Michael Powell

8 Melbury Road plaque
English Heritage Blue Plaque
Dorset House, Gloucester Place, NW1 5AG

Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 – 19 February 1990) was an English film director, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company "The Archers", they together wrote, produced and directed a series of classic British films, notably 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, also called Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His later controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, while today considered a classic, was so vilified on first release that his career was seriously damaged.

Many film-makers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George A. Romero have cited Powell as an influence. In 1981, he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award along with his partner Pressburger, the highest honour the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker.

    Early life

    Powell was the second son and youngest child of Thomas William Powell, a hop farmer, and Mabel, daughter of Frederick Corbett, of Worcester, England. Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker.

    Film career

    Powell entered the film industry in 1925 through working with director Rex Ingram working at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France (the contact with Ingram was made through Powell's father, who owned a hotel in Nice). He first started out as a general studio hand, the proverbial "gofer": sweeping the floor, making coffee, fetching and carrying. Soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles, usually as comic characters. Powell made his film début as a "comic English tourist" in The Magician (1926).

    Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was the first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films. Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.

    After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make "quota quickies", Powell began to direct hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that British cinemas screen a certain quota of British films. During this period, he developed his directing skills, sometimes making up to seven films a year.

    Although he had taken on some directing responsibilities in other films, Powell had his first screen credit as a director on Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest success at the box office despite its limited budget. From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).

    In 1937 Powell completed his first truly personal project, The Edge of the World. Powell gathered together a cast and crew who were willing to take part in an expedition to what, before the air service that now exists, was a very isolated part of the UK. They had to stay there for quite a few months and finished up with a film which not only told the story he wanted but also captured the raw natural beauty of the location.

    By 1939, Powell had been hired as a contract director by Alexander Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World. Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled. Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.

    Meeting Emeric Pressburger

    The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too verbose and did not have a good role for either Veidt or Hobson. Korda called a meeting where he introduced a diminutive man, saying, "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."

    Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:

    "Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top [American] screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists[, but]... the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other[s]. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. ... The European film no longer existed[,]... [except for]...the great German film business ... and Dr. Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the stormtroopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film."

    They both soon recognised that although they were total opposites in background and personality, they had a common attitude to film-making and that they could work very well together. After making two more films together (Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel) with separate credits, the pair decided to form a partnership and to sign their films jointly as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."

    The Archers

    Working together as co-producers, writers and directors in a partnership they dubbed "The Archers", they made 19 feature films, many of which received critical and commercial success. Their best films are still regarded as classics of 20th century British cinema. The BFI 100 list of "the favourite British films of the 20th century" contains five of Powell's films, four with Pressburger.

    Although admirers would argue that Powell ought to rank alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his career suffered a severe reversal after the release of the controversial psychological thriller film Peeping Tom, made in 1960 as a solo effort. The film was excoriated by mainstream British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to work thereafter.

    The film did however meet with the rapturous approval of the young critics of Positif and Midi-Minuit Fantastique in France, and those of Motion in England, and in 1965 he was subject of a major positive revaluation by Raymond Durgnat in the auteurist magazine Movie, later included in Durgnat's influential book A Mirror for England.

    Powell's films came to have a cult reputation, broadened during the 1970s and early 1980s by a series of retrospectives and rediscoveries, as well as further articles and books. By the time of his death, he and Pressburger were recognised as one of the foremost film partnerships of all time – and cited as a key influence by many noted filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola.

    Personal life

    In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron. From 1 July 1943 until her death on 5 July 1983, Powell was married to Frances "Frankie" May Reidy, the daughter of medical practitioner Jerome Reidy; they had two sons: Kevin Michael Powell (b. 1945) and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell (b. 1951). He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.

    Subsequently, Powell was married to Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire.

    Filmography

    For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger

    Early films

    Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies". Not all of them were really quota films, and the ones that were are often of a much higher standard than most other quota films. Some of his early films are now missing and are believed lost. But those that have survived often show some very sophisticated techniques and early versions of ideas that were reused, done better, in his later films. Those marked with a * are "Missing, believed lost".

    Year Title Production Company Other notes
    1928 Riviera Revels G. Ventimigla and Marcel Lucien A series of comedy shorts. Powell co-directed with Harry Lachman
    1930 Caste * Harry Rowson (Ideal) Uncredited as director, main director was Campbell Gullan
    1931 Two Crowded Hours * Film Engineering
    1932 My Friend the King * Film Engineering
    Rynox Film Engineering
    The Rasp * Film Engineering
    The Star Reporter * Film Engineering
    Hotel Splendide Film Engineering.
    A Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd
    C.O.D. * Westminster Films
    His Lordship Westminster Films
    1933 Born Lucky * Westminster Films
    1934 The Fire Raisers Gaumont-British
    Red Ensign Gaumont-British US title: Strike!
    Something Always Happens Warner Brothers.
    First National Productions Ltd
    1935 The Girl in the Crowd * First National
    Lazybones A Real Art Production
    The Love Test Fox British
    The Night of the Party Gaumont-British Picture Corporation US title: The Murder Party
    The Phantom Light A Gainsborough Picture
    The Price of a Song * Fox British
    Someday * Warner British aka Young Nowheres
    1936 Her Last Affaire New Ideal Productions Ltd
    The Brown Wallet * Warner Brothers.
    First National
    Crown v. Stevens Warner Brothers. First National Productions Ltd aka Third Time Unlucky
    The Man Behind the Mask Joe Rock Studios reissued as Behind the Mask

    Major films

    Aside from some short films, Powell wrote, produced and directed all of his films from 1942 to 1957 with Emeric Pressburger

    Year Title Production Company Other notes
    1937 The Edge of the World Joe Rock Production
    1939 The Spy in Black Harefield US title: U Boat 29
    Smith D&P Productions.
    Embankment Fellowship Co.
    10-minute short film
    The Lion Has Wings London Film Productions RAF documentary footage with some fictional intercuts
    1940 Contraband British National US title: Blackout
    The Thief of Bagdad Alexander Korda Films Inc. co-director
    1941 An Airman's Letter to His Mother a 5-minute short
    49th Parallel Ortus Films
    (and Ministry of Information (United Kingdom))
    US title: The Invaders
    1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing The Archers.
    British National
    1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp The Archers/
    Independent Producers
    The Volunteer The Archers.
    Ministry of Information (United Kingdom)
    a short propaganda film
    1944 A Canterbury Tale The Archers
    1945 I Know Where I'm Going! The Archers
    1946 A Matter of Life and Death The Archers US title: Stairway To Heaven
    1947 Black Narcissus The Archers
    for Independent Producers Ltd.
    1948 The Red Shoes The Archers
    1949 The Small Back Room The Archers.
    London Films
    1950 Gone to Earth The Archers.
    London Films
    US title: The Wild Heart (1952) – substantially re-edited version additional scenes directed by Rouben Mamoulian
    The Elusive Pimpernel London Film Productions
    (and The Archers)
    US title: The Fighting Pimpernel
    1951 The Tales of Hoffmann British Lion Film Corporation
    (with Vega Productions and The Archers)
    1955 Oh... Rosalinda!! Associated British Picture Corporation.
    Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
    1956 The Sorcerer's Apprentice 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/
    Norddeutscher Rundfunk
    a short ballet
    The Battle of the River Plate Arcturus Productions.
    Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
    US title: The Pursuit of the Graf Spee
    1957 Ill Met by Moonlight Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
    for Rank Organisation Film Productions (and Vega Productions)
    US title: Night Ambush
    1959 Luna de Miel MIchael Powell Production
    for Suevia Films-Cesario Gonsalez (Spain)/Everdene (GB)
    aka Honeymoon
    1960 Peeping Tom Michael Powell Production
    1961 The Queen's Guards Imperial.
    Michael Powell Production
    1963 Herzog Blaubarts Burg Süddeutscher Rundfunk. Norman Foster Produktion aka Bluebeard's Castle
    1966 They're a Weird Mob Williamson (Australia)/
    Michael Powell Production
    Pressburger wrote the script as Richard Imrie
    1969 Age of Consent Nautilus Productions
    1972 The Boy Who Turned Yellow Roger Cherrill Ltd
    for the Children's Film Foundation
    Script by Pressburger
    1978 Return to the Edge of the World Poseidon Films/
    BBC Television
    For British TV, framing of the original 1937 film

    Television work

    Powell also directed episodes of the TV series The Defenders, Espionage and The Nurses.

    Year Title Production Company Other notes
    1963 Never Turn Your Back on a Friend Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
    1964 The Frantick Rebel Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
    1964 A Free Agent Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
    1965 The Sworn Twelve Episode for the The Defenders series
    1965 A 39846 Episode for the The Nurses series

    Non-directorial work

    Powell was also involved in the following films in a non-directorial role:

    • The Silver Fleet (1943) – Producer
    • The End of the River (1947) – Producer
    • Aila, pohjolan tytär (aka Arctic Fury) (1951) – Producer
    • Sebastian (1968) – Producer
    • Pavlova – A Woman for All Time (1983) – Associate Producer

    Other works

    Books by Michael Powell

    • 1938: 200,000 Feet on Foula. London: Faber & Faber. (The story of the making of The Edge of the World was also reprinted as 200,000 Feet – The Edge of the World in the United States.)
    • 1956: Graf Spee. London: Hodder & Stoughton. (This book contains much information that Powell and Pressburger could not include in their film The Battle of the River Plate.)
    • 1957: Death in the South Atlantic: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. New York: Rinehart. (American edition of Graf Spee)
    • 1975: A Waiting Game. London: Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-1368-3.
    • 1976: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. London: White Lion Publishers. ISBN 0-7274-0256-0. (Second British edition of Graf Spee)
    • 1978: (with Emeric Pressburger) The Red Shoes. London: Avon Books. ISBN 0-8044-2687-2.
    • 1986: A Life In Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
    • 1990: Edge of the World. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-15306-2. (This book is a paperback edition of 200,000 feet on Foula.)
    • 1992: Million Dollar Movie London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59947-6. (This is the second part of Powell's autobiography.)
    • 1994: (with Emeric Pressburger and Ian Christie) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14355-5. (This book includes memos from Churchill and notes showing how the script developed.)

    Many of these titles were also published in other countries or republished. The list above deals with initial publications except where the name was changed in a subsequent edition or printing.

    Theatre

    Awards, nominations and honours

    Legacy

    • Cited as a major influence on many film-makers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George A. Romero and Bertrand Tavernier. Said Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese's long-time film editor and Powell's third wife) of Scorsese, "Anyone he meets, or the actors he works with, he immediately starts bombarding with Powell and Pressburger movies." Scorsese and Schoonmaker are working on restoring Powell's films, beginning with The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
    • The Michael Powell Award for the Best New British Feature was instigated in 1993 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and is sponsored by the UK Film Council and is "named in homage to one of Britain's most original filmmakers".
    • Pinewood Studios, where Powell made many of his most notable films, has named a mixing theatre in the post-production department after him: The Powell Theatre. A giant picture of the director covers the door to the theatre, where many well-known films are mixed.
    • The Film, Radio and Television Department of Canterbury Christ Church University has its main building named after him: The Powell Building.

    References

    Notes
    Bibliography
    • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Waterstone, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1; First edition 1985. ISBN 0-947752-13-7.
    • Christie, Ian. Powell, Pressburger and Others. London: British Film Institute, 1978. ISBN 0-85170-086-1.
    • Christie, Ian and Andrew Moor, eds. The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Filmmaker. London: BFI, 2005. ISBN 1-84457-093-2.
    • Darakhvelidze, George. Landscapes of Dreams: The Cinema of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Part 1) (in Russian). Vinnitsa, Ukraine: Globe Press, 2009. ISBN 966-8300-34-3.
    • Esteve, Llorenç. Michael Powell y Emeric Pressburger (in Spanish). Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Catedra, 2002. ISBN 978-84-376-1950-7.
    • Howard, James. Michael Powell. London: BT Batsford Ltd, 1996. ISBN 0-7134-7482-3.
    • Lazar, David, ed. Michael Powell: Interviews. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. ISBN 1-57806-498-8.
    • Macdonald, Kevin. Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16853-1
    • Moor, Andrew. Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. ISBN 1-85043-947-8.
    • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies (autobiography). London: Heinemann, 1993. ISBN 0-571-20431-7; First edition 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
    • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie (The second volume of his autobiography). London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6, later edition, 2000. ISBN 0-7493-0463-4 (pbk).
    • Thiéry, Natacha. Photogénie du désir: Michael Powell et Emeric Pressburger 1945–1950 (in French). Rennes, France: Presse Universitaires de Rennes, 2009. ISBN 2-7535-0964-6.
    • Howard, James. 'I Live Cinema' : The Life and Films of Michael Powell. UK: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2013. ISBN 1-470-01179-4

    External links

    0.027393