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The Instant Expert's Guide to Powell and Pressburger

All mentioned films in article
Not released

With a season of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger showing at BFI Southbank and I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) and Peeping Tom (1960) back in cinemas before being released on disc, there's plenty for fans of The Archers to look forward to. Cinema Paradiso examines why cineastes are getting so excited.

A still from Peeping Tom (1960)
A still from Peeping Tom (1960)

Over 18 years, an Englishman and a Hungarian produced 24 pictures. The majority contained the credit, 'Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.' Known collectively as 'The Archers', Powell and Pressburger created highly distinctive films that explored romantic and supernatural themes with a subversive wit and visual imagination that has made them difficult to categorise. Audiences and critics alike never quite knew what to make of them, as their work contained so many artistic and political contradictions.

Sometimes, they favoured monochrome realism, but they also excelled at Technicolor fantasy. They espoused a rather conservative form of Britishness that has prompted some to dismiss them as elitist. Yet, there was nothing cosy about their paeans to tradition and continuity. Indeed, there was a radicalism about their approach to cinema that kept them on the periphery of the establishment, despite working primarily for two commercially oriented companies.

Over the years, their reputation has waxed and waned. But Powell and Pressburger have never been held in higher regard, which begs the question, why are so many of their solo ventures still unavailable on DVD, Blu-ray or 4K?

Worlds Apart

Imre Josef Pressburger was born in the north-eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc on 5 December 1902. He had an older half-sister, but was raised by his Jewish estate manager father, Kálmán, and his second wife, Kätherina Wichs. At boarding-school in Temesvár, Imre excelled at mathematics, literature, and music and studied maths and engineering at the universities in Prague and Stuttgart before being forced to fend for himself after his father's death.

In 1926, having made radio sets, Pressburger moved to Berlin and started working as a journalist. He also wrote short stories, which led to an invitation from UFA to co-script compatriot Steve Sekely's directorial debut, The Great Longing (1930). Sekely would eventually find his way to Hollywood, although their writing partner, Hans H. Zerlett, would become a key figure in the Nazi cinema and would be detained after the war for the anti-Semitic musical, Robert und Bertram (1939). Influenced by René Clair and Ernst Lubitsch, Pressburger also collaborated on Farewell (1930) with director Robert Siodmak and screenwriter Irma Van Cube, who would also forge new careers in California.

A still from Emil and the Detectives (1931)
A still from Emil and the Detectives (1931)

Neither would be as successful as Billy Wilder, with whom Pressurger adapted Erich Kästner's children's classic, Emil and the Detectives (1931). This was directed by Gerhard Lamprecht, who avoided propaganda assignments during the Third Reich and made the significant 'rubble film', Somewhere in Berlin (1946). Pressburger also returned to Hungary to make two features with Heinz Hille, while he got his first taste of operetta on Max Neufeld's Sehnsucht 202 (1932).

The Weimar period ended in January 1933 and Pressburger left the key in the door of his apartment to save the Stormtroopers the trouble of kicking it down. He relocated to Paris, where he had contacts after Reinhold Schünzel's Der Abenteur had been reworked in French by Roger Le Bon as La belle aventure (both 1932). He continued to work on such foreign-language remakes, with My Heart Is Calling You (1934) being produced by Arnold Pressburger, an Austrian who was no relation to the now named Emmerich Pressburger. Indeed, he also continued to work with German directors like Karl Anton, with Monsieur Sans-Gêne (1934) being so successful it was remade in Hollywood by Rowland V. Lee as One Rainy Afternoon (1936). Pressburger also co-wrote Karl Grune's Abdul the Damned (1935), in which sultan Fritz Kortner becomes obsessed with Viennese opera singer, Adrienne Ames. This was made for British International Pictures, which resulted in Pressburger crossing the Channel. As he later wrote, 'the worst things that happened to me were the political consequences of events beyond my control...the best things were exactly the same'.

Michael Latham Powell was born on 30 September 1905 in Bekesbourne in Kent. Father Thomas was a local hop farmer, while mother Mabel hailed from Worcester. Always proud to call himself a 'Man of Kent', Powell adored the nearby city of Canterbury and enjoyed his time at King's School before being dispatched to Dulwich College.

A still from I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
A still from I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Disliking his job at the National Provincial Bank, the film mad 19 year-old Powell was ecstatic when Thomas, who was now running a hotel at Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera, introduced him to the Irish director Rex Ingram, who was working at the Victorine Studios in Nice. Despite scoring a hit with Rudolph Valentino in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Ingram resented the constraints placed upon him by the Hollywood studio system and sought creative freedom on the Côte d'Azur. Ingram's influence on Powell is readily evident. Yet he was not included in his list of the only five truly great film-makers that contained D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, and René Clair. Powell, who rated himself as 'one of the best', would later come to admire F.W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Akira Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti, John Huston, Ingmar Bergman, David Lean, Carol Reed, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese.

During his three-year association with Ingram, Powell not only embraced his mentor's florid visual style, but also gained vital experience of a range of film crafts while shooting Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927). Artist-turned-filmmaker Harry Lachman taught him how to take production stills, while Powell also tried his hand at being a continuity clerk, a film cutter, an assistant director, an editor, and a screenwriter. He even got to act in Ingram's 1926 drama, The Magician, and played eccentric, pith-helmeted British tourist, Cicero Simp, in seven of Lachman's 1927'Travelaugh' two-reelers, which were screened under the Riviera Revels banner.

A still from Champagne (1928)
A still from Champagne (1928)

In Cold Feats, Powell gets buried in the snow on the Peïra-Cava in the Alpes Maritimes, while he dreams himself into a modern dance routine with some woodland nymphs in Fauny Business. Around this time, Powell married American dancer Gloria Mary Rouger. But they only stayed together three weeks, as Powell followed Lachman back to Britain, where he bluffed his way into a post at British International Pictures. As well as taking a bit part in Lachman and Monty Banks's comedy, The Compulsory Husband, he also served as stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's Champagne (1928) and Blackmail (1929), which was the Londoner's first talkie. British cinema was never going to be the same again and Micky Powell just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Same Orbit

In 1931, having made script contributions to Campbell Gullan's Caste and Albert de Courville's 77 Park Lane (both 1930), Powell joined forces with American lawyer Jerome Jackson to form Film Engineering. The plan was to make the kind of featurette that had that had become common after the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act had stipulated that a percentage of films shown in UK cinemas had to be home-produced. Designed to boost a flagging industry, the initial figure was 7.5%. But it rose to 20% in 1935, by which time so-called 'quota quickies' had become synonymous with cheap, slipshod entertainment that fell some way below the quality of the American B movie.

Perhaps the quota quickie's poor reputation resulted in so many of the films that Powell directed during the 1930s being 'lost forever'. It's hard to imagine the same fate befalling Hitchcock, whose sole missing picture is his second silent, The Mountain Eagle (1926). No one at the time would have known that Powell would become such a revered figure. But while the loss of 12 works is regrettable, the fact that so few of those that do still exist are available on disc is unpardonable. Thankfully, the BFI is currently in the process of restoring and remastering the surviving 13 and one can only hope that an affordable boxed set is in the pipeline.

Powell once joked that if too many lost films resurfaced his reputation would plummet. What wouldn't we give, though, to see those 'missing' titles: Two Crowded Hours, My Friend the King, The Rasp, The Star Reporter (all 1931), C.O.D., Born Lucky (both 1932), The Girl in the Crowd (1934), The Price of a Song, Someday (both 1935), and The Brown Wallet (1936). What's so frustrating is that while some of these quickies were made for Film Engineering and Westminster Films, others were sponsored by the British arms of Warner Bros and Fox Films (which rather sums up the regard in which British cinema was held in Hollywood during its own golden age).

Documentary pioneer John Grierson declared that Rynox (1931) was 'as good as Hollywood' in claiming 'there never was an English film so well-made'. Yet, while it can be found on the BFI Player, it has never been released on DVD. The same platform also offers subscribers Hotel Splendide (1932) and The Night of the Party (1934). For the moment, however, it's impossible to access His Lordship (1932), Something Always Happens (1934), Lazybones, The Love Test, Her Last Affaire (all 1935), Crown v Stevens (aka Third Time Unlucky), and The Man Behind the Mask (both 1936).

Not that Pressburger has fared any better, mind you. Having made an uncredited contribution to the screenplay of the French version of Nicolas Farkas's Port-Arthur (1935), he arrived in Britain on a stateless passport in order to work with compatriot Alexander Korda's associate, Arthur Wimperis, on Parisian Life, the English take on Robert Siodmak's La vie parisienne (1935), which Pressburger and Marcel Carné had adapted from an operetta by Jacques Offenbach. Speaking no English on his arrival, he taught himself the language with a primer and a dictionary.

None of the seven films on which Pressburger (who changed his name to Emeric in 1938) worked without Powell over the next five years is available on disc. Maddeningly, Milton Rosmer and Geoffrey Barkas's The Great Barrier (1937), Rosmer and Luis Trenker's The Challenge (1938), Herbert Mason's The Silent Battle (1939), Mario Zampi's Spy For a Day (1940), Walter Forde's Atlantic Ferry (1941), Harold Huth's Breach of Promise (1942), and Lance Comfort's Squadron Leader X (1943) have all been allowed to drift into obscurity. Even Rouben Mamoulian's Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney romcom, Rings on Her Fingers (1942), for which Pressburger did an uncredited adaptation, is off limits. And Powell and Pressburger are supposed to be national treasures!

A still from Blackmail (1929)
A still from Blackmail (1929)

Naturally, Cinema Paradiso can offer users the three Powell quickies that are currently available to rent on DVD. Made for Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British The Fire Raisers (1933) is a brisk and sometimes brusque thriller that Powell called 'a Warner Brothers Newspaper Headline Story' because it was based on an actual arson scandal. Leslie Banks stars as an insurance investigator closing in on the menacing Francis L. Sullivan, and Banks would return in Red Ensign (1934), a tale of Depression and industrial espionage, in which the chief designer at a firm of Glasgow shipbuilders risks losing a contract for a game-changing cargo vessel when rival Alfred Drayton tries to sabotage his ambitious construction plan.

Powell would later claim that this was the film that convinced him he had a special talent. Despite evincing the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, it derided a character named Grierson, as Powell resented the Documentary Movement's impact on British fictional cinema. His dislike of social realism was also evident in The Phantom Light (1935), a comic chiller that was made for Balcon at Gainsborough. The storyline may not be particularly sophisticated, but Powell conjures up an unsettling atmosphere, as new keeper Gordon Harker arrives at the North Stack lighthouse off the Welsh village of Tan-Y-Bwlch.

This insight into the dynamics of a remote community, coupled with Powell's proven ability to work quickly and efficiently with minimal studio supervision, prompted producer Joe Rock to back a personal project. Inspired by the recent depopulation of the Hebridean island of St Kilda, The Edge of the World (1937) was filmed on Foula and centres on the fate of the fishing and crofting community of Hirta. Finlay Currie and Niall MacGinnis and John Laurie and Eric Berry play fathers and sons with tough decisions to make on an isolated crag in a tale that prompted some to compare the film to Robert J. Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934), a comparison Powell loathed, as he had found the American highly resistible while editing alongside him at Gaumont-British.

Nominated for the Mussolini Cup at the Venice Film Festival, this mystical celebration of the landscape inspired Powell's location memoir, 200,000 Feet on Foula. It also convinced him that he had found his métier. As he told Midi-Minuit Fantastique in 1968: 'I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema...I'm not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through cinema; everything that I've had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I'm interested in images, in books, in music, it's all due to the cinema.'

Powell also made little secret of the fact that he wanted to work with Alexander Korda, as he 'had made the British film what it should be: a power in the land, a mirror for England'. Korda would recruit Powell to shoot around German director Ludwig Berger, who was failing to impress on The Thief of Bagdad (1940). With Sabu in the title role, Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, and June Duprez as the princess, this ambitious Arabian Nights fantasy brought Powell into contact with the other Rex Ingram, the African American actor who had been cast as the genie.

A still from The Lion Has Wings (1939)
A still from The Lion Has Wings (1939)

As costs rose, however, and the prospect of war increased, Korda moved production to Hollywood under American director Tim Whelan, with whom he had just made Q Planes (1939). Powell was enlisted to work alongside Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst on The Lion Has Wings, a docudramatic tribute to the RAF that co-starred Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson, who would also team with Powell on Smith (both 1939), a short promoting a charity dedicated to helping ex-service personnel. However, it was John Gielgud who narrated An Airman's Letter to His Mother (1941), a morale-boosting Powell short that drew on an actual missive by bomber pilot Vivian Rosewarne.

Around this period, Powell had started researching Burmese Silver, a variation on the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness, that would have starred Conrad Veidt as a British colonial officer who goes rogue and establishes himself as the rajah of his own kingdom. Powell's future employer, Francis Ford Coppola would revisit this story in Apocalypse Now (1979). But Powell would get to work with Veidt, as a U-boat commander intent on destroying the British fleet, on The Spy in Black (1939), a Great War thriller set on the Orkneys that was based on a novel by Joseph Storer Clouston. During a story conference, Powell was introduced to Pressburger, who made a deep impression with his suggestions for improving the screenplay. But no plans were made for them to work together.

The Archers At War

Powell was a late replacement for Brian Desmond Hurst on The Spy in Black, a Hitchcockian yarn about Valerie Hobson's German agent taking the place of abducted Orkeny schoolteacher June Duprez, in order to plot against the Scapa Flow fleet with Veidt's U-boat commander and disgraced Royal Navy officer, Sebastian Shaw. But it was Pressburger's ideas that sparked the director's enthusiasm for the project. As he revealed in his autobiography, 'I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this…He had stood [the] plot on its head and completely restructured the film.'

Powell was keen, therefore, to rope Pressburger into scripting Contraband (1940), another espionage thriller that cast Veidt as a Danish skipper who helps keep agents Valerie Hobson and Esmond Knight out of the clutches of London-based Nazi, Raymond Lovell. Sadly, this nimble noir isn't currently available on disc, as it's the first official Powell and Pressburger feature. Moreover, Veidt and Hobson make a fine team, although they're upstaged by Powell's golden cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who would cameo in three more of their master's films before the war's end.

Pressburger had dual reason to be grateful for the Ministry of Information's invitation to make a propaganda piece to alert North American audiences to the realities of the Second World War. Not only did 49th Parallel (1941) earn him the Academy Award for Best Original Story, but his involvement also prevented him from being detained and possibly deported as an undesirable alien. In fact, the cultured Hungarian's ability to view Britain from an outsider's perspective, while also being staunchly patriotic towards his adopted country, enabled him to present a convincing case for supporting its cause without resorting to rhetoric or sentiment. Indeed, there's a muscular wit about academic Leslie Howard's response to discovering the identity of his travelling companions: 'Nazis? That explains your arrogance, stupidity, and bad manners.'

The MOI had asked for a film about minesweeping. But Powell and Pressburger had wanted to 'scare the pants off the Americans' by showing how ruthless Eric Portman's washed-up U-boat crew could be, as it heads across Canada for the neutral United States. Like Howard, Laurence Olivier would waive half his fee to play a French-Canadian trapper who falls foul of the submariners, who disagree among themselves after reaching a Hutterite settlement and reconnecting to ordinary life. Featuring Anton Walbrook and Glynis Johns, this sequence exemplified Pressburger's boast: 'Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two.'

By the time the pair reconvened for One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), they had formed The Archers company that would be central to their cinematic identity over the next decade. They had also settled into their respective roles. Pressburger would write the outline story and the first draft of the screenplay, which he would then refine with Powell's input. He would also attend to the producing side, while Powell took charge on the set. Editing would be a collaborative process, although Powell would often hog the limelight during a film's promotion. Not that the pair cut this MOI project, as it proved to be the last feature edited by David Lean before he turned director with Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942).

A still from In Which We Serve (1942)
A still from In Which We Serve (1942)

Set in the occupied Netherlands, the story offers a flipside to 49th Parallel by showing how six downed RAF airmen work as a team and trust in the local partisans who risk everything to shelter them from the Nazis. Eric Portman is among the Wellington bomber crew, while Googie Withers and a debuting Peter Ustinov lead the Dutch. Withers would return when The Archers revisited the region as the producers of Vernon Sewell's The Silver Fleet (1943), which starred Ralph Richardson as the owner of a shipyard commandeered by the Germans to repair U-boats.

Ronald Neame's photography and C.C. Stevens's sound effects would be nominated for Academy Awards, as would the screenplay, which would bring Powell his sole Oscar recognition. However, they lost out to Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr. for George Cukor's Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy screwball, Woman of the Year (1942). Obviously, they were absent from the ceremony, as they were busy abandoning docu-realism to work in Technicolor for the first time on a study of the military mentality that was drawn from a popular comic strip by David Low and proved so frank in its appraisals that it provoked fury at 10 Downing Street.

Opening with a logo shot in which a ninth arrow lands in a red, white, and blue archery target, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) infuriated Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who felt it sniped at the British Army in the aftermath of the evacuation from Dunkirk. He also disliked the respectful cameraderie of Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), the Prussian officer the blustering Brit had first met while fighting a duel during the Boer War. They had been on opposite sides during the Great War, but became united in opposing the Nazis, as Wynne-Candy comes out of retirement to join the Home Guard.

Like Jean Renoir's La grande illusion (1937), this is a film about honour among the officer classes, as the former foes adhere to codes of combat that had been jettisoned during the Blitzkrieg attacks that had crushed opposition forces across the continent. But it's also a meditation on old age that bears comparison with Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), which had earned Robert Donat the Oscar for Best Actor as the ageing schoolmaster reflecting upon his life. Greer Garson had been nominated for her performance as Donat's wife and another redhead, Deborah Kerr, was as unlucky as her co-stars to be overlooked by the Academy for playing three roles across the 156-minute saga.

Perhaps AMPAS had gotten wind of Churchill's displeasure, which some believe cost Powell his chances of a knighthood (although he seems to have blotted his copybook with Buckingham Palace by turning down a lesser award). Powell was happy enough at the time, however, as he married Frances Reidy in July 1943. They would have two sons, while Pressburger would have two daughters with second wife Wendy Zillah, whom he would marry in 1947 after his first marriage to Agnes Donath had ended six years earlier.

The Archers collaborated with Ralph Richardson for the final time on The Volunteer (1943), an MOI short about the Fleet Air Arm that included cameos from Laurence Olivier and Anna Neagle, as well as Powell and fellow director, Anthony Asquith. This can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on the 2007 Imperial War Museum selection, The Fleet Air Arm: At War and Peace 1943-1959. It was followed by the most idiosyncratic British picture of the entire war, A Canterbury Tale (1944), which invokes the spirit of Geoffrey Chaucer in seeking to identify the culprit putting glue in women's hair in the fictional Kent village of Chillingbourne.

As Hungary was now allied with the Axis, Pressburger was deemed an 'enemy alien' and had to return to London each day to register (unaware that his mother and other close relatives had been sent to Auschwitz). He wasn't the only exile involved in the project, though, as cinematographer Erwin Hillier and production designer Alfred Junge were German Jews, while composer Allan Gray had been born Józef Zmigrod in Poland. Once again, Pressburger's insights into the national character combined with Powell's affinity for ambience and the landscape resulted in a work of poetic perceptiveness and quirky bucolic beauty, as grieving Land Girl Sheila Sim pals up with soldiers Dennis Price and John Sweet, who haven't quite got the hang of being Anglo-American allies.

The Archers and their band of exiles made for the Orkneys for their next venture, 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945), an ironic title for a road movie in the mould of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), in which the heroine discovers that she's been heading in the wrong direction all along. Wendy Hiller excels as the confident Mancunian who is bound for the Isle of Kiloran to marry a wealth industrialist, who is several years her senior. En route, however, she makes the acquaintance of Roger Livesey, a genial naval officer on shore leave who also happens to be the local laird.

While the critics were more enthusiastic than they had been about its predecessor, this disarming romcom has risen in stature over the intervening years. Yet hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler (who had been at Dulwich College long before Powell) could write in a letter: 'I've never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way, nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialised as a show place.' Cinema Paradiso users couldn't wish for a better recommendation and this beguiling delight works as a double bill with either The Edge of the World or A Canterbury Tale.

Peacetime Ups and Downs

A still from The Wizard of Oz (1939) With Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley And Bert Lahr
A still from The Wizard of Oz (1939) With Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley And Bert Lahr

A nine-month shortage of Technicolor stock prevented A Matter of Life and Death (1946) from being a wartime picture. Instead, it was released in the same year as another afterlife classic, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Partly inspired by Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy's novel, A Journey Round My Skull, the film employed a switch from full-colour reality to glisteningly monochrome fantasy that reverses the stylistic trajectory of Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939), despite echoing its message that there's no place like home. Pressburger (who became a naturalised citizen in 1946) once wrote, 'I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing - it should have a little bit of magic.' That is precisely why this story of an RAF pilot's fight for life in this world and the next retains its audiovisual allure and emotional potency.

Returning from war service himself, David Niven is perfectly cast as Squadron Leader Peter Carter, who becomes enamoured of American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), as his pranged Lancaster bomber struggles back across the Channel. Although he survives the ordeal, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) is sent to escort him up a magnificent stairway to Heaven, having missed his plane in a thick fog. Having been killed in a car crash, however, Carter's friend, Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), gets to argue his case for survival against prosecutor Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey). Given that the original MOI brief had been to produce a piece of propaganda fostering Anglo-American relations, The Archers made the villain of the piece an American Revolutionary, whose views on imperialism would have seemed highly provocative as the sun was starting to set on the British Empire.

Such a stance makes this a peculiar choice for the first Royal Command Film Performance, but Powell and Pressburger took another unflinching look at the legacy of colonialism in Black Narcissus (1947), an adaptation of a Rumer Godden novel set in a Himalayan convent that had been established in a building that had once housed a royal brothel. Thanks to the genius of scene painter W. Percy Day and the Oscar-winning duo of cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge, the Indian setting was created at Pinewood Studios, which also housed the bell tower showdown between Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), which clearly influenced a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

The Catholic Legion of Decency considered the depiction of the Anglican nuns to be sacrilegious. However, modern audiences will be more offended by the use of brownface make-up to turn Jean Simmons into the low-caste girl who enchants Sabu's young general. Esmond Knight was also made-up to play the Old General and underwent a similar transformation to essay a Brazilian foreman opposite Sabu in Derek Twist's The End of the River (1947), an adaptation of a Desmond Holdridge that was largely filmed on location in the Amazon. But Powell and Pressburger had to settle for merely being producers, as they had started work on a ballet film that the latter had been writing when war broke out.

Having bought the rights to Hans Christian Andersen's source story from Alexander Korda, The Archers set out to create a Technicolor Expressionist fairytale in The Red Shoes (1948). Once more, Jack Cardiff was key to their conceit, although they were also indebted to composer Brian Easdale and Sadler's Wells dancer, Robert Helpmann, who set a high bar for every subsequent film about ballet. And then there's the debuting Moira Shearer, who dazzles as Vicky Page, the unknown who catches the eye of Anton Walbrook's mercurial impresario, Boris Lermontov, after having already lost her heart to Marius Goring's devoted composer, Julian Craster.

Nominated for the Grand International Prize at Venice, this musical marvel was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, where Pressburger was also cited for Best Original Story. Editor Reginald Mills was also recognised, while Easdale and art directors Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson took home statuettes. Curiously, this treatise on artistic dedication received only a single BAFTA nomination, for Best British Film, where it lost out to Carol Reed's Graham Greene-scripted drama, The Fallen Idol. But British audiences enduring postwar austerity were in no mood to be dazzled and it has taken time for the picture's inspired synthesis of art, music, dance, and cinema to be appreciated.

Frustrated by what they perceived to be a lack of support for their masterpiece, Powell and Pressburger quit Rank and returned to Korda's London Films to make The Small Back Room (1949). Adapted from a novel by Nigel Balchin, this centred on the peacetime bitterness of Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a bomb disposal expert with an artificial leg and a chip on his shoulder. Echoing Billy Wilder's treatment of alcoholism in The Lost Weekend (1945), this monochrome meld of thriller and problem picture ends with a tense defusing sequence and boasts fine supporting turns by Kathleen Byron, Michael Gough, and Sidney James. But it proved a commercial disappointment, as the Archer arrows thudded into the bullseye for the final time.

As the new decade commenced, the simple legend, 'A Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Production', adorned The Elusive Pimpernel (1950). Despite the presence of David Niven (subbing for Rex Harrison), this Technicolor remake of Harold Young's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1936) is not currently rentable. Powell had wanted to make a musical version of Baroness Orczy's swashbuckler, but Hollywood co-producer Samuel Goldwyn had put his foot down and sued to enforce changes and the director would have similar difficulties collaborating with David O. Selznick on Gone to Earth (1950), which starred the producer's new wife, Jennifer Jones.

According to Powell, 'I had made the British film industry after my own image, and I gloried in it.' He was hardly going to take kindly to a slew of memos, therefore, even if they had been scribbled by the man behind Victor Fleming's Gone With the Wind (1939). Reuniting with cinematographer Christopher Challis, Powell and Pressburger set off to Shropshire to capture pastoral images of unrivalled lustre. However, Selznick was so unhappy with their treatment of Mary Webb's story about 1890s country girl, Hazel Woodus (Jones), and her marriage to the local parson (Cyril Cusack) and pursuit by the swaggering squire (David Farrar) that he cut around a third of the footage and inserted retakes supervised by Rouben Mamoulian to create The Wild Heart, which was released in 1952. Fortunately, the BFI undertook a restoration in 1985 to rescue what Challis considered 'one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside'.

Cinema Paradiso users should snap up the chance to see this undervalued treatise on both tradition and progress and the status of women. Both 1950 pictures competed for the Golden Lion at Venice, where Powell alone received a Career Golden Lion in 1982. However, The Archers shared the Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlin for their next offering, which was also nominated for the Grand Prix at Cannes.

A still from The Tales of Hoffman (1951)
A still from The Tales of Hoffman (1951)

Produced for British Lion and based on an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) tells three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann through music and dance, with Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, and Léonide Massine heading the cast. The reviews were cool, however, and they were even more disdainful towards, Oh...Rosalinda!! (1955), which set Johann Strauss's opera, Die Fledermaus, in postwar Vienna in order to provide a comic commentary on the Cold War. Made for Associated British in Technicolor and CinemaScope, this unfairly dismissed satire stars Ludmilla Tchérina as the beautiful wife of French officer Michael Redgrave, who charms his British (Dennis Price), Russian (Anthony Quayle), and American (Mel Ferrer) counterparts.

Coming after a four-year hiatus and arriving in cinemas at the same time as the first rock'n'roll movies, this slick production was considered highbrow and there's no suggestion that The Golden Years, the subjective camera biopic that Powell and Pressburger had wanted to make of Richard Strauss, would have been any more enthusiastically welcomed. Indeed, Powell's dance version of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1955) was cut from half an hour to 13 minutes when it was shown on West German television.

Cutting their losses, Powell and Pressburger joined the many British directors making 'now it can be told' war stories. Starring John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, and Peter Finch, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) chronicled the 1939 pursuit in the waters off Montevideo of the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, by three British cruisers. Filmed in Technicolor and VistaVision, it earned the duo their sole BAFTA nomination for Best British Screenplay. However, they lost out to Ronald Neame's The Man Who Never Was (1956), which Cinema Paradiso users can learn more about in Top 10 Films to Watch If You Like Operation Mincemeat.

The following year, the duo returned to Rank for Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), an adaptation of a book by W. Stanley Moss about the efforts of Major Patrick Leigh Fermor (Dirk Bogarde) and Special Operations agent Bill Stanley Moss (David Oxley) to abduct Major General Heinrich Kreipe (Marius Goring) from the island of Crete in April 1944. As one might expect, the action is staged with finesse. But Powell was unhappy with the casting and the order to shoot in black and white. Thus, he listed it among his 'greatest failures' and, even though they had just enjoyed their two most commercially successful ventures, Powell and Pressburger agreed that the time had come to go their separate ways.

Old Pals Act

The Archers were still a going concern when Pressburger teamed with Rodney Ackland to script Lawrence Huntingdon's Wanted For Murder (1946). A single click can have this landing on the doormat of Cinema Paradiso users keen to see whether cops Roland Culver and Stanley Holloway can track down hangman's grandson Eric Portman before he harms old flame Dulcie Gray. However, it's much harder to see Pressburger's sole solo directorial outing, even though Twice Upon a Time (1953) is based on the same Erich Kästner novel that inspired David Swift's Disney classic, The Parent Trap (1961).

Impossible to see, despite its inclusion in several reputable filmographies is Men Against Britannia, as this remake of Félix Gandéra's Double Crime on the Maginot Line (1937), which Pressburger scripted from a Pierre Nord novel for Romanian producer Marcel Hellman, was never made. Unlike Julian Amyes's Miracle in Soho (1957), which was Pressburger's first project after parting from Powell. This was hardly a new item, however, as Pressburger had written the original script in Paris in 1934 and had tried to direct it himself in 1945 after Powell had dismissed it for being all Hungarian charm and no substance. The script returned to the shelf after Michael Redgrave, Robert Donat, and Laurence Olivier had all rejected the lead, but Rank optioned it on the proviso that the director came from television. Powell sniped that Amyes 'couldn't direct traffic' and complained about Oscar winner Carmen Dillon's sets. But, while it was a far cry from the kitchen sink style that was emerging in British cinema, the story has a certain poignancy, as it centres on the relationship between road mender John Gregson and Belinda Lee, an Italian pet shop worker whose family is about to emigrate to Canada.

Following this unhappy experience, Pressburger took an extended break from films. But Powell was eager to remain active and spent time in Spain shooting Honeymoon (1959), which was inspired by the same Manuel de Falla ballet, El Amor Brujo, that would be filmed under its original title by Carlos Saura in 1986. Ludmilla Tchérina stars as the ballerina who sacrifices her career to marry Australian farmer Anthony Steel. But a chance encounter with flamenco legend Antonio tempts her back on to the dance floor.

Years later, Film Comment would aver that 'Powell's cinema is shifting, elusive, phantasmagoric, radical but never revolutionary.' Yet he would respond to negative reviews of his first solo work in two decades by launching an assault on the critical fraternity with Peeping Tom (1960), a Soho horror scripted by Leo Marks that suggested that those who watch films are voyeuristically complicit in what they see. So keen was Powell to make his point that he not only cameo'd as the film-maker father of murderous cameraman Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), but he also cast his young son, Columba, in the monochrome flashbacks. Moira Shearer and Anna Massey co-starred in a picture that had the misfortune to coincide with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which was equally shocking, but succeeded in keeping the critics sweet.

A still from Miracle in Soho (1957)
A still from Miracle in Soho (1957)

Nettled by the chorus of disapproval, Powell embarked upon The Queen's Guards (1961), which teamed Raymond and Daniel Massey in the story of a Grenadier guardsman preparing for the Trooping the Colour ceremony who feels that he has been coerced into following in his father's footsteps after his soldier brother was killed in action. This time, Powell agreed with the notices, dubbing the enterprise 'the most inept piece of film-making that I have ever produced or directed. I didn't write the story (weak) or the screenplay (abysmal) but I take all the flak.' He would never direct another feature in his homeland.

Having briefly reunited with Leo Marks on the 'Never Turn Your Back on a Friend' episode of the TV series, Espionage (1963-64), Powell returned to West Germany at the invitation of Hein Heckroth to direct a small-screen adaptation of Bluebeard's Castle (1964), a 1911 opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and future film theorist Béla Balázs. Long out of circulation, this is due to be released on Blu-ray by the BFI.

Clearly, these assignments reminded Powell of his fabled association with Pressburger, who had been occupying his time by writing novels. Fred Zinnemann had turned the Spanish Civil War thriller, Killing a Mouse on Sunday (1961), into Behold a Pale Horse (1964), with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif. But there were no film takers for The Glass Pearls (1966), a personal reflection on the Third Reich and the Holocaust, while a third book, The Unholy Passion, failed to find a publisher. David Lean similarly rejected Pressburger's script for a biopic of Mahatma Gandhi, despite the pair having travelled to India to research locations.

In spite of the presence of Sophia Loren, John Mills, and Trevor Howard, Operation Crossbow, Michael Anderson's thriller about the Nazi development of the V1 rocket, turned out to be a damp squib and Pressburger must have been relieved that he had hidden his contribution to the screenplay behind the pseudonym, Richard Imrie, a name he would recycle for Powell's They're a Weird Mob (both 1965). Filmed in Australia, this culture clash comedy features Walter Chiari as an Italian Down Under whose romance with magazine owner Claire Dunne is frowned upon by her Irish father, Chips Rafferty.

Some of the banter might raise an eyebrow these days, but it's the complacency of the scenario that is most disappointing. Having lost the director's chair to David Greene after developing Sebastian (1968) as a vehicle for Dirk Bogarde with Leo Marks, Powell returned to Australia for Age of Consent (1969), a loose reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest that teams James Mason and Helen Mirren as an unconventional artist and his free-spirited muse. Much is still made of the fact that Mirren spends so much of the action déshabillé, but this may well have been a gambit to demonstrate that Powell was still a viable director even though the world he had espoused had largely been swept away by Angry Young Men and the Swinging Sixties.

A still from The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)
A still from The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972)

In 1972, Powell and Pressburger reunited for the final time on The Boy Who Turned Yellow, a Children's Film Foundation romp that sees Mark Dightam change colour after losing one of his pet mice during a class trip to the Tower of London. Cinema Paradiso members can find this droll featurette on Children's Film Foundation Collection: Weird Adventures (2013). This would be Pressburger's swan song, but Powell ended the decade revisiting the scene of a former triumph in the BBC documentary, Return to the Edge of the World (1978).

He was desperate to keep working, but finding backers proved insurmountably difficult. Consequently, Paul Scofield and Natasha Parry never got to romance in The Loving Eye; Peter Sellers had to forego Michael Frayn's The Russian Interpreter; while James Mason, Frankie Howerd, and Mia Farrow were denied the chance to headline The Tempest. An operatic version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher went the same way as an adaptation of Ursula Le Guin's fantasy trilogy, The Tales From Earthsea. Powell's bid to make his Broadway bow with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Jean Giraudoux's Ondine also fell by the wayside, along with proposed television collaborations with Dylan Thomas, Igor Stravinsky, Graham Sutherland, and Mervyn Peake. Despite the touted participation of Paul Schrader, David Bowie, Kenneth Anger, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, the small-screen series, Thirteen Ways to Kill a Poet, also got the thumbs down.

Undaunted, Powell returned to the world of ballet for Pavolva: A Woman For All Time (1983), which he planned as a five-hour mini-series. The Soviet Ministry of Culture, however, wanted a two-hour feature and nixed the casting of Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson as Anna Pavlova's agent and husband. Moreover, the Kremlin wanted Moldovan Emil Loteanu to direct Russian ballerina Galina Belyayeva and Powell found himself limited to a watching brief on location and in the editing suite, where new wife Thelma Schoonmaker, tried to salvage the project. Greek producer Frixos Constantine has recently promised to release a new cut as The White Swan, but Powell never worked behind the camera again, although he did pen two lively volumes of autobiography, A Life in Movies (1986) and Million Dollar Movie (1992).

Schoonmaker's association with Scorsese led to he and Coppola finding Powell advisory and teaching posts in the United States. Most notably, Powell came up with a solution for a problem on the Woody Allen segment of New York Stories (1989). But he keenly felt the loss of his longtime partner in Saxtead, Suffolk on 5 February 1988. Pressburger had once said, 'Our films were born out of disagreement.' But Powell remembered with fondness his liaison with 'a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist. He was a born dramatist and writer, and he didn't learn as much from me as I did from him.'

Pressburger's Scottish grandson, Kevin Macdonald, would pay his own tribute in The Making of an Englishman (1995), prior to winning the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary with One Day in September (1999). Brother Andrew has also become a renowned producer since teaming with director Danny Boyle on Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996).

Frail after having been diagnosed with cancer, Powell left New York as soon as Schoonmaker had finished editing GoodFellas (1990) and died in his Cotswold cottage in Avening on 19 February 1990. Sir Richard Attenborough declared him 'the most innovative and most creatively brilliant film-maker this country ever boasted'. Martin Scorsese subsequently wrote, 'When I try to rationalise my attraction to Michael's and Emeric's films, I think it is because they seem to encompass all the humour and fun of American films, the grace and beauty of Italian films - as well as their hysteria and excess - yet they remain distinctly British, although very different from the realist British films, which I also like.'

The Archers have inspired such key British directors as Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, and Joe Wright, as well as such international talents as Vincente Minnelli, Marcel Camus, Wim Wenders, Atom Egoyan, Baz Luhrmann, and Wes Anderson. Made in a very different Britain, the films of Powell and Pressburger are not without their problems when it comes to political correctness. But they have an emotional sincerity, a dramatic integrity, and a visual dynamism that make them essential viewing for anyone who purports to love film. And, who knows, there may be more to come, as we finally get to see those titles that have yet to be released on disc!

A still from Goodfellas (1990)
A still from Goodfellas (1990)
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