Fall under the spell of Powell and Pressburger

Roger Livesey in 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'
Roger Livesey in 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'


A Martin Scorsese-fronted documentary pays warm tribute to the directors of ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Black Narcissus’ and other classics of British cinema

I love Brief Encounter, I really do. But if it came down to that or the other black-and-white British romance from 1945, I’d choose Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going every time. There’s nothing in David Lean’s film—not even the famous scene at the train station—that can match the sheer life force of the low-angle shot of an open door, through which bound half a dozen barking dogs followed by Pamela Brown, hunting rifle in one hand, her hair wet and eyes shining, tossing a rabbit aside and embracing a delighted Roger Livesey. It’s one of my favourite character introductions in all of cinema.

Powell and Pressburger were well-known in their time, though not on the level of their countrymen Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. Their star really rose across several cycles of reassessment. The initial wave came via the young Americans who’d seen their work on TV growing up and were now making movies in 1970s Hollywood: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma (George Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, tells a story of how, in their student days, he and Scorsese would be the only ones renting a lone 16mm print of The Tales of Hoffmann). Subsequent generations found their work more easily on DVD, blu-ray and streaming, with the Criterion Collection—which has released most of their filmography—proving particularly consistent champions.

Scorsese’s enthusiasm for The Archers (Powell and Pressburger’s production company) is well known; his Film Foundation has restored some of their stunning colour works, and he never misses an opportunity to talk up their influence. It is, therefore, unsurprising to see Scorsese take the lead in David Hinton’s new documentary, Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger. What I didn’t expect was for him to be the only talking head. The film is, for all practical purposes, a Scorsese masterclass on Powell and Pressburger, the director seated in a chair and addressing the camera. We hear his feelings on all the major works, interspersed with scenes from the films, still photographs and archival clips of the makers.

This might not sound like much, unless you’re already under the spell of The Archers, in which case it’s a blissful two hours revisiting their greatest hits with their biggest fan. Scorsese has narrated documentaries about cinema before (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, A Letter to Elia), but he talks about Powell and Pressburger with a missionary zeal. Black Narcissus has the “vividness and intensity of a hallucination". I Know Where I’m Going is “a film you show to someone you care about".

Scorsese quotes instances of their influence on his own films, the elaborate preparation for a duel we barely see in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp sparking an idea for Raging Bull, or shades of the demanding dance impresario Lermontov in The Red Shoes making their way into the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (“They’re both characters on the edge of things, listening, observing people, always on the verge of exploding"). About Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who worked at leading German studio UFA before emigrating to England, he says, “He’s also seeking to complicate your sympathies"— something that can be said about Scorsese’s work too.

My own journey through Powell and Pressburger began a few years after started to become consumed by cinema. Their films weren’t part of the world cinema or classic cinema starter kits then (perhaps that has changed in the two decades since). I came to them initially through Criterion, and the raves of my friend, critic Jai Arjun Singh. I found a VCD of The Red Shoes in a Delhi music store; even in that cursed format it looked stunning. The 1948 Technicolor film is a charged look at the cost of true artistry, with dancer Victoria Page (ballerina Moira Shearer) torn between her love, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and her demanding mentor, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The ballet sequences are baroque and startling, yet even the quieter scenes have a mesmeric quality, like when Victoria and Julian are in a horse carriage by the sea in the dead of night, sensuously dozy after their wedding, the driver nodding off, Julian murmuring about a future scenario where he’ll think back on this moment and say, “We were, I remember, very much in love."

I followed this with a film even more feverish than The Red Shoes (Jack Cardiff shot both in thrilling Technicolor). Black Narcissus was adapted from a novel by Rumer Godden about a group of nuns in the Himalaya struggling with various earthy impulses. Most memorable is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, whose descent into psychosis was as unsettling as Hitchcock had put on screen. I then watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and was amazed by how moving Anton Walbrook—whom I knew as Lermontov in The Red Shoes—was as the German officer whose friendship with Englishman Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) spans decades and geographies. It’s a singular film, a wistful wartime paean to peace, to fair play, and to not being able to get enough of Deborah Kerr.

I moved on to the black-and-white films: the Canada-set propaganda thriller 49th Parallel, the sweepingly romantic I Know Where I’m Going, and the strange and wonderful A Canterbury Tale. I loved their loose, eccentric rhythms, their mystical leanings, and their love of the countryside and country folk. Powell and Pressburger only had about 10 vital years of partnership. But everything they touched in that time turned to gold. Powell tells a story about the first time he met Pressburger. The writer handed him a neatly rolled-up chit of paper. He’d taken apart the script Powell was working on and put it together again, simply, perfectly. “I was spellbound," Powell says. More than 70 years later, so are we.

'Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger' will stream on MUBI from 28 June.

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