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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

For much of their lifetimes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger never got the due they deserved. Powell was as English as you could get, who'd 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 uncompormising 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.
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Black Narcissus
"Black Narcissus" (1947)
The pair's first adaptation (it's based on a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden), "Black Narcissus" marks a serious shift for the pair. The war doesn't figure in anywhere, for the first time, and it's set thousands of miles away, in the mountains of the Himalayas. But perhaps more importantly, it's very different tonally speaking; dark, murderous and highly sensual, with a cloying, thwarted eroticism pervading the film like a heavy perfume. A group of nuns are sent to an isolated spot in the Himalayas to "civilize" the local population, but instead an atmosphere of suppressed hysteria, arousal and jealousy brews until one of them goes full-on bonkers through sexual deprivation and envy, thanks to the presence of British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar). The photography, put in service of this lurid agenda, is unforgettable -- fat raindrops falling on indecently lush vegetation, Sister Ruth lasciviously applying crimson lipstick, virginal white habits billowing from room to room, painted backdrops of mountains, peach skies and cliffs that fall away to clouds beneath -- every frame is a masterpiece of deliberate, controlled artistry. Here you’ll find tones and textures that, outside of Daphne du Maurier’s fever dreams, you won’t get anywhere else; watch a Sirkian melodrama on a cocktail of LSD, PCP and Hormone Replacement Therapy, and you might get close. This is the first true example of Powell's idea of a "composed film," one that comes closer to a piece of music than a more traditional narrative, and it marks their most experimental work up to this point in their careers. The subplot involving the romance between an Indian aristocrat (Sabu) who falls for a lower caste girl (Jean Simmons) is less compelling, not least because of the now eyebrow-raising decision to put Simmons and Esmond Knight in brownface to play Indian roles. But that aside, it's a gripping and spectacular piece of work, and from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" to the recent release of "Beyond The Hills," it's one of the duo's most directly influential works. [A]


The Red Shoes
"The Red Shoes" (1948)
When asked, “Why do you want to dance?” the heroine of "The Red Shoes" responds, “Why do you want to live?,” a motto that rings true to any artist, and that, one suspects, reflects Powell & Pressburger's attitude toward filmmaking. Bringing together Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name and real events (the meeting of ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and ballerina Diana Gould), the film sees Vicky Page (Moira Shearer in her film debut) become a prima ballerina through an auspicious encounter with Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), while falling in love with company’s young composer (Marius Goring). Vicky is forced choose between love and art with bloody and heartbreaking results. With “The Red Shoes," the filmmakers delivered a Technicolor knockout (aided thanks to legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff), with a magnificently dreamy ballet sequence (“The Ballet of the Red Shoes”) and visuals that are staggeringly impressive to this day. Unfortunately, the austere post-war British public was not ready for the masterpiece and the film found little initial success at home. In a lucky turn of events, the film’s limited release in New York was an astonishing one (110 weeks at the Bijou Theater) and Universal Studios gave the film wide distribution in 1951. “The Red Shoes” has gone on to be one of the highest grossing British films of all time, ranks ninth in the current BFI Top 100, and is considered one of the most beloved Powell & Pressburger films. And rightly so. [A]

The Small Back Room
"The Small Back Room" (1949)
Having fallen out with production company Rank on "The Red Shoes," Powell & Pressburger went back into the embrace of Alexander Korda, where they'd started their collaboration, for "The Small Back Room," a dark drama a world away from the bright, romantic optimism of their work at the end of the war. Based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, it's a sort of WWII precursor to "The Hurt Locker," focusing on Sammy Rice (David Farrar), a bomb disposal expert with a grudge against the world, a tin foot and a burgeoning drinking problem, who's brought in by Captain Stuart (Michael Gough) to help work on disarming a new, deadly type of German bomb. The film was later somewhat disowned by Powell, who lamented in his autobiography that Farrar's performance, and the film in general, were too dour and grim, but he was too harsh on himself; while it's among the darkest of their films, it's powerful both in its unromanticized depiction of a war that had only ended a few years ago, and in its portrait of alcoholism, indebted to, but quite distinct from Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend." Perhaps another actor would have lent more texture to the part than Farrar, but he's still a strong lead, and matched by excellent support by Gough and Kathleen Byron as Sammy's girl Susan. It might be something of a curio in the Powell & Pressburger canon, but it’s well worth seeking out if you’ve missed it until now. [A-]

Elusive Pimpernel
“The Elusive Pimpernel” (1950)
Over ten years after their breakthrough, Powell & Pressburger finally made their U.S. studio debut, of a sort, with "The Elusive Pimpernel," an expensive adventure romp co-financed by Samuel Goldwyn that proved to be something of a tumultous production, which shows a little on screen, even if the film remains mostly enjoyable. Powell was never especially interested in the project -- likely due to his idea of making it a musical being nixed by Goldwyn -- which was a contractual obligation for both him and star David Niven (who replaced Rex Harrison), . It's an airy adventure, with Niven as the Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescues French nobleman from the guillotine, and whose secret identity the new French ambassador (Cyril Cusack) is determined to find out.  Arguably Powell & Pressburger's only blockbuster, it falls in tone somewhere between the classic swashbucklers of the 1930s and the later 1970s Richard Lester Musketeer movies, but it's certainly a bit half-formed on screen, if only because Goldwyn forced re-edits on the picture, and ended up in legal battles with Korda as a result. Still, Niven is as much fun as you'd imagine him to be in a part like this, the film looks gorgeous thanks to impressive costumes and photography by Christopher Challis, and there's the requisite playful touches from the filmmaker. It's hardly a classic, and very much a trifle, but who doesn't like a trifle? [C]


Gone TO Earth
“Gone to Earth” (1950)
Shot in rural Shropshire, “Gone to Earth” is a Technicolor melodrama (similar visually to Powell & Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes”), with a troubled post-production rivaling “The Magnificent Ambersons." Set in 1897 and based off of the Mary Webb novel, a somewhat miscast Jennifer Jones (not coincidentally, the wife of producer David O. Selznick) stars as the wild heroine Hazel, who associates better with her pet fox “Foxy” than the country folk around her (who included Shropshire natives recruited by Powell & Pressburger). Following the classic themes of “women’s films”, Hazel is constrained by a patriarchal society and doomed in her hopes for an individual existence. As Webb wrote, "They did not live her life. She had to live theirs […] She wanted neither. Her passion, no less intense, was for freedom." Hazel relents and marries the town’s Baptist minister (Cyril Cusack) only to be pursued by the local foxhunting squire (David Farrar). But that dalliance to has tragic consequences, suiting a melodrama of this caliber. After production, an unsatisfied Selznick sued The Archers unsuccessfully and went on to hack away at the film for its American release (deleting a few key plot points, adding a voiceover prologue by Joseph Cotten, and shooting some extra scenes in Hollywood, including more close-ups of Jones). Renamed “The Wild Heart”, this altered version lost about a third of the original and a decent chunk of the Powell & Pressburger artistry. Luckily, the BFI National Archive restored the film in 1985. After a screening of the restored version, the film’s cinematographer and Powell & Pressburger regular Christopher Challis deemed it to be "one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot of the English countryside." [B]

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


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