Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 19 February 1990) was an English film director, screenwriter, and producer who is probably best known for his work in collaboration 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 (who'd directed Rudolph Valentino to stardom in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) at his famous Nice studio. He later worked as a stills photographer on English films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail. The pair became friends and Powell was the one to suggest the climax in the British Museum, starting the trend of Hitchcock's films leaning towards Monumental Damage. note 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 (1937), an anthropological examination of a Scottish Island as it undergoes modernization.
His collaboration with Pressburger began in 1939 with The Spy in Black. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had worked in the Weimar German film industry in Berlin (alongside Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak) and fled the country 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 reunite for two later films, They're a Weird Mob (1966) and The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972).
In between, Powell directed solo efforts. He collaborated with cryptographer Leo Marks on Peeping Tom (1960) and Age of Consent (1969). 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 has 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 Blu-ray releases). In his final years, he worked on his two part autobiography. The first part, 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 -
- The Spy in Black (1939) - his first collaboration with Pressburger.
- 49th Parallel (1941)
- One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)
- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
- A Canterbury Tale (1944)
- I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
- A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
- Black Narcissus (1949)
- The Red Shoes (1948)
- The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Without Pressburger -
- The Edge of the World (1937) - his first major directorial effort.
- The Lion Has Wings (1939) - one of three directors
- The Thief of Bagdad (1940) - one of six directors.
- Peeping Tom (1960)
- Age of Consent (1969) - The first major film role for Helen Mirren.
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 Killer: Peeping Tom has this reputation, though somewhat overplayed. The film did receive hostile reviews and censorship issues, but his films throughout the '50s weren't overly successful (with a few exceptions like The Battle of the River Plate) and Powell himself viewed it more as the culmination of a career descent than a sudden, shocking failure.
- Creator Provincialism : Interesting aversion. His best films were set in England and London and had a quintessential English perspective but Powell 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. Since he spent much of his life in France and the United States, Powell himself was a thoroughgoing aversion.
- 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 re-shot. 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. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp lost nearly forty minutes of run-time in its American release, and mind-bogglingly was released in black-and-white in some markets. 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.
- Also while some English critics supported him in the late 60s and 70s, Raymond Durgnat and Ian Christie especially, Powell returned to former glory thanks to his popularity as a cult director among the New Hollywood with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George A. Romero and Steven Spielberg counting as Big Name Fans.
- Quintessential British Gentleman : Some of his characters are this, especially those played by actor Roger Livesey.note 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.
- 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 and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing was filmed in a naturalistic, pseudo-documentary style.
- Romance on the Set: With Deborah Kerr while filming The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Though their affair only lasted about a year, Powell admits in his autobiography that Kerr was the love of his life.
- 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 49th Parallel 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.
- 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 The Tempest with James Mason. Also, The Charge of the Light Brigade evidently originated as one of his projects before his preferred screenwriter died, and Tony Richardson took over the project.