Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – Cinema Legends – March 2014

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together on twenty-four films between 1939 and 1972, with their main creative period during the 1940s. Together they are known as The Archers, after the name of their production company. Powell and Pressburger are usually billed as co-writers, directors and producers, but Powell usually handled the directing and Pressburger the writing – and they produced their films together, often working with executive producer J. Arthur Rank. Between the two auteurs, they only won one Oscar (Pressburger won Best Story for 49th Parallel, which while very good is not considered one of their five masterpieces), but they are now considered among the greatest filmmakers in cinema history (thanks to the preservation work of Martin Scorsese, AFI, and BFI, allowing a new generation to find their films).

Early Careers/Collaborations:

In 1925, Powell began his career in film sweeping the floors of Victorine Studios in Nice, France, where he father owned a hotel. But, he soon found himself moving up the ladder into better jobs, even acting. In 1928, he returned to England where he worked with Alfred Hitchcock as a still photographer on his silent films Champagne and Blackmail. The two men remained friends throughout their lives. Powell continued to move his way up in British cinema, honing his directing on a number of small films. In 1939, he was hired by Alexander Korda to begin work on some new projects (like the Thief of Bagdad). Through Korda, he met Pressburger.

Pressburger made his early films in Germany and France. As a Hungarian Jew, he decided to leave Germany in 1932 as the Nazi’s came to power. And again in 1935, the threat in Europe for the Jewish people seemed to be mounting causing him to leave France for England. There, he worked with fellow Hungarian Korda.

Korda had contracted Powell to direct a new film called The Spy in Black, but thought that the script could use some rewrites. So, he introduced Powell to Pressburger. The two gone on right away and there was a creative spark between them. There first real collaboration came with their 1940 film Contraband. Both films performed well as WWII-set anti-Nazi propaganda.

Beautiful Technicolor – Creating a Series of Masterpieces:

The Archers, however, were truly born with 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It is a magnificent Technicolor epic about a brash military man who is does not change with the times. Powell and Pressburger formed their production company and created their joint credit: “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” to notify that they were the creative force behind their work, subject to no studio or other producers. They also created a manifesto with five points:

“1) We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss. 2) Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgment. 3) When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more. 4) No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness. And 5) At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.”

Typically, Pressburger would write the first draft of each new script. They would then pass it back and forth until it was ready. They did not like to work on the script together at the same time in the same room. They both worked as producers, but Powell was very frank and often would ruffle the feathers of financiers and Pressburger was very good at smoothing things over. Under Rank, however, they had a lot of freedom. Powell handled most of the directing, but Pressburger was always on-hand and present on set. When principal photography wrapped, Powell would go on holiday in Scotland and Pressburger would work with the editor and composer to craft the final product. Then Powell would return to take over to promote the film. They also often worked with the same crew and actors on their films, including: actors Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Marius Goring, Kathleen Byron, and Moira Shearer (among others), composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, editors John Seabourne Sr. and Reginald Mills, and cinematographers Erwin Hillier, Jack Cardiff, and Christopher Challis.

Getting back to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the film came under heavy attack by the British Government (and most notably by Winston Churchill) for the use of a sympathetic German officer (albeit a Jewish, anti-Nazi one – he was an officer during WWI, and a refugee during WWII) who is seemingly more reasonable and realistic than the British officers. As a result, the film did not come out in the States until 1945 (the film being reduced from its original 163 minutes to 150 and then 90 for TV). The film was later restored in 1983. Today, many consider it the greatest British film ever made.

Their next foray into Technicolor came with 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, which used both Technicolor and Black & White photography. It is about a British squadron leader who should have died, returning from a raid over Germany, but somehow he lived. An angel comes to Earth to retrieve him, realizing the mistake, but the man has since fallen in love and believes he deserves to stay on Earth. He must present his case in Heaven. Interestingly, the film was commissioned by the British government (though they had no creative involvement) to improve Anglo-American relations between US soldiers stationed in the UK and the locals. To do this, Powell and Pressbuger reversed the stereotype. In A Matter of Life and Death, the British soldier gets the young attractive American girl (instead of the American soldiers getting all the young British women).

Black Narcissus was The Archers’ next film, debuting in 1947. It features some of the cinema’s most beautiful photography and production design, as well as being brilliant in every other way. The film is about a group of nuns who try to set up a new monastery in the Himalayas, but the beauty and wonder of the location gets to them and they soon leave. In the context of history, the film can be read as the British acknowledging the end of their empire (which mostly crumbled during WWII), as the film was released a few months before India achieved its independence. It was a critical success upon release, thanks to its vibrant colors and themes. Though shot entirely in an English studio, many believed that it was shot on location in India. It is artistically way ahead of its time, feeling very much like the films of the late 1960s/early 1970s when Hollywood auteurs reveled in the freedom of a cinema world without the Production Code.

The Red Shoes, The Archers’ next film, however, might be their best and most aesthetically proficient and magnificent (and is at present, my favorite film). It is about a ballet company who puts on a production of the Hans Christian Andersen story. Within the company, there is a struggle for the affection of a young ballerina. The film is utterly beautiful in every way. Even without strong promotion, due to Rank’s financial problems, it was a big success at the British box office, and even bigger in the States. It is probably the most famous and best known of The Archers’ films, and yet it too was mostly forgotten in time. It was not until 2002 that the film was saved and underwent restoration, taking seven years to complete. It is a film that every film fan must see, along with the other Powell and Pressbuger classics.

For their next Technicolor film, The Archers worked with America’s biggest producer David O. Selznick, making Gone to Earth. The film is not easily available, and thus I have never seen it. I am waiting for and hoping that the Criterion Collection releases it at some point (as well as A Matter of Life and Death). It is about Hazel, a girl who feels more comfortable among nature than with humans, often turning to a book of spells when she has problems, a remnant of her gypsy mother. Hazel becomes the object of affection of two men, and she finds herself in the middle of their struggle to possess her. The film is thought of as one of the most beautiful every made with wonderful cinematography of the English countryside. O. Selznick, however, did not like the finished film and greatly altered it for its American release (known as The Wild Heart). It was restored in 1985, but it is a shame that it is not readily available.

The Archers’ troubles continued with their next film The Elusive Pimpernel (which I have also not seen). Neither Michael Powell or star David Niven wanted to make the film, but were threatened by Alexander Korda that if they did not make it their contracts would be suspended (greatly hurting their careers). The film is an action/adventure narrative, but it did not turn out well, likely due to the lack of interest by all involved. It was not a critical or commercial success, which contributed greatly to the decline of The Archers (who made the best British films of the 1940s).

The Tales of Hoffmann saw The Archers return to ballet. The film is split into three sections, each telling a different story through visuals, music, and dance without dialogue (much like a ballet). Basically, it is like a full feature version of The Red Shoes’s ballet sequence.

Powell and Pressburger made three more films together (Oh… Rosalinda!, The Battle of the River Plate, and Ill Met by Moonlight) between 1955-1956 before dissolving their partnership to pursue solo careers. They remained lifelong devoted friends.

Smaller Black & White Films:

Like 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing was a propaganda film, made to forward the moral of the British people. The film exhibits a striking naturalism, heightened by the lack of scored music. It garnered Powell’s only Oscar nomination of his career (for original screenplay, which he shared with Pressbuger).

Their follow up to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, saw The Archers return to black & white photography and a much smaller scale. A Canterbury Tale is a very light film, and yet it is transformative. It is about three people on their way to Canterbury who get stuck in a small town. In the town they get wrapped up in the mystery of the Glue-Man, who puts glue in the hair of young attractive women. The three, a land girl, a British soldier, and an American soldier (played by actual American GI Sgt. John Sweet), take it upon themselves to discover the identity of the Glue-Man. The film was a failure upon release and Powell and Pressburger had to greatly rework it for its American release after the war. It was restored in the late 1970s and is now considered a masterwork (much like most of their work).

For their next film, Powell and Pressbuger decided to make a romance film; while contemporary, it feels very far away from the war. I Know Where I’m Going! is about a strong willed woman who knows what she wants and is going to go out there and get it. Only, she meets a man on her way to her own wedding that throws her for a loop. It was critically acclaimed upon its release, many praising its naturalistic style and beauty.

The Archers would then go on to make many of their great Technicolor masterworks; however, they returned to a smaller black & white narrative in 1949 with the thriller The Small Black Room. It is about a British military scientist named Rice who is working on an efficient and safe way to dispose of bombs and mines employed by the Nazis across England. The Nazis have a new explosive that is tricky, having killed four people so far who tried to disarm them. Rice turns his attention to this new device. He also struggles with depression and alcoholism. It is a much darker film than any of the others by The Archers. Rank, who The Archers had worked with for a few years, was now in financial crisis, leading Powell and Pressburger to return to working with Alexander Korda – a move that marked the end of their best period of filmmaking, as the 1950s saw their decline. The Small Black Room was a success upon its release, winning a nomination for Best British Film at the 1950 BAFTA Awards.

Late Careers:

Powell and Pressburger did not really do much significant solo work – the highlight being Powell’s Peeping Tom. The two did, however, reteam for two more films in the late 1960s/early 1970s: They’re a Weird Mob and The Boy Who Turned Yellow. Neither is anywhere close to as good as their previous work together. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is also the last feature film either worked on.

Career Highlights:

1)      49th Parallel (1941) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
2)      The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
3)      A Canterbury Tale (1944)* – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
4)      I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
5)      A Matter of Life and Death (1946)* – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)
6)      Black Narcissus (1947)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
7)      The Red Shoes (1948)* – writers, directors, producers (Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, Trailer)
8)      The Small Black Room (1949) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)
9)      Gone to Earth (1950) – writers, directors, producers (Trailer)
10)   The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) – writers, directors, producers (DVD, Trailer)

*Editor’s picks

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