Powell and Pressburger at the BFI

Click here for further details on the BFI Powell and Pressburger season

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. When discovering my passion for cinema many moons ago these two names kept appearing in film books I was devouring. Chiefly because my introduction to serious cinema was through Martin Scorsese. I became particularly receptive to anything he recommended. High on his list of must-see movies were those of Powell and Pressburger.  

A filmmaking partnership who seemed similar to the Coen Brothers, who also seemed worthy of my attention at the time, I was intrigued. Although Powell was more often the director and Pressburger the producer, they frequently shared writing, producing, and directing credits. Their production company, The Archers, had a cool logo: a target is festooned with arrows surrounding the bullseye. Then, from an unseen bowman, an arrow hits dead centre. It was an impressive, elegant statement of intent.

This being the 1990s, I was reading about Powell and Pressburger’s movies way before tracking one down. They weren’t lining the shelves of my local video store, and I don’t remember them playing routinely on TV or being readily available to purchase. At least not in my local Woolworths. Their films sounded magical and imaginative. Daring and experimental. All in a way that didn’t seem particularly British (it took me a while to realise how wonderful British cinema could be).

Then I met a friend whose film palate was far more varied than my own, and who owned a bunch of Powell & Pressburger. I eagerly borrowed The Red Shoes and watched it that night. And I struggled.

I recognised the filmmaking talent. I adored the saturated, at times feverish three-strip Technioclor. The Red Shoes ballet sequence thrilled my senses. But much of the 135-minutes left me bemused and even bored. And this was one of Scorsese’s favourite movies?! I tried to watch the film again but failed to make it to the end.  

I had a similar experience with 1944’s A Canterbury Tale. Now it is perhaps most remembered for a bizarre subplot about a mystery man assaulting village women by throwing glue in their hair. The culprit is revealed to be a local magistrate, attacking the women so soldiers are not distracted from his historical lectures, and so the ladyfolk remain faithful to their men fighting abroad. I seem to remember the film approves of his methods, and I found the film’s politics troubling. Although footage of old Canterbury was nice because I was studying Film there at the time.

I had more luck with A Matter of Life and Death, but despite the artistry of these films the antiquated politics and behaviours was a barrier I couldn’t negotiate. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Powell and Pressburger’s movies fell out of favour in the UK for years due to their patriotism, conservatism, and tacit endorsement of the British Empire. None of this now looks as creaky or reactionary as during the shifting political tides of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Indeed, the films’ belief in tradition, history, duty, and restraint today seems refreshing to me. Their films often have that sense of fair play the British believe part of the national character, though history typically proves otherwise. Still, it is a worthy aspiration, and you can understand why Pressburger, a Hungarian-Jew who fled to England in the 1930s, wanted to embrace such a belief.

The astonishing world of Black Narcissus

When looking at their filmography, I find I have seen relatively few of their 24 collaborations (some made before and after The Archers’ fifteen-year run). One of them is now in my Top 10, that extraordinary, erotic, and sublime study of regret and obsession, Black Narcissus. I came to another, the operatic The Tales of Hoffman, while researching a book on Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. To me it is more intoxicating and rewarding than The Red Shoes (and George A. Romero named it his favourite film). Michael Powell made Peeping Tom, one of his best movies, after his relationship with Pressburger had (amicably) ended. Wisely, it retained The Archers logo and the suggested eye violation gave the film’s opening a wry Un Chien Andalou homage. Stupidly, the British press crucified the film and destroyed Powell’s career.

Powell and Pressburger’s films will never be as easy (or funny) as those of that contemporary British studio, Ealing. But this is why Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger, the British Film Institute’s season of their movies, is so welcome. I find myself now thrilled to wrestle with their filmography. On the big screen The Red Shoes may still creak and lumber as much as it leaps and glides. Yet the joy of music and movement will nonetheless burst through in dazzling moments. Maybe The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film I’ve yet to see, could be a big bowl of cinematic greens. But I’m looking forward to studying its use of colour and lancing of English pomp.

Freshly re-released in cinemas nationwide is the 1945 I Know Where I’m Going! On the surface a mismatched couple romcom in the vein of, oh pretty much every romcom in history, its blend of modern sensibilities, British myth, and elemental Fate makes it a good entry point for Powell and Pressburger newbies.

Wendy Hiller is the headstrong Joan Webster, intelligent and driven, who decides to marry an industrialist tycoon on the Scottish island of Kiloran, which he has rented for the occasion. Severe weather keeps her stuck a boat ride away from the island, and in the hospitality of Roger Livesey’s Laird of Kiloran, Torquil MacNeil. Could their spiky relationship hint at deeper feelings? Obviously, yes.

Sure, Joan comes to realise that city folk can learn something from simple country folk, and money is not everything. But bubbling beneath this A-plot is the sense these characters are protecting and continuing traditions and values of the British Isles. Something that would have resonated in 1945 when the film was released, despite World War 2 barely being mentioned in the film. Modern audiences may smart at how some of Joan’s independence is willingly sacrificed for the man she really loves (and barely knows). However, a witty coda suggests progressive thinking leads to a happier life, even as that same coda endorses an ancient institution. It’s a Powell and Pressburger film, these things happen.

Wendy Hiller faces the elements and her own passions in I Know Where I’m Going!

Quiet surrealism, English absurdity, and magic also permeate I Know Where I’m Going! A climactic storm-tossed water crossing has Joan being rescued from a mighty whirlpool that could be a manifestation of her own self-absorption. Or it could simply be a corking climactic set-piece whose power and fury will astonish even the most jaded of modern cinemagoers.

Powell and Pressburger movies are to be grappled with. Some are easier than others, and which is which is down to personal taste. Even if you don’t get on board with the whole movie, sequences and images will burn into the mind. Thereafter, every now and again, you’ll find yourself wanting to revisit the peculiar Britain they created.

Rob Daniel
Letterboxd: RobDan
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

Leave a Reply