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michael powell
(1905-1990)

biography
filmography
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49th parallel
a canterbury tale
espionage
a matter of life and death
thief of bagdad
black narcissus
i know where i'm going
peeping tom
the red shoes
small back room

richard attenborough
kathleen byron
jack cardiff
david farrar
michael gough
jack hawkins
valerie hobson
leslie howard
kim hunter
jennifer jones
deborah kerr
roger livesey
david niven
laurence olivier
eric portman
moira shearer
jean simmons
conrad veidt
anton walbrook

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john gregson
alfred hitchcock
alexander korda
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charlie chaplin
fritz lang
f.w. murnau
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powell


m i c h a e l   p o w e l l  :   b i o g  ]


"We decided to go ahead with David O. Selznick the way hedgehogs make love: verrry carefully!"
- Michael Powell


biography | filmography | 49th parallel
espionage
a canterbury tale | a matter of life and death
the red shoes | peeping tom
books | dvds | videos
new powell/pressburger online shop
michael powell
frank capra | madeleine carroll
marlene dietrich | grace kelly | josef von_sternberg


powell



biography


      Michael Powell was one of the cinema's true iconoclasts, one of its great romantics. A brilliant director, he pursued a lone pilgrimage in search of 'truth, beauty and the heart of Englishness'


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    Michael Powell was the most extreme and the most elusive director in the English cinema. He may have been the best, if you are prepared for the best to be so unsettling. Yes, Hitchcock was English too, but two-thirds of his work was produced in America, and he treated the English facetiously; in his films, ridiculous British manners veil an indifference to everyday experience. Powell was less devious and more rooted than Hitchcock, less nerve-racking but more troubled. His Englishness was a matter of imaginative ecstasy or pain living inside grim composure and common sense. Powell stayed in England and eventually languished because of his loyalty. Hitchcock was even knighted, rewarded for a commercial astuteness that Powell had been too proud or too reckless to maintain.

    powell
    black narcissus
    (1947)


    The director's tale

    Powell was born in 1905 near Canterbury, the site of one of his strangest films, A Canterbury Tale (1944). It is a parable about materialism and idealism, with Eric Portman as a classic Powell spokesman: abrasive, lofty toward women, but a spire of cold purpose. As a young man, Powell was rescued - from a routine job in a bank - by the hotel his father owned at Cap Ferrat, near Nice. While working there, he fell in with the director Rex Ingram at the Victorine studio. Ingram, an outcast genius from Hollywood, worked in France and North Africa on movies that sweltered with his love of artifice, with Islamic atmosphere and the influence of Aleister Crowley, the model for The Magician (1926), in which Powell had a small comedy part.

    The heady example of Ingram and the blaze of the Mediterranean never deserted Powell in the austerity of Britain in the Thirties. He worked during that decade as a director of quickies, none of which won special attention. Yet he was learning his craft and resisting the creed of documentary that John Grierson had spread through British pictures. In 1937, like a Grierson disciple, he went to the Northern Isles to make The Edge of the World, but he returned with a Celtic myth, not a study of damp fishermen. It was the war that further enflamed Powell's imagination and brought him his vital collaborator, Emeric Pressburger.

    powell


    Pressburger (born 1902 - died 1988) was a Hungarian who had worked as a screenwriter in Europe. He came to Britain in 1938 and was introduced to Powell by another Hungarian, Alexander Korda. Powell and Pressburger began working together on The Spy in Black (1939), about Germans trying to penetrate the British naval base at Scapa Flow, with Conrad Veidt as Powell's first study of German decisiveness. It seemed unlikely that, as war drew near, Powell and Pressburger would choose to explore the German personality, but this was absolutely characteristic of the perverse originality they cultivated. They formed their own production company, The Archers, in 1942. Their logo, an arrow smacking into a bull's eye, combined the aura of Robin Hood with a firrst warning to voyeurs - voyeurism and its role in the act of watching films was one of Powell's major preoccupations, to be definitvely treated in Peeping Tom (1960).

    They worked together until 1956, usually sharing credit for writing, direction and prouction. Pressburger remained a resident in England and the pair remained friends. Their separation was no reflection on a partnership that seems to have been a blessing to two very talented but independent men.

    powell
    peeping tom
    (1960)


    Parallel lives

    The war revitalized British movies. The Minstry of Information 'advised' on scripts and engineered films to back the war effort. Powell began full of team spirit. but it testifies to Britain's quixotic sense of propaganda that his war movies are so equivocal. In 49th Parallel (1941), a German submarine is wrecked on the Canadian shore. Its survivors roam the land, Confronting a series of Allied attitudes to the war. Eric Portman was the German captain: brutal, efficient, and animated by his cause, a villain but a figure of heroic will.

    Far more satisfying as a film, and far more vexing to Winston Churchill, was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Blimp was a cartoon character, the embodiment of crusty reaction in the British military, created by David Low. Churchill was mortified that a British film might perpetuate this satirical portrait during hostilities. But Powell and Pressburger adore their Blimp - Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) - and showed him in three different periods: 1902, 1914 and 1942. He is not the brightest man, and he is certainly not as ruthless as Portman's captain in 49th Parallel. But he has all those aspects of Englishness cherished by Powell: Tory values, a stiff upper lip, and a fond heart. Moreover, Candy has a German friend (Anton Walbrook), and there is the haunting allure of a woman who appears in all three episodes. As played by Deborah Kerr she is the natural but impossible love object for all Powell Blimp was also two-and-a-half hours long. Despite Churchill's opposition, it was seen and loved by a people who always respond well to a gracious celebration of their foibles.

    powell
    the life and death of colonel blimp
    (1943)


    Blimp was outrageously original and a heartfelt statement against the wartime stress on realism and obedience. Powell's films around 1945 were equally personal reactions against the new socialist tide in Britain. Although I Know Where I'm Going (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death 1946) are love stories, they are also political statements wilfully set against the grain of the time. Their unruliness shows the difficulty Powell had in being a man for his own time: but their spirit proclaims his loyalty to gentlemanly values, values buried in his sense of English tradition. Thus they look better as time passes, their strangeness turning into a poetry such as the silent screen understood.


    Heaven can wait

    The post-war love stories depict desire lurking within a restraining code, the lovers tossed about between common sense and irrational lyricism. Women are nuisances, helpmates or familiars who intuit the power of spell and fantasy. The films move violently yet serenely from reality to hallucination. A Matter of Life and Death has a bomber pilot 'killed' in action. But he claims a reprieve in heaven because he fell in love with a radio operator just before dying. Reality is given gorgeous colour, and the socialist Utopia of heaven is insipid black- and-white. Although David Niven as the pilot is chatty and matter-of-fact, he is a poet too. He lands on a beach that looks like a Magritte painting, and the film is without rival in British cinema for its evocation of the eerie calm of Surrealism. Though it ends happily, it has unnerving moments in which it hovers on the edge of order and chaos. It was also the first evidence of Powell's characteristic Chinese-box structure, in which some actions are the shadows of others - the trial in heaven being a version of an operation on the pilot's brain.

    powell
    i know where i'm going!
    (1945)


    Peace probably frustrated Powell. Instead of a splurge of joy and release in Britain, there were ration books and shortages. He responded with the exotic Black Narcissus (1947), made in a studio re-creation of Nepal, about the thunder of denied sexuality in a convent. It was picturesque, fevered and half-crazy: Gothic romance often beckoned Powell. The sensual potential of David Farrar, Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron and the young Jean Simmons is viewed with flinching ectasy, as if the film had been made by a hysterically abstinent nun.

    David Farrar and Kathleen Byron play the couple in The Small Back Room (1949). He is a crippled, alcoholic bomb expert. His tin foot is ridiculed by a new German weapon he must learn to dismantle and by the giant whisky bottle he wrestles with in a dream sequence. Farrar - a dark, Gary Cooper-like actor, apparently too moody to seize the stardom that Powell believed would await him - is an ideal Powell hero: passionate but introverted. The Small Back Room is a remarkable film noir love story. Sexual longing hides in every shadow, as if hoping to refute the loneliness implicit in the title.

    powell
    a matter of life and death
    (1946)


    Dance crazy

    The Red Shoes (1948), on the other hand, is an explosion of colour - garish, undried, and vibrant with the feeling that is bitten back in the story and the playing. Revered by ballet lovers, The Red Shoes was the demonstration of Powell's craze for total cinema - colour, story, design, music, dance.

    If anyone ever bought dancing shoes because of the film, that's fine. It seems more impressive for its relentless artiness, for its cinematic equivalent of the Andersen fairytale and its raptures with art. The Red Shoes captivates young people because its zeal is so close to nightmare: the ballerina cannot stop dancing, and the impresario urges her to perform at the cost of her life and the love he cannot even admit. The Red Shoes is theatrical and fanciful, but Anton Walbrook's rendering of the Diaghilev figure reflects Powell's conception of the artist as outcast, scold, and prophet to an indolent world. The artist's dedication is close to destructiveness: his vision is never more romantic than when it refuses to yield to real obstacles; he is most tender and wounded when he cannot share the sentiments of other people. For all its rainbow dazzle, The Red Shoes glorifies the pained but magnificient isolation of the artist.

    powell
    forty-ninth parallel
    (1941)


    The camera murders

    Which brings us finally to Peeping Tom, a film that received violent abuse and loathing, and virtually ended Powell's British career. Peeping Tom is more naked than The Red Shoes because the ectasy it depicts is so damaging, yet fired by the same desperate search for a perfection that might redeem the mess of life. The hero is a young man, 'taught' terror by his father (played by Powell himself), whose voueuristic compulsion is in filming the dying spasms of the young woman he has murdered. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) works in the film industry as a focus-puller, but by night he is a deadly auteur, alone and in command. Powell never condemned the 'sick' young man: that's what repelled audiences in 1960. Further, he admitted later that he sympathized with him and with the way he represented all film directors in their creation of a seen world that surpasses all reality.

    In Susan Sontag's words, Peeping Tom deals with 'the central fantasy connected with the camera' - that seeing is more potent than participating. As the reflection on a career, it enacts Powell's rueful belief in the need to sacrifice life to art. Peeping Tom is a tribute to the artist as self-destructive terrorist.

    He was "re-discovered" in the late 1960's & after Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese tried to set up joint projects with him. In 1980, he lectured at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. He was Senior Director in Residence at Zoetrope studio in 1981. In the last years of his life, Powell and Scorsese became soulmates, and Powell married Scorsese's longtime film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, 35 years his junior. It was his third marriage. His autobiography, A Life in Movies, was published in 1987.

    He died of cancer back in his beloved England in 1990.

  • Espionage


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powell


filmography

    1928
      - Riviera Revels

    1930

      - Caste (uncredited)

    1931

      - Two Crowded Hours

    1932

      - My Friend the King
      - The Rasp
      - Rynox
      - The Star Reporter
      - Hotel Splendide
      - C.O.D.
      - His Lordship

    1933

      - Born Lucky

    1934

      - The Fire Raisers
      - Red Ensign
      - Soommmething Always Happens

    1935

      - Girl in the Crowd
      - Lazybones
      - The Love Test
      - The Night of the Party
      - The Phantom Light
      - The Price of a Song
      - Someday

    1936

      - Her Last Affaire
      - The Brown Wallett- Crown Vs. Stevens
      - The Man Behind the Mask

    1937

      - The Edge of the World

    1939

      - Smith
      - The Spy in Black
      - The Lion Has Wings

    1940

    1941

    1942

      - One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

    1943

      - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp>>--- The Volunteer

    1944

    1945

    1946

    1947

    1948

    1949

    1950

      - Elusive Pimpernel
      - Gone to Earth>>

      1951

        - The Tales of Hoffmann

      1952

        - The Wild Heart

      1955

        - The Sorcerer's Apprentice
        - Oh, RRooooooosalinda!

      1956

        - The Battle of the River Plate

      1957

        - Ill Met by Moonlight

      1959

        - Luna de miel

      1960

        - Peeping Tom

      1961

        - The Defenders (TV Series) (episode: The Sworn Twelve)
        - The Queen's Guards

      1962

        - The Nurses (TV Series) (episode: A39999888888888446)

      1963

        - Espionage (TV Series) (episode: The Frantick Rebel) (episode: A Free Agent) (episode: Never Turn Your Back on a Friend)

      1964

        - Herzog Blaubarts Burg

      1966

        - They're a Weird Mob

      1969

        - Age of Consent

      1972

        - Boy Who Turned Yellow

      1978

        - Return to the Edge of the World



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    biography | filmography | 49th parallel
    a canterbury tale | a matter of life and death
    the red shoes | books | dvds | videos
    new powell/pressburger online shop
    michael powell
    frank capra | madeleine carroll
    marlene dietrich | grace kelly | josef von_sternberg

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