In an early scene in a 1981 BBC Arena documentary about Michael Powell and his writing/producing partner, Emeric Pressburger, Powell is walking across Vine Street just south of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. He is on his way from his modest apartment to 1040 N. Las Palmas Ave., the site of Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. The property had been in use for film production since the silent era; it was where Powell had first worked in Hollywood, on the 1940 Alexander Korda-produced The Thief of Bagdad. Continuing on Romaine Street, between Cahuenga and Cole, Powell reflects that a nearby parking lot was the original site of Metro Studios, where his mentor, Rex Ingram, had shot scenes of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921. Powell’s walk is short but full of silent-era history.
On the north side of the street, Powell genuflects before the grand Art Deco building at 6311 Romaine, which was the laboratory masterpiece of Herbert Kalmus, founder of (Powell says) “glorious Technicolor.” By 1981, the building had become a center for television production. (It was still in service to Technicolor when I began working as camera assistant in the late 1960s.) This former world headquarters of Technicolor was revered by Powell because it was for a handful of expressionistic, color movies made in the 3-strip Technicolor process that he and Pressburger were best known: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann and The Elusive Pimpernel. These landmark postwar films were photographed by Georges Perinal, Jack Cardiff and Chris Challis. Blimp was photographed by Perinal; the camera operators were Geoffrey Unsworth and Cardiff. On A Matter of Life and Death, Unsworth and Challis were camera operators for Cardiff. Narcissus and Red Shoes were also photographed by Cardiff, with Challis operating. Challis was the cinematographer on Pimpernel and Hoffmann, and Otto Heller was on the dark and controversial film that nearly ended Powell’s career, Peeping Tom. This succession of cameramen is testament to Powell and Pressburger’s commitment to their cinematographer collaborators.
Entering Zoetrope Studios, Powell meets up with Coppola, who escorts him (with Coppola’s young son, Roman, in tow) through some of the Las Vegas airport-set pieces for the film Coppola has recently directed, One from the Heart. It’s a musical whose production-design stylization by Dean Tavoularis and dazzling cinematography by Vittorio Storaro are more than evocative of the great Technicolor films of Powell and Pressburger, who made their features under the iconic name “The Archers.”
A bit later in the documentary, we see Powell and Pressburger descending a stairway in the private Mayfair club Savile, where they recount the history of their unique collaboration and friendship, which continued after they parted ways professionally in the mid-1950s. This uniquely creative relationship began in 1939 on The Spy in Black, an unlikely genre film produced by Alexander Korda. In one of the wonderfully illustrative moments in the documentary, Powell produces a tightly rolled piece of paper from his pocket that was Pressburger’s “notes” on the screenplay. Pressburger, a refugee Hungarian Jew, became one of the film’s credited writers.
Film students and historians tend to be keenly knowledgeable about Powell’s auteurist vision, but Pressburger, a somewhat reclusive and quiet man who lived in a country cottage straight out of Snow White, is less well known. In the documentary, Powell is intent in explaining how crucial Pressburger’s work was to the heart and soul of The Archers. He insists that in some ways, the modest Hungarian is more English than he, a Kent-born-and-bred Englishman.
Before he died at age 84 in 1990, Powell wrote two volumes of autobiography: A Life in the Movies (1986) and Million Dollar Movie (published posthumously in 1992). These two books are not only insider testimonials to one of the greatest of filmmaking partnerships, but also a look into the high and low points of two careers dedicated to cinema, not commerce. This hour-long documentary is an introduction to these memoirs and is full of wonderful clips from many earlier and lesser-known films.
The 1981 Arena documentary was made when Powell was 75. Watching him walk through old Hollywood and Zoetrope, you can’t help but be mesmerized by his physical and mental élan. A few years later, when he was 82, he was the subject of a South Bank Show hosted and partly narrated by Melvyn Bragg. Powell is noticeably slower in speech, more physically infirm. He is also more gently introspective, especially about his early career before Pressburger. He explains that he was introduced to movies as a teen, when he discovered a new magazine, the January 1921 issue of Picturegoer.
Early on, in a disquieting scene, Powell is sitting in a dark room watching a sequence from Peeping Tom. Karlheinz Böhm, son of the famed German orchestra conductor, is planning to murder a hapless woman while photographing her with his 16mm camera. Powell explains in voiceover narration that his whole life has found meaning in the making of movies. It is a brilliant though uneasy way to illustrate the obsessiveness shared by many of us who dedicate our lives to this evanescent art form. One of the surprises of this second documentary is seeing Powell as an actor in early British films, including the 1927 Travelaughs, part of a series of comedy shorts titled Riviera Revels. Two years later, he was one of the screenwriters on the first British talkie, Hitchcock’s Blackmail. That led to directing his first short film in 1931 (at age 26), the murder mystery Two Crowded Hours. This was followed by nearly two dozen other credits, including several “quota quickies,” such as Rynox. Finally, he had an opportunity to make what he calls his first true “Michael Powell film”: The Edge of the World (1937), a survival drama photographed on the Hebrides Islands. Here is a brief introduction:
Korda saw it and offered Powell a contract. It was on Korda’s The Spy in Black, two years later, that he met Pressburger. They soon formed The Archers and, beginning with 1942’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, made more than one dozen feature films, sharing credit on all of them. Their final collaboration was Night Ambush (1957), a swan song in black-and-white from a team that had elevated color in film to expressionistic (or “surrealistic,” as Powell says) heights.
A Canterbury Tale was their first “failure,” a movie whose closely focused sense of British myth and history defined what it was to be English for a war-weary populace — and perhaps even more for the Hungarian exile Pressburger.
Here, Xan Brooks revisits the Kent village that was the film’s principal location:
The failure of A Canterbury Tale came on the heels of Colonel Blimp, whose satirical, askance look at the history of the British military was not well received by the Home Office or Winston Churchill. Here is a Criterion Collection video narrated by Martin Scorsese that explains the 2011 digital restoration of the film — a footnote, if you will, to my recent post about 3-strip Technicolor:
Powell and Pressburger moved forward, rehabilitating themselves with the Technicolor and black-and-white drama A Matter of Life and Death. Its wartime love story, which overcomes death itself, was seen as an affirmation of the English/American “special relationship.”
The glorious duo of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes followed, and their stylization was equaled by the opera of The Tales of Hoffmann, a film that has received far less attention from critics and filmmakers. It was the first Powell/Pressburger film I saw on a screen, in color, at the old Wilshire Vagabond Theater near Westlake Park on Wilshire Boulevard. I had seen The Red Shoes on television in the early 1950s — in black-and-white, of course, on our family’s round-screen Zenith television. I didn’t see it on color until my student days at USC Cinema.
Here is a trailer for Hoffmann:
Several years after Powell and Pressburger ended their collaboration, Powell made Peeping Tom, which landed him in movie jail. His reputation and the film’s were rehabilitated more than a decade later by young cineastes, including Coppola and Scorsese. It was Scorsese who became Powell’s greatest defender, inviting him to the set of The King of Comedy (a sequence we see in the South Bank documentary). It was also Scorsese who introduced Powell to editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whom Powell married on May 19, 1984.
At the end of the documentary, Powell sits on a garden bench and closes the first volume of his autobiography. The 82-year-old filmmaker looks up and says that at the end of the book, he is only 43. “We’ll have to have another volume, won’t we?”
And he did!
NEXT: The Lifelong Sigh of Don Luis Buñuel