Michael Powell (1905-1990) was an English film director, screenwriter and producer who is probably best known for his work with Emeric Pressburger. Known collectively as the Archers, Powell and Pressburger worked together from 1942 to 1957. Powell's career began early. In the 1920s he worked with the legendary Rex Ingram (director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Rudolf Valentino's star role) in his famous Nice studio. He later worked as a stills photographer on English films, including Alfred Hitchcock
. They became friends and Powell was the one to suggest the climax in the British Museum starting the trend of Hitchcock's films to lean towards Monumental Damage
Powell worked in the film industry for several years as a director of quota quickies
, which were the British equivalent of the B-Movie
. His first real picture, as per his autobiography, is The Edge of the World
, an anthropological examination of a Scottish Island as it undergoes modernization.
His collaboration with Pressburger began with The Spy in Black
. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had worked in the Berlin Film Industry(alongside Billy Wilder
and Robert Siodmak) who fled Berlin when the Nazis came. He came to England, and together with Powell they formed a collaboration in the 40s, sharing a unique credit of Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
. In actual fact, Powell was the one who did most of the directing, interacting with the crew, working with the actors, deciding the distinct look of the Archers films, while Pressburger did the writing, producing and the editing. They had a complete rapport with each other and remained friends even after their amicable parting of ways(they would return for two late films, They're A Weird Mob
and The Boy Who Turned Yellow
In between, Powell directed solo efforts. He collaborated with cryptographer Leo Marks on the 1960's Peeping Tom
and Age of Consent
with James Mason and a young Helen Mirren
. The critical reaction was so negative that it almost destroyed Powell's career
. Over the next two decades, Powell (and Pressburger) fell into obscurity. Fortunately, Martin Scorsese
and Francis Ford Coppola
were fans and they worked to make Powell's films available to the general public. Many of his films are part of The Criterion Collection
Powell's third (and last) wife was editor Thelma Schoonmaker(who edited all of Scorsese's films since Raging Bull
). In his final ten years, he became part of Scorsese's circle, serving as a friend and The Mentor
, they recorded commentaries on the Criterion Laserdisc releases together
of their films(later retained on DVD and BR releases). In his final years, he worked on his two part autobiography, A Life in Movies
was published in his lifetime. The second part, Million Dollar Movie
was published after his death. It remains one of the best books of its kind.
Among Powell's notable films are:
With Emeric Pressburger -
Without Pressburger -
Some tropes relating to Powell's Life and Work
- All There in the Manual : His two-part autobiography, A Life in Movies / Million Dollar Movie.
- Breakthrough Hit : The Red Shoes which was a box-office success in America and played in New York for over a year and inspired MGM musicals and Gene Kelly.
- Creator Provincialism : Interesting aversion. His best films were set in England and London and had a quintessential English perspective but Powell himself noted that a lot of this was motivated by Immigrant Patriotism since a lot of his collaborators tended to be Austrian, German, Hungarian, French and South African, and in the case of Sabu, Indian.
- Doing It for the Art : His general belief and approach to movies. It was also a theme of his post-war films, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and taken to disturbing tragic depths with Peeping Tom
“For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.”
- Executive Meddling : Averted in England where he had Auteur License, but the American releases of his films, barring The Red Shoes 1948, were released with alternate titles and scenes cut and reshot. Powell himself loathed the American title of his film A Matter of Life and Death, famously retitled as Stairway to Heaven which he felt was Comically Missing the Point of the story. This prevented the Archers from attaining the same stature as David Lean or Carol Reed, whose films more or less played as per the director's wishes.
- Heroes Want Redheads: Powell's answer to the "Hitchcock blonde": nearly all of his leading ladies are redheads, notably Deborah Kerr, Moira Shearer, Kathleen Byron and Anna Massey.
- Jumped at the Call : Cinematographer Jack Cardiff noted that this was Powell's attitude. Unlike directors who tended to march to their own tune, Powell listened to bold, interesting suggestions and was more than willing to give them freedom. This made him a gift for talented cinematographers and art directors to work with.
- Never Accepted in His Hometown : The films made by the Archers tended to be highly controversial even in the 1940s. In his last credit, Return to the Edge of the World, Powell quoted this trope noting that his real chances came from Americans and Hungarians. Also, the only English film-maker who never made a film in Hollywood, unlike Charlie Chaplin, Carol Reed, David Lean and Hitchcock, and unlike them he did not receive a knighthood. That's loyalty.
- Sidekick Graduations Stick : Powell worked as an assistant to Rex Ingram and worked on the sets of Alfred Hitchcock's films. As a director, he mentored the young David Lean, future Oscar winning director Lawrence of Arabia (his editor on 49thParallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) and DP Jack Cardiff who became a director in his own right. And later served as The Consigliere on Scorsese's movies.
- Reality Is Unrealistic : His films, despite their fantastic quality, were in fact this. A Matter of Life and Death is based on a true story with an accurate neurological basis. The Red Shoes was based on the real-life story of Sergei Diaghilev and Nijinsky, while The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was impeccably researched.
- Quintessential British Gentleman : Some of his characters are this, especially those played by actor Roger Livesey. Michael Powell was himself this albeit a more adventurous and mischievous type. As per Martin Scorsese, one of the few people who never became more conservative as he aged.
- What Could Have Been: Towards the end of his life, several projects he initiated never came off because of health and the stigma of his Peeping Tom release. One of them was an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard Of Earthsea made in collaboration with the author. And another was an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest with James Mason.