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
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
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
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.