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Powell, Michael (1905-1990)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Powell, Michael (1905-1990)

Michael Powell was born in Bekesbourne, near Canterbury, Kent, on September 30 1905. He left Dulwich College to work (briefly) in a bank before his father, a hotelier on the French Riviera, secured him an introduction to the Hollywood Irish director Rex Ingram, who was working at the Victorine studios in Nice. Powell worked for Ingram as a bit-player (The Magician (US, 1926)) and general assistant, then entered the nascent British film industry as story analyst and stills photographer.

He formed a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson to make "quota quickies", hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that cinemas screen a certain quota of British movies. Between 1931 and 1936, Powell directed twenty-three films, some ordinary, some very sprightly: The Phantom Light (1935), for example, is an enjoyable comedy-thriller set in a purportedly haunted lighthouse.

Even before meeting Pressburger, Powell showed ambitions beyond studio-made films with their shuffle of stock characters, West End players and tidy resolutions. In 1937, he ventured to Foula, an island in the Hebrides, to film a drama inspired by the 1930 evacuation of St Kilda. Compared at the time to Robert Flaherty's documentary Man of Aran (1934), The Edge of the World (1937), for all its real locations and semi-authentic accents, signals that Powell works at the opposite end of the filmic spectrum from Flaherty; it is at once a properly-told dramatic story a mainstream audience can follow and a mystical contemplation of British landscape.

The Spy in Black (1939) might seem a retreat to commercialism after the artistic venture of The Edge of the World, with a dashing Conrad Veidt in black leathers tooling a motorbike around John Buchanland, but it's another Scots-set film and, quite apart from the addition of Pressburger's influence, marks Powell's style in transition. The first real Powell-Pressburger project was the follow-up Veidt thriller, Contraband (1940), which takes full advantage of the atmospheric opportunities offered by blacked-out London.

Powell worked on Korda's rapidly put-together flag-waver, The Lion Has Wings (co-d. Adrian Brunel/Brian Desmond Hurst, 1939), and directed parts of The Thief of Bagdad (co-d. Ludwig Berger/Tim Whelan, 1940) before Korda transferred the production to Hollywood. He then formed an alliance with Pressburger that yielded a string of important films.

At first, their great subject was the War, but this gradually came to encompass intense, strange discussions of national character and consequent flights of fancy. 49th Parallel and "... One of our Aircraft Is Missing" are companion pieces, one about stranded Nazi sub-mariners making their way across Canada, the other about downed RAF fliers assisted by the Dutch underground. Boldly, in view of the political climate, Powell and Pressburger insisted on stressing the difference between being German and being a Nazi, a crucial theme in 49th Parallel and subsequently in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

Invited by J. Arthur Rank to make films for his expanding organisation, Powell and Pressburger set up their own production company, The Archers, to make films under the Rank umbrella. After producing The Silver Fleet (d. Vernon Sewell/Gordon Wellesley, 1943), they made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, an altogether more complex and ambitious film, which aroused the hostility of Winston Churchill, who did everything in his power to prevent the film being made and, when it was made nevertheless, being shown. Shot in Technicolor, it is an English epic, following a representative army officer, Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), from youthful turn of the century hothead to crusty Home Guard conservative. Much more than a state of the nation address, the film covers Blimp's bittersweet adoration of an eternal feminine (represented by Deborah Kerr in several characters) and his lifelong relationship with a Prussian officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whose joys and sufferings are even more intense than his own.

After Blimp, The Archers made A Canterbury Tale (1944), which was criticised and misunderstood when it was first released but now seems even stronger and stranger. If earlier Powell-Pressburger films look to the cosmopolitanism of the Riviera or the last of Austria-Hungary, this fully enters the Kentish world of Powell's childhood and discovers a strain of the magical too often ignored in the English landscape and character. The film explicitly evokes Chaucer, with a dazzling jump cut from a mediaeval falconer to an ARP look-out, but is also informed by Shakespeare and Blake. Its peculiar, often-ridiculed, plot-thread (magistrate Eric Portman pours glue in local girls' hair to deter them from distracting soldiers from attending his lectures on history and culture) spins off into personal miracles, bizarre comedy charades and an ultimately moving hymn to the endurance of a blitzed people. Other wartime films contemplate bomb-torn ruins, this one celebrates an unspoiled English countryside and ends in Canterbury, where neat signs promise the re-opening of temporarily bombed-out businesses, and the Cathedral hosts a service for troops destined for the second front and long-awaited victory.

"I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945) returns to Scots isles and a romance that prompts Wendy Hiller to choose mysticism over modernity. The War is a background presence, related to the social (though not the literal) whirlpool that throws the characters together and has modified even the traditionalists in the community. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Archers' first peacetime film, is set during the last days of the War and again discusses national conflicts, though the emphasis of this fantasy is on the troubled relationship of Britain and the rest of the world, most especially America. The strain of magic in earlier films, incarnated by characters like Pamela Brown's kelpie-like Catriona in "I Know Where I'm Going!", blossoms in this tale of a pilot (David Niven) who misses the heavenly messenger (Marius Goring) supposed to convey him to the afterlife. With a serene, black and white Heaven and a bursting, gorgeous Technicolor living world, A Matter of Life and Death is a glorious mingling of too many styles, themes and ideas, pulled together by the honest emotion flowing between RAF officer Niven and the American radio operator (Kim Hunter) he falls in love with.

Black Narcissus (1947), from Rumer Godden's novel, is another exotic extravaganza, with five British nuns plagued by erotic impulses in a studio-created Himalayan brothel-turned-nunnery. Powell was the only Englishman working in Britain who would tackle such material, and this is one of the few British movies which could match the delirium of Josef von Sternberg or Vincente Minnelli. Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron give astonishing performances - white-faced and doll-like in their nuns habits, but revealed bare-headed as wild beauties - Kerr in a flashback to her Irish girlhood; Byron succumbing to madness when she dons a red dress and lipstick and stalks vampire-like through the forest.

Powell and Pressburger's next film, The Red Shoes (1948), is a dazzling twist on the showbiz star-is-born story, as winsome ballerina Moira Shearer falls under the spell of Diaghilev-like impresario Anton Walbrook, neglects her private life in favour of a passionate devotion to Art, and comes to a choreographed tragic end. With a sinister edge that perfectly catches the ambiguity of traditional as opposed to Disney de-gutted fairy tales, this luminous masterpiece represented the peak of The Archers' acceptance as great popular artists.

For five years Rank had allowed The Archers unfettered artistic freedom, but disagreement over the handling of The Red Shoes (ironically, their most commercially successful film), and the financial crisis faced by the Rank Organisation in the late 1940s led them to rejoin Korda. Their first film for him, The Small Back Room (1948), from Nigel Balchin's wartime novel, marked a return to lower-budget black and white movie making. David Farrar, one of the few English actors capable of playing sexy, neurotic, noirish heroes, is a limping, hard-drinking bomb-disposal expert, struggling with his own dream demons in alcoholic fantasy sequences but most memorably and quietly pitted against a fiendish new strain of explosive device. It is Powell's most purely suspenseful film, and is still the benchmark for red-wire-or-blue-wire bomb disposal scenes. But it came out when the public were fed up with reminders of the war and not yet ready for "finest hour" nostalgia, and it remains under-appreciated.

Korda's yen for international success pushed The Archers into projects where their artistic daring was hampered and compromised. Gone to Earth (1950), a partnership with David O Selznick, starring his wife Jennifer Jones, suffered badly from the producer's interference, and for its American release (as The Wild Heart), it was heavily cut and partially reshot by Rouben Mamoulian. The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) was a Technicolor remake of one of Korda's previous successes, The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young, 1936), but despite fine casting (David Niven's charm versus Cyril Cusack's glower), too much compromise between the conflicting visions of Powell and Pressburger and Korda make it the only Archers film to seem chocolate-boxy and staid.

Tales of Hoffmann (1951) returns to the artistic fantastic world of The Red Shoes (with Moira Shearer as an enchanting but scary automaton). Wonderful though it now seems, it was a step too far for critics and audiences, and its successors, Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955), a modernised Fledermaus, and the post-Archers Luna de Miel (UK/Spain, 1957) and Bluebeard's Castle (Herzog Blaubarts Burg, Germany, 1964) suggest filmed operetta was a dead end.

Before The Archers split, they tried to fit in with the 1950s trend for WW2 stories, returning to Rank for the naval drama, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and the Cretan guerrilla-fighting Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), notable for a poetic, weird Dirk Bogarde bandit performance. Both films maintain Powell and Pressburger's unfashionable sympathy for the enemy (Peter Finch's valiant naval commander, Marius Goring's canny, dignified general), but they lack the flair and originality of the wartime films.

Without Pressburger (but with Leo Marks), Powell made a late masterpiece, Peeping Tom (1960), at once a lurid horror film and a profound meditation on the unhealthiness of cinema. Powell's personal investment is obvious from his own appearance as murderer Karl Boehm's blameworthy father and casting that includes a star he had made (Shearer), the daughter of another old comrade (Anna Massey) and, in a crucial role, his own son Columba. Though it attracted a torrent of critical abuse, the film probably did less harm to its director's subsequent career than his conservatively patriotic The Queen's Guards (1961), which seemed to fly in the face of the radical zeitgeist of the 60s.

Powell reunited with Pressburger for an Australian odyssey - They're a Weird Mob (Australia/UK, 1966) - and for a children's fantasy - The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972). Neither film did anything to restore Powell's reputation, and his final film, Age of Consent (1969) - also made in Australia, with James Mason and a young, often nude Helen Mirren - was misunderstood and critically maligned.

In his last twenty years, Powell was recognised by disciples and critics as a major filmmaker, to the point where this once-despised figure now seems too comfortably swallowed by the accepted canon. But no-one greenlit the many projects he would like to have made, from The Tempest to The Fall of the House of Usher. Powell married Thelma Schoonmaker (the editor of his American champion Martin Scorsese's films) in 1984, and completed two fine volumes of autobiography. He died in Gloucestershire on February 19 1990.

Christie, Ian (ed.), Powell, Pressburger and Others (London: BFI, 1978)
Christie, Ian, Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (London: Waterstone, 1985)
Christie, Ian, BFI Film Classics: A Matter of Life and Death (London: BFI, 2000)
Gough-Yates, Kevin (ed.), Michael Powell in Collaboration with Emeric Pressburger (London: BFI, 1971)
Kennedy, A.L., BFI Film Classics: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (London: BFI, 1997)
Macdonald, Kevin, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (London: Faber and Faber, 1994)
Powell, Michael, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: Heinemann, 1986)
Powell, Michael, Edge of the World (London: Heinemann, 1990)
Powell, Michael, Million Dollar Movie (London: Heinemann, 1992)

Kim Newman, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Metaphysical love story, beautifully filmed in the Scottish Hebrides

Thumbnail image of ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Documentary-style WWII drama about an air crew stranded in Holland

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

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 Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)Boy Who Turned Yellow, The (1972)

Whimsical children's film that marked Powell and Pressburger's swan song

Thumbnail image of Canterbury Tale, A (1944)Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Weird and fascinating tale of modern-day pilgrims in WWII

Thumbnail image of Contraband (1940)Contraband (1940)

Atmospheric wartime Powell and Pressburger spy thriller

Thumbnail image of Edge of the World, The (1937)Edge of the World, The (1937)

Michael Powell's Scottish island saga was his first truly personal film

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

David Niven stars in an entertaining tale of revolutionary France

Thumbnail image of End of the River, The (1947)End of the River, The (1947)

Brazil-based melodrama starring Sabu as a young man accused of murder

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 Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

Ambitious wartime saga which infuriated Churchill

Thumbnail image of Lion Has Wings, The (1939)Lion Has Wings, The (1939)

Patriotic drama made as propaganda for British air forces

Thumbnail image of Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Romance fantasy bridging the gap between two worlds

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 Phantom Light, The (1935)Phantom Light, The (1935)

Atmospheric early Michael Powell work about an allegedly haunted lighthouse

Thumbnail image of Red Shoes, The (1948)Red Shoes, The (1948)

Powell and Pressburger's beautiful and delirious ballet film

Thumbnail image of Silver Fleet, The (1943)Silver Fleet, The (1943)

WWII propaganda film set among the Dutch resistance

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

Tense drama about an alcoholic bomb disposal expert

Thumbnail image of Spy in Black, The (1939)Spy in Black, The (1939)

The first Powell and Pressburger film: a striking WWI story

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 Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)Thief of Bagdad, The (1940)

Michael Powell co-directed Korda's lavish Arabian Nights fantasy

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Classic Powell and PressburgerClassic Powell and Pressburger

The golden years of the Archers partnership

Thumbnail image of Early Michael PowellEarly Michael Powell

The early career of a master filmmaker.

Thumbnail image of Late Powell and PressburgerLate Powell and Pressburger

The last years of the Archers - and beyond

Thumbnail image of Powell and PressburgerPowell and Pressburger

Creators of some Britain's most vivid and imaginative cinema

Thumbnail image of Powell and Pressburger: The War YearsPowell and Pressburger: The War Years

The work that cemented The Archers partnership

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)


Thumbnail image of Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)


Thumbnail image of Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)

Production designer

Thumbnail image of Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)


Thumbnail image of Livesey, Roger (1906-1976)Livesey, Roger (1906-1976)


Thumbnail image of Massey, Raymond (1896-1983)Massey, Raymond (1896-1983)


Thumbnail image of Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)

Director, Writer, Producer

Thumbnail image of Walbrook, Anton (1896-1967)Walbrook, Anton (1896-1967)