Sir Michael Powell


Suggested Films:


49th Parallel (1941)
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Luna de miel (1959)

Michael Latham Powell (September 30, 1905-February 19, 1990) was a British film director, renowned for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger which produced a series of classic British films. He was one of the truly great innovators of early British Cinema and was well ahead of his time in creating a body of work that displayed a true devotion to the cinematic arts; exuding vision, craft and expertise in handling the medium.

Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He left Dulwich College to work in a bank before his father, a hotelier on the French Riviera, secured him an introduction to the Hollywood Irish director Rex Ingram. Powell worked for Ingram in ‘The Magician’ (1926)) as a general assistant, he then entered the British film industry as story analyst and stills photographer. Through his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock, he got a chance to co-direct a now forgotten comedy of manners, ‘Caste’, and soon after was directing ‘quota quickies’, which cinemas had to show with every American film. Most were farces or cheap thrillers.

Powell knew he could do better. 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. In 1939 he met Emeric Pressburger whilst they worked together on The Spy in Black.

He worked on Korda's rapidly put together flag-waver, ‘The Lion Has Wings’ (1939), and directed parts of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1940) before Korda transferred the production to Hollywood. He then started to work 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).

Powell and Pressburger went on to jointly write, produce, and direct, ‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘I know where I'm going’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, all during World War II. The humour and point-of-view of these films alienated many British critics, but delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Then there was ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, in which David Niven fights for his life and love in a monochrome heaven, bleeding into a Technicolor world down below. After the war came ‘Black Narcissus’, a claustrophobic, erotic film about a community of nuns in the Himalayas destroyed by the burgeoning sexuality of one of their wards. This time, Powell decided that the mountains would be recreated in the studio: the furthest afield the crew went was West Sussex.

He took the artificiality one step further in 1948, with his reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's ‘The Red Shoes’. The story of an ambitious ballet dancer, Vicky, is woven into the fairy tale; Powell commissioned an original 17-minute ballet, so that both on and off the stage Vicky's red shoes could dance her to death.

The early '50s saw a decline in fortunes for the filmmakers, and their partnership dissolved in 1956. Powell continued to make movies of a fiercely personal nature until 1960, when the critical reaction to Peeping Tom — about a man who mixes voyeurism, cinema, and murder, and is now considered a classic — ended his career in England

He worked for American and European television during the 1960s and '70s, and was rediscovered in the late '70s with the help of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who regarded Powell as one of the most important influences on their individual work.

Powell’s legacy is shared with Emeric Pressburger, his friend and partner, who produced whilst Powell directed many of their most lasting moments. Powell always stated that their relationship on set was something like a marriage, and they dubbed themselves “The Archers”. Like all great partnerships, their success was proliferated through their ability to compliment each other in the creative processes of filmmaking as opposed to how alike they were.

Indeed they were vastly different characters, with varied backgrounds. Powell descended from a wealthy, land-owning family from the Medway region of England, ‘A Man of Kent’ he always reported himself to be and that he remained until his death. Contrastingly, Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who fled to London during World War Two who quickly garnered an insightful and analytical attitude towards his adopted country and its people. He always prided himself on his ability to understand the English ‘from the outside looking in’.

Undaunted by tackling any subject matter or genre, Powell swiftly developed a personal style that was largely uncelebrated at the time. However over the years these images have not lost any of their charm and vigour and when viewed today appear vibrant and extremely ambitious.

Unfortunately for Powell he worked many years before the ‘cult of the director’ caught on. Today successful directors are superstars, able to make or break a movie as much as anyone performing in front of the camera. In Powell’s day directors were viewed as little more than technicians. As a result, recognition came late for Powell, he had already hung up his light meter when his reputation was reappraised in the 1970’s by the up and coming generation of filmmakers who had admired his work whilst growing up, at the fore of this group was Martin Scorsese, who befriended Powell in his final years.

But in his 1982 autobiography, he said:

‘We (Emeric Pressburger) have been privileged to live to see films which, 40 years ago, we hoped, modestly, would be considered good, hailed as masterpieces’

Through his years in the wilderness, Powell never lost faith in his vision. Michael Powell was was married to Thelma Schoonmaker from May 17, 1984 until his death in 1990.

‘I am not a director with a personal style – I am Cinema’

‘I fell in love in 1921 when my celluloid mistress was the most beautiful, fascinating, irresistible object in the world’














michael powell, british film, british director, british movie