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Categories: Features

On 17th February 2014, a new English Heritage Blue Plaque was unveiled on a 1930s block in Baker Street, London.

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It was here that the unlikely pairing of Michael Powell, the son of a Kentish hop farmer, and Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-born writer created some of their finest and most successful film productions.

Amongst those attending the unveiling were Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorcese’s editor and Michael Powell’s widow), Columba Powell, Andrew & Kevin Macdonald’s wives, Andrew’s son (and thus Emeric Pressburger’s great grandson) Archie, Sir Christopher Frayling, Stephen Fry and Professor Ian Christie.

Scorcese saw his first film by Powell & Pressburger (P&P) aged eight. It was The Red Shoes, an adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. He was entranced by the storytelling, editing, and the camera movements that were choreographed with the dancing (no mean feat considering the cumbersome cameras of the era). He went on to seek out other films by P&P, as he’d been totally unaware of any British filmmakers as he was growing up in New York.  He was not disappointed – even if he initially saw most of their films in black and white instead of their glorious colour, and they were often edited with commercial breaks for screening on television.

A strange meeting

Michael and Emeric met whilst working on Alexander Korda’s “The Spy in Black” (1939), with Towelling recalling their first encounter as “a case of love at first sight”.

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In 1941, they created a production partnership called The Archers, and unusually they shared the credits for production, writing and directing.  However, Powell took on most of the directing while Pressburger mostly wrote the screenplays.

 

After establishing The Archers, they were lucky enough to get the backing of the J Arthur Rank who encouraged the filmmakers in his Independent Producers company to be as creative as they wanted. P&P didn’t need any more encouragement to take chances.

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Before their films, there was an ident that showed arrows thudding into a target. Once you saw that ident, you knew you were in for a treat.

Many people consider P&P’s work at this time as being amongst Britain’s most ambitious, imaginative but often disturbing films. There’s an unsettling intensity in either the script or the way it is shot.

Some of their films were inspired by the war including the propaganda-themed 49th Parallel (1941), the lyrically Kentish A Canterbury Tale (1944) and the spectacular afterlife fantasy of A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Cooking up ideas in Baker Street

Back in Baker Street, P&P created some of their greatest films including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus’(1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Many of them are bittersweet, dispelling joy with disaster, switching light for dark.

Colonel Blimp starred the gravel-voice Roger Livesey, an actor who was one of the P&P regulars and turned up in several productions.

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On Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, P&P collaborated with celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

Black Narcissus, a tale of nuns and sexual repression in a Himalayan convent was filmed in glorious Technicolour using a style of lighting inspired by the Dutch Masters, with clever use of close-ups that influenced Scorcese amongst many later filmmakers. Its wide mountain vistas and vertiginous perspectives were all the more remarkable for having been created at Pinewood rather than on location. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Cinematography. Film critic David Thomson described this film “that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns”.

The unsurpassed ballet

The Red Shoes was about a ballet based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.  The heroine spies a pair of red shoes in a shop window, which have been made by a demonic cobbler. Once she’s put them on, she cannot stop dancing. Ultimately they make her dance until she dies from exhaustion.

In a parallel story about the creation and staging the ballet as a new show, renowned prima ballerina Moira Shearer took the lead role of Vicky Page who is discovered by a Diaghilev-inspired impresario (played by mercurial Anton Walbrook, another P&P regular).

It’s a dark tale that tells Vicky’s story as she is torn between the demands of her dancing and her love for the composer (Marius Goring). Unable to decide, she spirals into despair until she parallels the ballet story’s fatal ending by throwing herself out of a window.

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Has there been a ballet film to match it? Black Swan (2010) certainly seems inspired by it but it could never match the extraordinary production design, brilliant colours and Jack Cardiff’s camera work.  The Red Shoes remains a favourite film of both Martin Scorcese and Brian De Palma.

Celebrated and recognised

P&P’s films gained worldwide acclaim. They were nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 8 (or 5 depending on what you read), with a string of nominations and wins at NYFCC, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs amongst many other accolades.

The Archers’ films are:

Although they made just 19 films together, P&P also had careers quite separate from The Archers.

Michael Powell – 60 films as director plus miscellaneous credits for other roles. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0003836/

Emeric Pressburger – 70 credits as a writer, plus many other roles http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0696247/?ref_=tt_ov_dr

Inspired by Fairy Tales and the Supernatural

Whether their own original stories or inspired by fairy tales, P&P’s stories are told in an original way. They are often cinematic tours-de-force but they are joyous and sad, droll and dark, intense and light-hearted in equal measures.

For a golden period in the 1940s and 1950s, The Archers’ productions were without parallel. However as the 1960s approached with all its seismic social changes, tastes veered away from P&P’s style of romantic, escapist and whimsical films.  Powell and Pressburger carried on their separate careers, with Powell causing a great scandal and nearly ruining his solo career entirely by making the darkly sinister Peeping Tom in 1960.

Nevertheless as The Archers, Powell & Pressburger, the Kentish lad and the Hungarian scriptwriter, remain absolutely amongst the Best of British.

Additional links:

http://www.powell-pressburger.org/

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/blue-plaque-powell-pressburger/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powell_and_Pressburger

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Powell-Pressburger-Collection-DVD/dp/B000HRLWR6

Scorcese on P&P: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GItFNbLVCs

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/7967407/Michael-Powells-Peeping-Tom-the-film-that-killed-a-career.html

 

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