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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
in his 1982 autobiography, he said:
(Emeric Pressburger) have been privileged to live to see films which,
40 years ago, we hoped, modestly, would be considered good, hailed
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’
fell in love in 1921 when my celluloid mistress was the most beautiful,
fascinating, irresistible object in the world’