Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - Director

POWELL. Nationality: British. Born: Michael Latham Powell at Bekesbourne, near Canterbury, Kent, 30 September 1905. Family: Married 1) Frances Reidy, 1943 (died 1983), two sons; 2) editor Thelma Schoonmaker, 1984. Career: Worked in various capacities on films of Rex Ingram, LĂ©once Perret, Alfred Hitchcock, Lupu Pick, from 1922; director, from 1931; senior director-in-residence, Zoetrope Studios, 1981. Died: In Gloucestershire, 19 February 1990.

PRESSBURGER. Nationality: Hungarian/British. Born: Imre Pressburger in Miskolc, Hungary, 5 December 1902. Education: Studied at Universities of Prague and Stuttgart. Career: Contract writer for UFA, Berlin, 1930, later in France and, from 1935, in England, for Alexander Korda's London Films. Powell and Pressburger began collaboration on The Spy in Black , 1939; formed "The Archers," as producing, directing, and writing team, 1942 (disbanded 1956); also set up Vega Productions Ltd.; Awards: (joint) British Film Institute Special Award, 1978; BAFTA fellowship, 1981; British Film Institute fellowship, 1983; (Powell) honorary doctorate, University of East Anglia, 1978; Golden Lion, Venice Festival, 1982. Died: In Suffolk, 5 February 1988.

Films by Powell and Pressburger:

(Powell as director, Pressburger as scriptwriter)


The Spy in Black ( U-Boat )


Contraband ( Blackout )


49th Parallel ( The Invaders )


One of Our Aircraft Is Missing


The Boy Who Turned Yellow

(produced, directed and scripted by "The Archers")


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ; The Volunteer


A Canterbury Tale


I Know Where I'm Going


A Matter of Life and Death ( Stairway to Heaven )


Black Narcissus


The Red Shoes


The Small Back Room ( Hour of Glory )


Gone to Earth ( The Wild Heart ); The Elusive Pimpernel ( The Fighting Pimpernel )


The Tales of Hoffman


Oh! Rosalinda ( Fledermaus '55 )


The Battle of the River Plate ( Pursuit of the Graf Spee ); Ill Met by Moonlight ( Intelligence Service ; Night Ambush )

Other Films Directed by Powell:


Two Crowded Hours ; My Friend the King ; Rynox ; The Rasp ; The Star Reporter


Hotel Splendide ; C.O.D. ; His Lordship ; Born Lucky


The Fire-Raisers (+ co-sc)


The Night of the Party ; Red Ensign (+ co-sc); Something Always Happens ; The Girl in the Crowd


Lazybones ; The Love Test ; The Phantom Light ; The Price of a Song ; Someday


The Man behind the Mask ; Crown versus Stevens ; Her Last Affair ; The Brown Wallet


Edge of the World (+ sc)


The Lion Has Wings (co-d)


The Thief of Bagdad (co-d)


An Airman's Letter to His Mother (short)


The Sorceror's Apprentice (short)


Luna de miel ( Honeymoon ) (+ pr)


Peeping Tom (+ pr, role)


Queen's Guards (+ pr)


Bluebeard's Castle


They're a Weird Mob (+ pr)


Sebastian (Greene) (co-pr only)


Age of Consent (+ pr)


Trikimia ( The Tempest ) (+ pr, sc)


Return of the Edge of the World (doc for television) (+ pr)

Other Films Written By Pressburger:


Twice upon a Time (+ d, pr)


Miracle in Soho (Amyes) (+ pr)


By POWELL: books—

A Waiting Game , London, 1975.

The Red Shoes (with Pressburger), London, 1978.

A Life in Movies: An Autobiography , London, 1986.

Edge of the World , London, 1990.

Michael Powell (left) and Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell (left) and Emeric Pressburger


Killing a Mouse on Sunday , London, 1961

The Glass Pearls , London, 1966.

The Red Shoes (with Powell), London, 1978.

By POWELL and PRESSBURGER: articles—

"Michael Powell: The Expense of Naturalism," an interview with R. Collins and Ian Christie, in Monogram (London), no. 3, 1972.

Powell interview with R. Lefèvre and R. Lacourbe, in Cinéma (Paris), December 1976.

"Powell and Pressburger: The War Years," an interview with D.J. Badder, in Sight and Sound (London), no. 1, 1979.

"Michael Powell," an interview with Oliver Assayas, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1981.

"Michael Powell's Guilty Pleasures," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1981.

Powell interview with T. Williams, in Films and Filming (London), November 1981.

Powell, Michael, "Leo Marks and Mark Lewis," in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1983.

"Powell's Life," an interview with Allan Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), October 1986.

Powell, Michael, "Dance, Girl, Dance," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), vol. 12, no. 5, 1987.

Interview with Paul Harris and John Flaus, in Filmnews , vol. 20, no. 2, March 1990.


Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence , London, 1970.

Gough-Yates, Kevin, Michael Powell , London, 1971.

Armes, Roy, A Critical History of British Cinema , London, 1978.

Christie, Ian, editor, Powell, Pressburger, and Others , London, 1978.

Cosandey, Roland, editor, Retrospective: Powell and Pressburger , Locarno, 1982.

Gottler, Fritz, and others, Living Cinema: Powell and Pressburger , Munich, 1982.

Christie, Ian, Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger , London, 1985.

Martini, Emanuela, editor, Powell and Pressburger , Bergamo, 1986.

Murphy, Robert, Realism and Tinsel: British Cinema and Society 1939–48 , London, 1989.

On POWELL and PRESSBURGER: articles—

Green, O.O., "Michael Powell," in Movie (London), Autumn 1965.

Gough-Yates, Kevin, "Private Madness and Public Lunacy," in Films and Filming (London), February 1972.

Everson, William K., "A Meeting of Two Great Visual Stylists," in Films in Review (New York), November 1977.

Taylor, John Russell, "Michael Powell—Myths and Supermen," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1978.

Andrews, Nigel, and Harlan Kennedy, "Peerless Powell," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1979.

Everson, William K., "Michael Powell," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1980.

Thompson, D., "The Films of Michael Powell: A Romantic Sensibility," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1980.

" Question de vie ou de mort Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 December 1980.

Durgnat, Raymond, "Aiming at the Archers," in Positif (Paris), February 1981.

McVay, D., "Cinema of Enchantment: The Films of Michael Powell," and "Michael Powell, Three Neglected Films," Films and Filming (London), December 1981 and January 1982.

Christie, Ian, "Alienation Effects: Emeric Pressburger and British Cinema," and "Powell and Pressburger: Putting Back the Pieces," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October and December 1984.

Brennan, M., "Powell and Pressburger at the NFT," in Film and Filming (London), October 1985.

Baron, Saskia, "The Archer at 80," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), July 1986.

Boyd-Bowman, S., "Heavy Breathing in Shropshire," in Screen (London), November/December 1986.

McCarthy, T., obituary of Pressburger, in Variety (New York), 10 February 1988.

Bergan, Ronald, "Emeric Pressburger," in Film and Filming (London), April 1988.

Norresred, C., "Det lange mode," in Kormorama, vol. 35, Summer 1989.

Christie, I., "Michael Powell after and before the Archers," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1990.

DeKock, I., in Film en Televisie (Brussels), April 1990.

Cardiff, Jack, "Michael Powell," in Films and TV Technician (London), April 1990.

Millar, Gavin, "Cox's Orange Pippin," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1990.

Kolodynski, A., and J. Slodowski, in Iluzjon , January-March 1991.

Morris, N. A., "Reflections on Peeping Tom (1960)," in Movie (Dumfiesshire, England), January-March 1991.

"Remembering Michael Powell," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 2, October 1992.

Andrew, G., "Team Spirit," in Time Out (London), 7 September 1994.

Durgnat, Raymond, "The Powell and Pressburger Mystery," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 23, no. 2, December 1997.


Millar, Gavin, The Archers , for "Arena," BBC TV, 1981.

* * *

Between the years 1942 and 1957, English director Michael Powell and his Hungarian partner, Emeric Pressburger, formed one of the most remarkable partnerships in cinema. Under the collaborative pseudonym "The Archers," the two created a series of highly visual and imaginative treatments of romantic and supernatural themes that have defied easy categorization by film historians. Although both were listed jointly as director, screenwriter, and frequently as producer, and the extent of each one's participation on any given film is difficult to measure, it is probably most accurate to credit Powell with the actual visualization of the films, while Pressburger functioned primarily as a writer. The latter, in fact, had no background as a director before joining Powell. He had drifted through the Austrian, German, and French film industries as a screenwriter before traveling to England in 1936.

Many of the gothic, highly expressionistic characteristics of the films produced by the partnership seem to trace their origins to Powell's apprenticeship at Rex Ingram's studio in Nice in the 1920s. There he performed various roles on at least three of the visionary director's silent productions: Mare Nostrum (1926), The Magician (1926), and The Garden of Allah (1927). Working on these films and subsequently on his own features in the 1930s, Powell developed a penchant for expressionism that manifested itself in several rather unique ways. The most fundamental of these was in his use of the fantasy genre, as illustrated by A Matter of Life and Death , with its problematic juxtaposition of psychiatry and mysticism. Another manifestation was an almost philosophical sadism that permeated his later films, such as Peeping Tom , with a camera that impales its photographic subjects on bayonet-like legs. The mechanical camera itself, in fact, represents still another Powell motif: the use of machines and technology to create or heighten certain aspects of fantasy. For example, the camera obscura in A Matter of Life and Death and the German warship in the Pursuit of the Graf Spee (which is revealed through a slow camera scan along its eerie structure, causing it to turn into a metallic killer fish) effectively tie machines into each film's set of symbolic motifs. In doing so, a technological mythology is created in which these objects take on near-demonic proportions.

Finally, the use of color, which most critics cite as a trademark of the Powell-Pressburger partnership, is shaped into an expressionistic mode. Powell chose his hues from a broad visual palette, and brushed them onto the screen with a calculated extravagance that became integrated into the themes of the film as a whole. In the better films, the visual and technological aspects complement each other in a pattern of symbolism. The mechanical staircase which descends from the celestial vortex in A Matter of Life and Death , for example, blends technology and fantasy as no other image has. Similarly, when the camera replaces the young pilot's eye in the same film and the pink and violet lining of an eyelid descends over it, the effect is extravagant, even a bit bizarre, but it effectively serves notice that the viewer is closing his eyes to external reality and entering another world. The audience is left to decide whether that world is supernatural or psychological.

This world has been most palatable in popular Powell-Pressburger fantasies like The Red Shoes , a ballet film used as an allegory for the artist's unremitting dedication to his art; and The Tales of Hoffman , in which the moody eccentricities of style have been kept in bounds by the built-in circumscriptions of the fantasy genre. At least one critic, however, has noted a strange morbidity in The Red Shoes derived from the directors' use of certain peculiarities of color, a criticism that has been magnified when some of Powell's and Pressburger's fantastic techniques occur in more realistic films. Their appearance in otherwise veracious contexts usually upsets normal audience expectations. Black Narcissus and Powell's Peeping Tom both created some problems for critics, for both films went to extremes in the exaggeration of otherwise plausible storylines.

Thematically, Powell and Pressburger operate in a limbo somewhere between romance and realism. The former, characterized by technical effects, camera angles and movements, and the innovative use of color, often intrudes in the merest of details in fundamentally naturalistic films. In the eyes of some, this weakens the artistic commitment to realism. On the other hand, the psychological insights embodied in serious fantasies like A Matter of Life and Death are too often dismissed as simply entertainment. Most of the Powell-Pressburger efforts are, in fact, attempts at fundamental reconciliations between modern ideas and the irrational, between science and savagery, or between religion and eroticism. This dichotomy usually occurs in one character's mind—as with Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death or the sex-obsessed nun in Black Narcissus —and hinges upon a second character such as A Matter of Life and Death 's Dr. Frank Reeves, who effects a degree of movement between the two sides of the dichotomy, particularly through his own death.

Although such mergings of reality and fantasy met with approval by the moviegoing public, Powell and Pressburger were less successful with the British film establishment. In a sense they were alienated from it through their exercise of a decidedly non-British flamboyance. To some degree, the Clive Candy character in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp embodies the British film community during the period after the war. Powell and Pressburger's visual and thematic extravagances of style conflicted with the self-consciousness of the film industry's strivings for a rigid postwar realism not to be embellished by colorful and expressionistic ventures.

The team broke up in 1957 after Ill Met by Moonlight , and although Pressburger subsequently made some films by himself, they were not well received. Powell, though, continued in the vein established by his collaboration with the Hungarian director. Luna de Miel and The Queen's Guards pursue all of the philosophical concerns of his earlier efforts, while Peeping Tom , which is now regarded as his masterpiece, indicates a certain morbid refinement of his thematic interests. Unfortunately, the film was perhaps ahead of its time—a problem that plagued the director and his collaborator for most of their careers.

—Stephen L. Hanson

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