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The Films Of Powell & Pressburger: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 19, 2013 at 4:49PM

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The Films Of Powell & Pressburger: A Retrospective

For much of their lifetimes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger never got the due they deserved. Powell was as English as you could get, had worked his way up through the film industry before coming to the attention of British film magnate Alexander Korda. Pressburger, meanwhile, was Hungarian Jewish by birth, who'd come to Germany in the 1920s to work as a screenwriter, moving to Paris, and then England when the Nazis came to power, and again was working for Korda. When the two met in 1939, there was an instant kinship. They shared a similarly uncompromising and original take on filmmaking, and were soon working hand in hand, sharing credit as writers, directors and producers under the banner of their The Archers production company. 

They were fairly successful across the 1940s, enjoying an impressive level of creative freedom at the Rank Organization that led to a run of some of the finest films in the history of the medium. Even at their peak, though, they hardly dominated the scene, never picking up awards from film festivals or the Academy (barring a single trophy for Pressburger's story for "49th Parallel"). And things dropped off in the 1950s as the filmmakers fell out of favor, receiving increasingly negative notices at home, and clashing with studios and backers. The pair disbanded in late 1950s, and though they worked together sporadically, mostly moved into obscurity, even their best-known films mostly forgotten.

But over time, their reputation grew. A young filmmaker called Martin Scorsese was instrumental in their revival. He befriended Powell on a trip to London (while his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, would go on to marry the older director), and helped inspire reissues, re-releases and restorations of the films of Powell & Pressburger, which finally led to them getting the reputation they always deserved. And their legacy lives on. Powell gives his name to the Best New British Feature award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and has influenced everyone from Baz Luhrmann to Joe Wright, while Pressburger's grandchildren, Kevin and Andrew Macdonald, became filmmakers too; the former is the director of "Touching The Void" and "The Last King Of Scotland," the latter produced "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later" and "Never Let Me Go," among others.

Even in their relatively brief run, the filmmakers were behind some of our favorite films, and with Criterion issuing a shiny new Blu-Ray of "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" today, the time seemed ripe to take a look back at the complete careers of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Read on, and let us know your own favorite films from the pair below.

The Spy In Black
"The Spy In Black" (1939)
Having worked his way up from the days of silent films -- he was actually a stills photographer on Hitchcock's "Blackmail," and claims to have suggested the ending -- Michael Powell spent much of the 1930s shooting so-called quota quickies; hour-long movies, often remakes of American fare, that were only produced because the government had mandated that a certain number of films shown in cinemas had to be British. But Powell managed to break out of this world by self-financing "The Edge of the World," his first near-great film, a melacholy tale about the steady desertion of a remote Scottish island by the younger generation. This brought him to the attention of producer Alexander Korda, who put him to work on "The Spy In Black," a semi-propaganda programmer intended as a vehicle for stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film, set in the First World War, and about a German U-boat captain and an undercover German plotting to sink a fleet of German ships, is notable mainly for being the first collaboration between the filmmaking pair. Powell later recalled in his autobiography the script meeting where he came across Pressburger, saying: "I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this... He had stood [the] plot on its head and completely restructured the film." That said, the film's pleasures go beyond that; it's rough around the edges, but the plot is enjoyably twisty, and for a film made on the brink of war, impressively nuanced in its depiction of Veidt's villain, the first indication of a humanism that's often undervalued in their work. [B]

Contraband
"Contraband" (1940)
Having gotten on like a house on fire, Powell & Pressburger moved on to their next effort, again produced by Korda and starring Veidt and Hobson, in the shape of thriller "Contraband" (known as "Blackout" in the U.S., a title that Powell later said he preferred). Unconnected, as you might imagine, to the recent Mark Wahlberg vehicle, it sees Veidt in a more heroic role, as Danish sea captain Hans Andersen -- a name surely not accidental in its evocation of the fairy-tale writer behind "The Red Shoes." Held in port overnight, he discovers that two of his passengers, the beguiling Mrs. Sorenson (Hobson) and the mysterious Mr. Pigeon (Esmond Knight) have gone ashore, unauthorized. He heads off into London (blacked out to avoid air raids) after them, falling for Mrs. Sorenson along the way, only to discover that the pair are British spies, pursued by German agents. Perhaps due to not being a true Archers production, the film is generally overlooked, but it's a terrific little thriller; the pace rattles along, and there's a delightful lightness of touch to the film (there's a lovely interlude involving the staff of a Danish restaurant called The Three Vikings) that's reminiscent of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" thriller. Veidt and Hobson have positively scintillating chemistry together, and thanks to the atmospheric, almost noirish setting, Powell's direction is top-notch, the filmmaker truly starting to hit his stride. Of all their films, at least until their later period, this is probably the one that the fewest people have seen, but it's a real hidden gem. [A-]

49th Parallel
"49th Parallel" (1941)
The last film on which Powell & Pressburger split their credits, “49th Parallel” (known as "The Invaders" in the U.S.) was meant to sway the American public to support the country joining in the British war effort. Starring Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier and Raymond Massey (all three waiving half of their acting fees), the film follows the Nazi crew of a stranded WWII U-boat as they make their way down through Canada to the still-neutral U.S.A. Along the way, they encounter a range of characters from a French-Canadian trapper called Johnny (Olivier), who they kill after he tries to radio Canadian authorities, to an English academic (Howard) who is horrified as the Nazis ransack his books and valuables. True to British form, Howard’s character declares, “Nazis? That explains your arrogance, stupidity, and bad manners.” While watching, you may think the movie borders on being propaganda, but it's pretty unapologetic about it. Originally, the British Ministry of Information had approached Powell to make a propaganda piece on minesweeping, but Powell & Pressburger wanted to “scare the pants off the Americans”. Making their own contribution to the war effort, Pressburger famously remarked, "Goebbels considered himself an expert on propaganda, but I thought I'd show him a thing or two." Lauded by critics and public alike, “49th Parallel” continues to rally the troops, even over 70 years later. [B]

This article is related to: Features, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Retrospective, Feature


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