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Late Powell and Pressburger

The last years of the Archers - and beyond

Main image of Late Powell and Pressburger

Michael Powell's autobiography, 'A Life in Movies' is divided into two halves: his life up to and including the making of The Red Shoes (1948), and then everything that followed it. Although it eventually proved to be a huge international box office success, the money men at Rank, and especially its chief executive John Davis, had hated Powell and Pressburger's expensive ballet film, initially only giving it a half-hearted release in the UK. This led to the duo's departure from the Rank Organisation, their home since 1942. Even The Archers company name would disappear from film credits after The Small Back Room (1949), made instead for Alexander Korda, to be replaced with the altogether plainer 'A Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Production'.

The Small Back Room confirmed a backward-looking tendency in their joint postwar work, which shied away from both original stories and contemporary settings, while exploring the seemingly contradictory themes of independence and team spirit. Based on Nigel Balchin's novel, it returned the Archers to black and white and a wartime setting. It is an obsessive, powerfully dreamlike film with strong Freudian overtones, featuring a tortured hero, symbolically castrated by a mine, who eventually finds release in a bomb-defusing climax.

With hindsight, one can see just how deeply the Archers were affected by the war. The characteristic boldness, confidence and even arrogance that they and their films had so brazenly displayed up until then was clearly fuelled by a wartime sense of urgency and commitment at a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Equally, their fiercely-guarded sense of independence was nonetheless built on a strong belief in the importance of collaboration and team spirit, a product in part of the social and political consensus which was greatly espoused during the War.

This is plainly visible in their first international Korda assignment, the humorous swashbuckler The Elusive Pimpernel (1950). Made in Technicolor and co-produced with Samuel Goldwyn, it was undertaken as a lark and boasts impressive French locations (especially Mont St Michel for the finale). The film is atypical in its emphasis on both the Pimpernel and his 'League' of collaborators, who specialise in creating dramatic situations and manipulating people and events; it's not hard to see them as a surrogate for the writer-directors and their faithful production team. Goldwyn, however, was unhappy with the film's unconventional take, and sued. So did David O. Selznick, the co-producer of Gone to Earth (1950), which starred his partner Jennifer Jones. Beautifully filmed in Shropshire, the highly melodramatic late 19th century story by Mary Webb wasn't popular in the UK, while in the US Selznick had large parts of the film re-shot by Rouben Mamoulian and re-titled it The Wild Heart. Their last Korda effort. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is now recognised as one of Powell and Pressburger's finest achievements, an extraordinarily imaginative interpretation of Offenbach's unfinished opera which, shot to a completely pre-recorded soundtrack , is probably the closest Powell ever came to realising his dream of making an entirely 'composed film'.

Powell and Pressburger spent many fruitless years trying to get various projects off the ground - including a biography of Richard Strauss entitled 'The Golden Years', to be shot entirely using the subjective camera - eventually returning to the war, and to Rank, to make The Battle of the River Plate (1956), a gigantic financial success, and Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), a Dirk Bogarde vehicle over which the duo completely failed to agree, leading to another flop and the dissolution of their remarkable partnership.

After the little-seen Luna de Miel (Spain, 1959), Powell began a new collaboration with writer Leo Marks on Peeping Tom (1960), which, although recognised today as a daring masterpiece, was brutally rejected by most critics at the time. Powell countered with his most conventional film, The Queen's Guards (1961), later calling it "the most inept piece of film-making that I have ever produced, or directed". Turning briefly to television, while working on an episode of Espionage (ITV, 1963-64) scripted by Marks, he found himself working once again with cinematographer Geoffrey Faithful, who had shot nine of his 'quota quickies' in the 1930s. In partnership with Marks, he also developed Sebastian (1968), although the final film was directed by David Greene.

When asked to re-write Operation Crossbow (US/UK, d. Michael Anderson, 1965), Pressburger adopted the sly pseudonym 'Richard Imre', a name he also used for They're a Weird Mob (Australia, 1965), a lightweight immigrant comedy starring Walter Chiari which was the writer's last full-length feature film collaboration with Powell. Powell stayed on in Australia to make Age of Consent (1969), starring James Mason and Helen Mirren in a project loosely inspired by 'The Tempest'. The pair's final completed project, however, was The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972), an hour-long fantasy made for the Children's Film Foundation that also involved such Archers stalwarts as actor Esmond Knight and cinematographer Christopher Challis.

Powell rounded out his career by looking back at its origins, first making Return to The Edge of the World (1978) - revisiting the site of his breakthrough film - and then writing his extraordinary memoirs, the final part of which was published shortly after he passed away in 1990 - some two years after Pressburger's death.

The films the pair made after 1948 met with little public or critical recognition, with the exception of the uncharacteristic and somewhat anonymous The Battle of the River Plate, and for decades this seemed to reinforce the view that they were inferior to those that preceded them, even affecting the perspective of Powell and Pressburger themselves. The restoration of Gone to Earth, for a long time only available in truncated form, to its pre-Selznick version, and the making of new CinemaScope prints of the witty and visually fascinating Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955) have allowed for a more mature and considered appreciation of these 'late' films, while The Small Back Room and The Tales of Hoffmann are now rightly considered to be classics.

Powell's solo work, significantly always set in the present day, produced one masterwork, Peeping Tom, while Age of Consent, although clearly a small-scale effort, showed that his pantheistic fascination with landscape remained undimmed. This was a wry, sensual yet innocent film that was unquestionably the work of the author of The Edge of the World (1937), Black Narcissus (1947) and Gone to Earth.

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)Battle of the River Plate, The (1956)

Last of the Powell/Pressburger partnership - a WWII naval drama

Thumbnail image of Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)Elusive Pimpernel, The (1950)

David Niven stars in an entertaining tale of revolutionary France

Thumbnail image of Gone to Earth (1950)Gone to Earth (1950)

Rural melodrama of a young woman pursued by predatory men.

Thumbnail image of Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)

Dirk Bogarde-starring drama based on a true story of WWII Crete

Thumbnail image of Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)

Powell & Pressburger musical comedy based on 'Die Fledermaus'

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Small Back Room, The (1949)Small Back Room, The (1949)

Tense drama about an alcoholic bomb disposal expert

Thumbnail image of Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)

Visually ravishing Powell & Pressburger film of the Offenbach opera

Thumbnail image of Return to the Edge of the World (1978)Return to the Edge of the World (1978)

Michael Powell returns to the locations of his 1937 classic

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