British director Michael Powell and Hungarian writer and producer Emeric Pressburger were a two-man creative powerhouse in the mid-20th Century. ‘The Archers’ (as they styled themselves) unleashed a sequence of classic films onto the world that has a unique place in cinema history. Huge box office and critical hits upon first release, their work was latterly (and incorrectly) dismissed as quaint, twee and whimsical fare for several years, until directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola re-educated the critical consensus. Twee? Quaint? According to Scorsese, P&P’s run of movies through the 1930s and 40s was ‘the longest period of subversive film-making in a major studio, ever.’
They performed the magically rare trick of being singularly identifiable, yet impossible to categorise. Hitchcock can be locked down as a Master of Suspense; Ford, forever embalmed as the king of Westerns. How though do you define the output of Powell & Pressburger? “They made nice ballet films?” Their work is as instantly recognisable as a Picasso abstract or the first note of a John Barry brass section. Yet thematically, their brush strokes paint light and darkness across such disparate subjects and genres that they refuse to allow a critical mass to put them in a box and label them.
Powell summed up his career by saying, ‘I am not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema.’ Powell & Pressburger were magical, miraculous and marvellous and here are ten reasons why their names will live forever…
1. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
This list will end with an anomaly in the Powell & Pressburger partnership, so why not start with one? Michael Powell’s role in this enormously influential fantasy adventure is pared back even further as he is not the sole director. Rather inconveniently, World War II broke out half way through filming and the production moved from the UK to California where it was completed by Tim Whelan and Ludwig Berger (with producer Alexander Korda and his brilliantly named brother Zoltan taking uncredited turns in the director’s chair). However, Powell was directly responsible for the creation of the most fabulous elements of the film and they all foreshadow the magician-techniques that he would use later in films like A Matter of Life & Death and The Tales of Hoffman.
Some scenes, like the fight with a giant spider – which I vividly recall left me catatonic with fear as a child – are starting to show the metal under the paint. However, it is extraordinary just how many of the special effects still hold up in 2014 – the magic carpet attack especially – and at no time do they impede the storytelling which gallops as determinedly as Jaffar’s ingenious mechanical horse. Like Ray Harryhausen’s best work, the majestic spectacle is so iconic that the mind has no time (or desire) to nit-pick about the dated nature of the visuals. When Rex Ingram’s 100 foot genie first appeared to me as a lad, I think I hid beneath my pyjama top. Today, when the bellowing giant magically appeared on the beach, I trembled anew.
As influential as the film is – Disney’s Aladdin (1992) borrows from it wholesale – it has secured an alternative place in history (and in this list) because it was Thief’s producer Alexander Korda who, on his previous collaboration with Michael Powell, The Spy in Black (1939), introduced the director to a writer called Emeric Pressburger.
2. 49th Parallel (1941)
A Boy’s Own, World War II action adventure film, made with the explicit intention of frightening the Americans into joining the war effort, 49th Parallel (or The Invaders as it was released in America) was a huge box office hit at the time (and won Pressburger his only Oscar). However, while it ticks many of the same boxes as other ‘Die, Nazi Scum,’ actioners, this has a uniqueness that only Powell & Pressburger could have delivered. Six Nazis are stranded in Canada. On their murderous way towards neutral America and thus safety they encounter eskimos, Hudson Bay trappers and an Amish-like farming community of Hutterites. This is indeed a path rarely trodden in 1940s espionage thrillers.
Its Homeric narrative makes it a wholly unusual entry into the British War Film genre. There are no stalwart British Good Guys in hot pursuit for us to cheer on and identify with. The Germans are well-drawn and three dimensional. Controversially, one of them is even a pretty decent cove (and pays for that flaw with his life). Most extraordinary of all is Laurence Olivier’s ‘Pepe Le Pew on cocaine’ performance as a French Canadian trapper which is either the worst accent-mangling job in history, or evidence of a genius-level acting style the world has yet to apprehend.
3. The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
At 163 minutes in length and taking in three key stages of a man’s life over three wars, The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp is P&P’s Lawrence of Arabia. An epic on every conceivable level, it nonetheless contains some priceless, unmistakably Powellian moments: a skirmish in a Turkish bath which becomes a trompe l’oeil cut taking the story back decades; a crane shot cruelly taking us up and away from a sabre fight we’ve been eagerly anticipating; the bravery of having Deborah Kerr play three different women during the course of the film. At its centre is one of the greatest male friendships in film. The fact that one of the friends was a German officer is key to Churchill’s notorious disapproval of the film, but tells us all we need about P&P’s greater world view, even at the height of war.
However, this is a good time to bring up Roger Livesey, whom time has yet to see lavished with the same praise and adoration as many of his less talented contemporaries. P&P maintained a superb stock company of actors during their collaboration, particularly Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Eric Portman, Moira Shearer and Raymond Massey. Livesey was Powell’s twinkle-eyed avatar; the De Niro to his Scorsese. His unique presence anchored three consecutive P&P masterpieces and his Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy is the greatest British cinematic performance of the 20th century. Just so you know.
4. A Canterbury Tale (1944)
Released in two different versions (British and American), this was always something of an oddity in the P&P canon. It puzzled its initial audience with its somewhat rudderless (and bizarre) plot but over time, its reputation has blossomed. Of all The Archers’s works, Emeric Pressburger always claimed that this was his personal favourite. Informed by, rather than adapted from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this started life as another sop to wartime Anglo-American relations. Typically of P&P, their idea of pro-Allied propaganda was to subtly create a pastoral, mythical England and reflect Britain back to the British, reminding them of just what Hitler wanted to take away from them. A romantic world of fields, streams, churches and village pubs, where the present and the past are never too far from each other, this film is what birdsong looks like.
From out of nowhere, the film turns into something akin to a fog-strewn Basil Rathbone-era Sherlock Holmes mystery – who is the notorious ‘Glue-Man’ and why does he keep dropping glue into the hair of courting maidens? The quest to solve the mystery leads three disparate characters on a spiritual pilgrimage through Kent, until they find closure at Canterbury Cathedral. This is a sweet, eccentric and gentle love letter to an England worth fighting and dying for, filmed and released at a time when the threat of losing it forever was terrifyingly genuine.
5. “I Know Where I’m Going” (1945)
Denied access to expensive, Technicolor film, Powell & Pressburger used stark monochrome photography to capture the full extent of nature’s magical hold on man. The relationship between nature and man is a theme they returned to several times, but never more effectively than in this classic romance. It is nature herself that ruins the set-in-concrete plans of Wendy Hiller as she travels up to Scotland to marry a millionaire that she hasn’t even met. At the final stretch, the elements gang up on her, stranding her upon cinema’s most charming island where she falls (against her will) in love with its laird, Torquil MacNeill (Roger Livesey).
A direct influence on films like Local Hero (1981) and Forces of Nature (1998), “I Know Where I’m Going” is The Archers at their most open-hearted and unsceptical. Wendy is, like the viewer, pulled into the dream-world of Michael Powell and finds herself unable to resist this new life of wonder and superstition. Old fashioned even in 1945, it offers an alternative to the postwar (just) mood of progress and modernity, presenting a mystical world where the weather is determined by the making of wishes to the oak beams in your bedroom and where people aren’t poor, they just don’t have any money. The burgeoning romance, as Hiller’s resistance crumbles in the face of Livesey’s charms, is one of the great slow-burning relationships in cinema.