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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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The Tales Of Hoffman
"The Tales Of Hoffman" (1951) & "Oh... Rosalinda!" (1955)
Given the often operatic nature of their work, it makes sense that Powell & Pressburger might end up actually filming one as they did with two films, four years apart, in the early 1950s. The best known is 1951's "The Tales of Hoffman," a lush take on Offenbach's collection of fantastical stories of romance. Opera aficionados probably have their issues with it (the soundtrack was recorded in advance, as with movie musicals, with some of the parts dubbed by professional opera singers, most notably "The Red Shoes" star Moira Shearer and P&P regular Pamela Brown), but it's a thrilling piece of cinema, probably the duo's last great film, and one that makes use of every trick, effect and technique they'd developed over the years. It's like a full-length version of the dance sequence from "The Red Shoes," and about as spectacular as that sounds. But it's not just empty spectacle; there's real feeling in the performances and power in the music. Much less successful is the CinemaScore-filmed "Oh... Rosalinda!," an adaptation of Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" set in post-war Vienna. The cast is impressive -- Mel Ferrer, Michael Redgrave, Anton Walbrook -- but the film is notably cheaper than 'Hoffman,' and much less effective. Still, the Powell & Pressburger touch hasn't disappeared entirely, with plenty of playful and inventive touches, though there's definitely a sense that, after a four year gap from filmmaking, the duo are a little creaky in the saddle. [A/C]

Battle Of THe River Plate
"The Battle Of The River Plate" (1956) & "Ill Met By Moonlight" (1957)
It's somewhat fitting, given that they started their collaboration with a brace of wartime propaganda pictures, that Powell & Pressburger ended it with a duo of similar films, albeit made many years after the fact. The first, 1956's "The Battle Of The River Plate," is near-forgotten now, but was actually their most successful film. Starring John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch, it's the story of a naval battle in South America, with a trio of British cruisers going up against the far superior German ship the Graf Spree, against the backdrop of Montevideo. It's a detailed and gripping film, with the stylization toned down, and an almost journalistic approach to the narrative, but it doesn't quite belong with very top-tier Archers fare. Almost as commercially successful, though not all that more creatively satisfying, was "Ill Met By Moonlight," which sees Dick Bogarde and David Oxley invading Crete to kidnap a Nazi general (Marcus Goring), only to find that the most difficult part of the mission is getting him out. It's undeniably exciting stuff, but let down by a miscast Oxley, and it feels clear at this point that Powell & Pressburger needed a break from each other; it's a touch rote and by-the-numbers, feeling nowhere near as inspired by their greatest work. Still, it's never less than solid, and a perfectly fitting way for The Archers to go out. [B-/B-]

After The Archers: Despite their last two films being their most commercially successful, Powell & Pressburger dissolved their partnership after the making of "Ill Met By Moonlight." No one knows exactly why, but there seems to have been a brief falling out, though the two were soon reconciled, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. Pressburger (who'd made a solo directorial effort in 1953 with "Twice Upon A Time," an adaptation of the same source material as "The Parent Trap," to little success) wrote novels and a few screenplays in the 1960s, while Powell made some solo directorial efforts, most notably the controversial dark thriller "Peeping Tom." Following a serial killer who kills women with a booby-trapped camera, it was eviscerated by British critics on release, virtually ending Powell's career in the U.K, but was rightly reevaluated by later generations and has now taken its place in the pantheon.

The two did team up again, however. In 1966, Powell went to Australia to direct an adaptation of the John O'Grady novel "They're A Weird Mob," about an Italian immigrant in Sydney, with a script by Pressburger, under the pseudonym Richard Imrie. A hit at home, it's been little seen elsewhere in the world. They also made one final film together, a low-budget, hour-long movie for the Children's Film Foundation in the UK called "The Boy Who Turned Yellow." It's certainly a step down from the Archers productions, but has its own charms. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Diana Drumm, Erik MacLanahan, Jessica Kiang

Extra Credit: Powell & Pressburger enthusiast and expert Martin Scorsese talks about the Criterion collection's restoration of "The Life Of Death Of Colonel Blimp," shot in sumptuous technicolor, for their recent Blu-Ray release.


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


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