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The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger

Discover the creative world of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as The Archers, and their enduring impact on the art of filmmaking.

Introduction

Powell and Pressburger on set between takes, 1955. Image courtesy of Everett Collection/Mary Evans.

The cinema of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger stands as a testament to the creative value of collaboration within the world of filmmaking, Ian Christie reflects on their partnership in this chapter of The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker: 'Emeric Pressburger's unique relationship with Michael Powell has made distinguishing the contribution of each to their joint work extraordinarily difficult - which is almost certainly how they would both have wished it.'

The Formation of a Creative Alliance:

The Archers' partnership began during the tumultuous years of World War II. While Powell was an established British film director, Pressburger was a Hungarian-born screenwriter who had made his way to England in 1933. Jill Nelmes considers their unlikely creative synergy in this chapter of The Screenwriter in British Cinema: 'Although the men emerged from very different backgrounds, they had similar ideas about film and the empathy between them produced a highly creative working partnership... the combination of Powell's interest in Romanticism and the spiritual and anti-realist side to Pressburger's writing produced some exceptionally crafted and inspired films.'

Together, they established an independent production company, The Archers, in 1942, but as Kevin Macdonald writes in this chapter of Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, 'As The Archers' films grew in ambition and changed in style so they became less a magic act performed by two individuals and more like a circus, with Emeric and Michael as the ring-masters. The contribution of designers, composers, dancers and cameramen grew, and with A Matter of Life and Death and afterwards The Archers increasingly became a collective name for a group of collaborators.'

Notable Collaborations and Signature Style

The Spy in Black (1939) marked the start of their creative partnership. Charles Barr considers its significance in this chapter of The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker: 'Though I would not want to make especially high claims for the film as a whole... many of the key elements and qualities of the more complex later films are already recognisable. The first four minutes of The Spy in Black can stand, equally, as an example of the perfect beginning - to a script, to a film and to a twenty-year partnership.'

Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Image courtesy of United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

While their collaborations spanned a variety of genres, a common thread amongst them was a willingness to explore complex and thought-provoking themes. This is exemplified in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which reflects on the nature of friendship and identity. In her BFI Film Classic on the film, A.L. Kennedy considers the ways in which their partnership enabled a unique empathy: 'Powell was, of course, English, but also a complex, transgressive outsider. Pressburger was a refugee chameleon who understood Englishness deeply enough to assimilate himself... But their outsider eye sees everything: fear, wilful ignorance, snobbishness, cruelty. The values of Empire, so close to the values of the Reich, are interrogated and rejected. In all their films, The Archers are fascinated by identity: what it is to be Canadian, American, Irish, Scottish, different but equal.'

The 1940s represented a moment wherein British cinema could finally challenge the frequently backward view of British history and culture that was presented in Hollywood's 'British' films. Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944) was a key example of this challenge. As Greg M. Colón Semenza and Bob Hasenfratz write in this chapter of The History of British Literature on Film, 1895-2015, 'Powell and Pressburger took care to focus on working people, rather than the wealthy middle-class families American films so often chose to lionize. Perhaps this is why Pressburger was inclined to turn to Chaucer, rather than Jane Austen or William Thackeray or Oscar Wilde... to highlight the diverse cross section of society the film so lovingly depicts.' Adam Scovell, in this chapter of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange credits the magical aspect of the film to 'the presence of Pressburger as dual creator with Powell, who seemed to always add a sense of uncanny esoterica to create a very untypical British cinema.'

Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947). Image courtesy of LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo.

Another hallmark of their cinema was their use of color, especially in films like A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). With these films they became pioneers of using Technicolor to its fullest potential. In this chapter of Movie Greats, Philip Gillett attests to this significance of colour, 'the mood of the Black Narcissus can be read in its shifting colours, artifice becomes a virtue, reminding us that this is a feast for the senses rather than an attempt to capture reality.' In her analysis of Black Narcissus, Sarah Street examines the role of art director Alfred Junge, and how his experimentations with colour and set design served 'as a powerful indicator of the contemporary Western imagination's idea of India... yet everything being so 'exaggerated' opens up place and space to a variety of meanings.'

Kim Hunter and David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Image courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Similarly, Kevin Macdonald writes in this chapter of Emeric Pressburger, 'A Matter of Life and Death gave them more opportunities than ever for magic: roses that turned from colour to black and white, moments of frozen time, a point of view shot from behind a man's eyelid, a staircase that connects earth with heaven. It was a truly cinematic story that could not be told in any other medium.'' Despite its innovation however, as Ian Christie writes in his BFI Film Classic on the film, 'AMOLAD persistently failed to qualify as a 'proper' British film because it was insufficiently 'realist', too whimsical, too equivocal, too pretentious - too much; and yet not enough.' It wasn't until the 1960s that a new consensus was built around the idea of a counter-tradition, challenging British realism and flaunting a commitment to art and the values of Romanticism.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff and camera operator Geoffrey Unsworth on set of A Matter Of Life and Death. Image courtesy of Masheter Movie Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

One of their most iconic works, The Red Shoes (1948), a mesmerizing blend of ballet and drama, was similarly renowned for its striking visuals and a deep exploration of the artist's psyche. In this chapter of Magic Hour, Jack Cardiff recounts his experience as cinematographer for the film, and writes: 'Right from the beginning I realized that Michael was a cameraman's dream. He nearly always accepted any ideas I put forward with enthusiastic support... Working with him, I was able to use colour ideas I hadn't been able to use before.' The film garnered widespread critical acclaim upon its American release and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.

Impact and Legacy

Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann in The Red Shoes (1948). Image courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Powell and Pressburger's ability to seamlessly blend realism and fantasy has inspired generations of filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese himself attests to this influence in this chapter of Projections 7: Film-makers on Film-making, where he says, 'Powell-Pressburger pictures like The Red Shoes (1948), along with the writing, the acting and the directing, gave me a whole other view, a whole other way of looking at the world... And these films found their way into the films I would later make.'

In this chapter of The Cinema Book, Pam Cook assesses their place within British film history, 'After many years in the wilderness, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's films have now achieved the status of masterpieces of British cinema.'