they were free to imagine and develop stories that gave their audiences food for thought in an entertaining and aesthetically unique manner. 

A simple but strong message was the cornerstone of each film, although many had numerous subtexts woven into its script. The Powell and Pressburger films were never about artificial characters, instead each film focused on the common laborer and touched on issues that the audience would relate to - love, friendship, ambition, hatred, war, death. 

"No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness." - Emeric Pressburger

Their films were always out of step with mainstream British cinema...much to their credit. If they had a message that they desired to tell, they went ahead and wrote a film to tell it, regardless of how it would be accepted by the public. When The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was released at the height of World War II, it was heavily attacked by critics and audiences for its sympathetic portrayal of a German soldier. Powell and Pressburger most likely foresaw that this would happen when they were developing their script but went ahead with the film anyway - they had the creative freedom to do so and a message to convey: the English were not at war with Germans merely in flesh, but in attitudes and ideals. Today, when we look back on other World War II films of the era we see patriotic flagwavers, films dealing with the folk on the homefront, and escapist musicals and comedies, but The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp stands out for its forthright message that this was a different war England was fighting and a different enemy, though it was still Germany. 
Often the messages they desired to tell were not as clear-cut as those that appeared in Colonel Blimp. In A Canterbury Tale ( 1944 ), a young woman and two soldiers journey to Canterbury for various reasons but are side-tracked by an incident in a small village involving a vandal. This inconsequential incident gives Powell and Pressburger an excuse to tarry around Britain's countryside and explore the values for which they believe the war was being fought. The soldiers held that their furlough was wasted hunting down a silly "glue man", but, instead, they come to realize that they had taken a personal journey further then any had anticipated and, upon eventually reaching Canterbury, find their desires fulfilled. 

The exact opposite of this premise was explored in I Know Where I'm Going! ( 1945 ), one of The Archers few black and white productions ( color film was in short supply in wartime Britain ). In this film we see a young ambitious woman determined to take a boat to the isle of Kiloran to wed her rich fiancee who awaits her, in spite of the fierce wind that is barraging the coast. She is a woman set on a path and determined to have her way, but Fate intervenes in the personage of a handsome lieutenant who sweeps her off her feet. Ambition has no power whatsoever over Love. 

As an author weaves his own viewpoints and personal passions into each book he writes, Powell shared his very soul with his audience through his directing. Powell had a deep love for film-making and desired to hold an unspoken communication with his audience. In Powell's own words : "I've had this said to me - 'There's things going on in your films, particularly in this sequence, which I didn't understand but it fascinated me' and I didn't say anything - what it is, is the direct contact with the audience with the director." 

Like many auteur directors, he had his favorite actors which he employed in numerous films, these included Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Roger Livesay, Finlay Currie, David Farrar, and Eric Portman. Powell had his particular favorites among the actresses too. Deborah Kerr, whom he was having an affair with during the mid-1940s, starred in two films for The Archers and was Powell's original choice for the role of Joan in I Know Where I'm Going ( 1945 ). Kathleen Byron and Pamela Brown were also special favorites ( and women whom Powell also had affairs with ). 

Many of their contemporary critics, even modern-day viewers, have questioned their taste and the motivations behind some their films, but what was running through Powell and Pressburger's minds when they made these films is inconsequential. They are cinematic works of art. A painting need not have a story or a moral behind it to remain beautiful. The Archer films would be captivating if they had no plot at all and were simply a tableau of imagery. You could spend a year picking out favorite scenes from the Powell and Pressburger films because there are just that many to choose from. Even when viewed out of context from the original film they are dramatic gems of visual splendor.
Most of this splendor can be accredited to one member of The Archers in particular - Jack Cardiff, the brilliant cinematographer on the majority of the Powell and Pressburger films. He used color and shadow not only for mere beauty's sake but to represent emotion and drive the story forward. Black Narcissus features some of his most stunning work. Witness this particular scene of Sister Ruth at her prayers. If Cardiff had used different lighting to create this scene he could have made her a devote woman but instead she appears to be wickedness in disguise, a nun with sinister intentions with her bold red lipstick and the light of the sunset upon her.

In one particular scene in A Canterbury Tale, Peter Gibbs remarks to Mr. Colpeper that "I'll believe that when I see a halo around my head" at which point shafts of sunlight beam through the window casting a glow around Gibb's head. A halo indeed. It was subtle techniques like this that Cardiff employed that raised the standard of The Archers' films. 

Michael Powell claimed in his autobiography "I had made the British film industry after my own image, and I gloried in it" a humorous - and quite egotistical - comment on the effect the team had upon British cinema. In spite of our praise of their films, we wouldn't be counted among the blind admirers of any work turned out by The Archers. A few of their films are suitable for mere tasting only and we would not be revisiting them for several years. Nevertheless, numerous filmmakers have been influenced by their works and have in turn passed on what they learned from these films unto their own. Directors David Lean, Carol Reed, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola all claim that they were influenced by the films of Powell and Pressburger. 


Contraband ( 1940 )

A Danish sea captain and a girl in wartime London expose a gang of spies. A delightful light thriller that moves along at a brisk pace. Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Esmond Knight. 

The 49th Parallel ( 1941 )

Five survivors from a destroyed U-Boat that made its way into Canadian waters, journey through the country in an attempt to cross the 49th parallel into the United States. En route, they encounter people who demonstrate their love for freedom. This is a stirring drama written to entice Americans to enter the war to help fight the Nazis. Ralph Vaughan Williams' score is a highlight.  Eric Portman, Anton Walbrook, Laurence Olivier, Niall MacGinnis, Raymond Massey. 

One of Our Aircraft is Missing ( 1942 )

After a bomber is crashed in a raid, members of the Danish resistance bring aid to its crew. This picture has its charm but is shot in more documentary-style realism and is languidly paced. Godfrey Teale, Eric Portman, Hugh Williams, Bernard Miles. 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ( 1943 )

A colonel looks back on his life in the army, the woman that eluded him, and the friendship he forged with a German. What he comes to realize is his military tactics are outdated in the new warfront. The Lawrence of Arabia for Powell and Pressburger - an epic film spanning three decades of a man's life...and a highly entertaining life it is. Roger Livesay, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook, Ursula Jeans. 

A Canterbury Tale ( 1944 )

Two soldiers and a young woman journey to Canterbury unmasking a batty magistrate en route. A gentle lyrical film that is gloriously original and unclassifiable. Old England never looked as rosy as it does here. Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, John Sweet, Dennis Price, Edmond Knight.

I Know Where I'm Going! ( 1945 )

A woman is determined to marry her rich fiance but finds herself falling in love with a naval officer when she is delayed by foul weather for three days.  A delightful movie which captures in spirit a slice of the Hebrides which so many of us long to visit. Even today there are IKWIG tours to the locations used in this film. Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesay, Pamela Brown, Finlay Currie.

A Matter of Life and Death ( 1946 )

Set during WWII, a British pilot miraculously survives a crash due to an error in heaven. A messenger is sent to fetch him 24 hours later, but in the interval he falls in love with a young woman and decides to plea for his life before the heavenly court. This fantasy film remains one of the team's most popular works. David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesay, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey. 

Black Narcissus ( 1947 )

A group of Anglo-Catholic nuns inhabit a remote Himalayan palace as their convent and find the culture and climate of the region stir tumultuous emotions within themselves. A striking drama and one of cinema's most beautiful films. Jack Cardiff carried away the Best Cinematography Academy Award for his brilliant Technicolor work. Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Sabu. 
The Red Shoes ( 1948 )

A young ballet student rises to become a star but must then decide between her career or her lover. A splendid production giving viewers a glimpse at life behind the curtain at a ballet. Nominated for five Academy Awards. Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann.

The Small Back Room  ( 1949 )

A lame scientist takes to drinking to drown his frustration of his handicap. He gets a chance to redeem himself to his long-suffering girlfriend and prove his heroism when he risks his life to disarm an unexploded German bomb. One of Powell and Pressburger's most underrated gems and one of the few suspense thrillers they made. David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks. 
The Elusive Pimpernel ( 1950 )

A remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel which fails to entertain in spite of its great cast and almost gaudy Technicolor. David Niven, Margaret Leighton, Cyril Cusack, Jack Hawkins.

Gone to Earth ( 1950 )

Set during the 1890s, a wild Shropshire gypsy girl is desired by the local squire. Powell and Pressburger' seemed to be striving to recapture the splendor of their films of the 1940s, but it comes off as rather humorous instead. It features some beautiful location scenery of England however. Jennifer Jones, David Farrar, Cyril Cusack
Tales of Hoffman ( 1951 )

The poet Hoffman, in three adventures, is fated to enter a series of doomed love affairs with supernatural overtones. This overwhelming mixture of opera and ballet and fantastic art direction was pegged by critic Gavin Muir when he claimed "[its] the most spectacular failure yet acheived by P&P, who seem increasingly to dissipate their gifts in a welter of aimless ingenuity". Robert Rounesville, Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer, Pamela Brown.

Oh, Rosalinda!! ( 1955 )

In post-war Vienna, a playboy performs a practical joke on an officer ( and their wives ) from each of the four ruling powers. An attempt to modernize "Die Fledermaus", which unfortunately falls flat. Anton Walbrook, Michael Redgrave, Mel Ferrer, Dennis Price, Anthony Quayle.
The Battle of the River Plate ( 1956 )

A semi-documentary account of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee which was trapped in Montevideo Harbour in 1939. A stellar cast cannot make this film rise above being just a routine battle epic. John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Peter Finch, Bernard Lee. 

Ill Met By Moonlight ( 1957 )

A group of British officers land on the island of Crete to capture a Nazi commander. The last film released under The Archers banner, it bore very few marks of being a Powell and Pressburger production but was very popular at the box-office upon its release. Dirk Bogarde, Marius Goring, David Oxley, Cyril Cusack 
The Boy Who Turned Yellow ( 1972 )

A boy dreams that he and all the passengers on a subway turn yellow. Powell and Pressburger's last film together. This one is a bizarre one-hour children's story made for the Children's Film Foundation. Patrick Gowers, David Vorhaus. 

This post is our contribution to the Criterion Blogathon being hosted by Criterion BluesSpeakeasy and Silver Screenings. To view the impressive line-up of film articles visit any one of these blogs for a complete list. 


  1. Impressive! Thanks for including a list of the movies. Makes for a quick and handy reference guide. :)

    I really enjoyed your post, and learning more about how P&P met and started working together. I loved your descriptions of some of their work, especially the one of Sister Ruth. You're right – it would take several months to pick out one favourite scene...which, when it comes to P&P, is an unfair request.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with two fab reviews!

  2. Very nice overview of the their work and how they started together. it was an amazing partnership that produced some of the most impressive cinema visuals ever. I still have to see a few off this list. Thanks so much for taking part in this blogathon with two posts! Best

  3. My wife and I enjoy all of the Archers' films. Our very favorites include A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS, and I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING. Great overview of their amazing career. Michael Powell's biographies make great reading for film buffs, too.

  4. While it's not my favorite (that would be a three-way tie: I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING/BLACK NARCISSUS/THE RED SHOES), I will say that THE TALES OF HOFFMANN is probably the film of theirs that I watch the most frequently.

    Also a shout out to Michael Powell's early solo effort - THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1937). It stands out as a wonderful precursor to the marvelous movies Powell would make with Pressburger.

  5. A great piece; but two things; I think you should revisit Contraband; it's a witty, sexy spy romp, using our wartime blackout as a stylistic device, and almost a character itself, and that a 1940 Hitchcock would have been proud of.
    Also,it's Roger LivesEy.....