Michael Latham Powell
30 September 1905
|Died||19 February 1990 84) (aged|
Gloria Mary Rouger
(m. 1927;div. 1927)
(m. 1943;died 1983)
Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 – 19 February 1990) was an English filmmaker, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company The Archers, they together wrote, produced and directed a series of classic British films, notably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, also called Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His later controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom , while today considered a classic, and a contender as the first "slasher", was so vilified on first release that his career was seriously damaged.
Many filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George A. Romero have cited Powell as an influence.In 1981, he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award along with his partner Pressburger, the highest honour the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker.
Powell was the second son and youngest child of Thomas William Powell, a hop farmer, and Mabel, daughter of Frederick Corbett, of Worcester, England. Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker.
Powell entered the film industry in 1925 through working with director Rex Ingram at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France (the contact with Ingram was made through Powell's father, who owned a hotel in Nice). He first started out as a general studio hand, the proverbial "gofer": sweeping the floor, making coffee, fetching and carrying. Soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles, usually as comic characters. Powell made his film début as a "comic English tourist" in The Magician (1926).
Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was the first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films.Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.
After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make "quota quickies", hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that British cinemas screen a certain quota of British films. During this period, he developed his directing skills, sometimes making up to seven films a year.
Although he had taken on some directing responsibilities in other films, Powell had his first screen credit as a director on Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest success at the box office despite its limited budget.From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).
In 1937 Powell completed his first truly personal project, The Edge of the World . Powell gathered together a cast and crew who were willing to take part in an expedition to what was then a very isolated part of the UK. They had to stay there for quite a few months and finished up with a film which not only told the story he wanted but also captured the raw natural beauty of the location.
By 1939, Powell had been hired as a contract director by Alexander Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World . Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled.Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black , where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.
The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too verbose and did not have a good role for either Veidt or Hobson. Korda called a meeting where he introduced a diminutive man, saying, "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."
Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:
"Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top [American] screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists ... the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. ... The European film no longer existed. ... Only the great German film business was prepared to fight the American monopoly, and Dr. Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the storm-troopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film."
They both soon recognised that although they were total opposites in background and personality, they had a common attitude to film-making and that they could work very well together. After making two more films together ( Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel ) with separate credits, the pair decided to form a partnership and to sign their films jointly as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."
Working together as co-producers, writers and directors in a partnership they dubbed "The Archers", they made 19 feature films, many of which received critical and commercial success. Their best films are still regarded as classics of 20th century British cinema. The BFI 100 list of "the favourite British films of the 20th century" contains five of Powell's films, four with Pressburger.
Although admirers would argue that Powell ought to rank alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his career suffered a severe reversal after the release of the controversial psychological thriller film Peeping Tom , made in 1960 as a solo effort.The film was excoriated by mainstream British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to work thereafter.
The film did however meet with the rapturous approval of the young critics of Positif and Midi-Minuit Fantastique in France, and those of Motion in England, and in 1965 he was subject of a major positive revaluation by Raymond Durgnat in the auteurist magazine Movie, later included in Durgnat's influential book A Mirror for England.
Powell's films came to have a cult reputation, broadened during the 1970s and early 1980s by a series of retrospectives and rediscoveries, as well as further articles and books. By the time of his death, he and Pressburger were recognised as one of the foremost film partnerships of all time – and cited as a key influence by many noted filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola.
In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron.From 1 July 1943 until her death on 5 July 1983, Powell was married to Frances "Frankie" May Reidy, the daughter of medical practitioner Jerome Reidy; they had two sons: Kevin Michael Powell (b. 1945) and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell (b. 1951). He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.
Subsequently, Powell was married to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire.His niece was the Australian actress Cornelia Frances, who appeared in bit parts in her uncle's early films.
The Academy Film Archive has preserved A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies". Not all of them were really quota films, and the ones that were are often of a much higher standard than most other quota films. Some of his early films are now missing and are believed lost. But those that have survived often show some very sophisticated techniques and early versions of ideas that were reused, done better, in his later films. Those marked with an * are "Missing, believed lost".
|Year||Title||Production Company||Other notes|
|1928||Riviera Revels||G. Ventimigla and Marcel Lucien||A series of comedy shorts. Powell co-directed with Harry Lachman|
|1930||Caste||Harry Rowson (Ideal)||Uncredited as director, main director was Campbell Gullan|
|1931||Two Crowded Hours *||Film Engineering|
|1932||My Friend the King *||Film Engineering|
|The Rasp *||Film Engineering|
|The Star Reporter *||Film Engineering|
|Hotel Splendide||Film Engineering.|
A Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd
|C.O.D. *||Westminster Films|
|His Lordship||Westminster Films|
|1933||Born Lucky *||Westminster Films|
|1934||The Fire Raisers||Gaumont-British|
|Red Ensign||Gaumont-British||US title: Strike!|
|Something Always Happens||Warner Brothers.|
First National Productions Ltd
|1935||The Girl in the Crowd *||First National|
|Lazybones||A Real Art Production|
|The Love Test||Fox British|
|The Night of the Party||Gaumont-British Picture Corporation||US title: The Murder Party|
|The Phantom Light||A Gainsborough Picture|
|The Price of a Song *||Fox British|
|Someday *||Warner British||a.k.a. Young Nowheres|
|1936||Her Last Affaire||New Ideal Productions Ltd|
|The Brown Wallet *||Warner Brothers.|
|Crown v. Stevens||Warner Brothers. First National Productions Ltd||a.k.a. Third Time Unlucky|
|The Man Behind the Mask||Joe Rock Studios||reissued as Behind the Mask. Only exists as a cut-down US print.|
Aside from some short films, Powell wrote, produced and directed all of his films from 1939 to 1957 with Emeric Pressburger
|Year||Title||Production Company||Other notes|
|1937||The Edge of the World||Joe Rock Productions|
|1939||The Spy in Black||Harefield||US title: U Boat 29|
Embankment Fellowship Co.
|10-minute short film|
|The Lion Has Wings||London Film Productions||RAF documentary footage with some fictional intercuts|
|1940||Contraband||British National||US title: Blackout|
|The Thief of Bagdad||Alexander Korda Films Inc.||co-director|
|1941||An Airman's Letter to His Mother||a 5-minute short|
|49th Parallel||Ortus Films|
(and Ministry of Information (United Kingdom))
|US title: The Invaders|
|1942||One of Our Aircraft Is Missing||The Archers.|
|1943||The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp||The Archers/|
|The Volunteer||The Archers.|
Ministry of Information (United Kingdom)
|a short propaganda film|
|1944||A Canterbury Tale||The Archers|
|1945||I Know Where I'm Going!||The Archers|
|1946||A Matter of Life and Death||The Archers||US title: Stairway To Heaven|
|1947||Black Narcissus||The Archers|
for Independent Producers Ltd.
|1948||The Red Shoes||The Archers|
|1949||The Small Back Room||The Archers.|
|1950||Gone to Earth||The Archers.|
|US title: The Wild Heart (1952) – substantially re-edited version additional scenes directed by Rouben Mamoulian|
|The Elusive Pimpernel||London Film Productions|
(and The Archers)
|US title: The Fighting Pimpernel|
|1951||The Tales of Hoffmann|| British Lion Film Corporation |
(with Vega Productions and The Archers)
|1955||Oh... Rosalinda!!|| Associated British Picture Corporation.|
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
|1956||The Sorcerer's Apprentice|| 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/|
|a short ballet|
|The Battle of the River Plate||Arcturus Productions.|
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
|US title: The Pursuit of the Graf Spee|
|1957||Ill Met by Moonlight||Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger|
for Rank Organisation Film Productions (and Vega Productions)
|US title: Night Ambush|
|1959||Luna de Miel||Michael Powell Production|
for Suevia Films-Cesáreo González (Spain)/Everdene (GB)
|1960||Peeping Tom||Michael Powell Production|
|1961||The Queen's Guards||Imperial. |
Michael Powell Production
|1963||Herzog Blaubarts Burg||Süddeutscher Rundfunk. Norman Foster Produktion||a.k.a. Bluebeard's Castle|
|1966||They're a Weird Mob|| J. C. Williamson Film Company (Australia)/|
Michael Powell Production
|Pressburger wrote the script as Richard Imrie|
|1969||Age of Consent||Nautilus Productions|
|1972||The Boy Who Turned Yellow||Roger Cherrill Ltd|
for the Children's Film Foundation
|Script by Pressburger|
|1978||Return to the Edge of the World||Poseidon Films/|
|For British TV, framing of the original 1937 film|
Powell also directed episodes of the TV series The Defenders , Espionage and The Nurses .
|Year||Title||Production Company||Other notes|
|1963||Never Turn Your Back on a Friend||Herbert Brodkin Ltd.||Episode for the Espionage series|
|1964||The Frantick Rebel||Herbert Brodkin Ltd.||Episode for the Espionage series|
|1964||A Free Agent||Herbert Brodkin Ltd.||Episode for the Espionage series|
|1965||The Sworn Twelve||Herbert Brodkin Ltd.||Episode for The Defenders series|
|1965||A 39846||Herbert Brodkin Ltd.||Episode for The Nurses series|
Powell was also involved in the following films in a non-directorial role:
Many of these titles were also published in other countries or republished. The list above deals with initial publications except where the name was changed in a subsequent edition or printing.
Black Narcissus is a 1947 British psychological drama film written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, and Jean Simmons. The title refers to the Caron perfume Narcisse Noir.
The Red Shoes is a 1948 British drama film written, directed, and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It follows Victoria Page, a ballerina who joins the world renowned Ballet Lermontov, owned and operated by Boris Lermontov, who tests her dedication to the ballet by making her choose between her career and a romance with composer Julian Craster.
The Battle of the River Plate is a 1956 British war film in Technicolor and VistaVision by the writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film stars John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, and Peter Finch. It was distributed worldwide by Rank Film Distributors Ltd.
Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian-British screenwriter, film director, and producer. He is best known for his series of film collaborations with Michael Powell, in a collaboration partnership known as the Archers, and produced a series of films, including 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
Peeping Tom is a 1960 colour British psychological horror-thriller film directed by Michael Powell, written by Leo Marks, and starring Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, and Moira Shearer. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable film camera to record their dying expressions of terror. Its title derives from the slang expression 'Peeping Tom', which describes a voyeur.
A Matter of Life and Death is a 1946 British fantasy-romance film set in England during the Second World War. Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter and Marius Goring.
I Know Where I'm Going! is a 1945 romance film by the British-based filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It stars Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, and features Pamela Brown and Finlay Currie.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is a 1943 romantic drama war film written, produced and directed by the British film making team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It stars Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr and Anton Walbrook. The title derives from the satirical Colonel Blimp comic strip by David Low, but the story itself is original. The film has been acclaimed as the greatest British movie ever made and is renowned for its sophistication and directorial brilliance as well as for its script, the performances of its large cast and for its pioneering Technicolor cinematography. Among its distinguished company of actors, particular praise has been reserved for Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr.
The British film-making partnership of Michael Powell (1905–1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988)—together often known as The Archers, the name of their production company—made a series of influential films in the 1940s and 1950s. Their collaborations—24 films between 1939 and 1972—were mainly derived from original stories by Pressburger with the script written by both Pressburger and Powell. Powell did most of the directing while Pressburger did most of the work of the producer and also assisted with the editing, especially the way the music was used. Unusually, the pair shared a writer-director-producer credit for most of their films. The best-known of these are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
Contraband (1940) is a wartime spy film by the British director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which reunited stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson after their earlier appearance in The Spy in Black the previous year. On this occasion, Veidt plays a hero, something he did not do very often, and there is also an early (uncredited) performance by Leo Genn.
The Elusive Pimpernel is a 1950 British period adventure film by the British-based director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It was released in the United States under the title The Fighting Pimpernel. The film stars David Niven as Sir Percy Blakeney, Margaret Leighton as Marguerite Blakeney and features Jack Hawkins, Cyril Cusack and Robert Coote. Originally intended to be a musical, the film was re-worked as a light-hearted drama.
The Tales of Hoffmann is a 1951 British Technicolor comic opera film written, produced and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger working under the umbrella of their production company, The Archers. It is an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's 1881 opera The Tales of Hoffmann, itself based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), released in the USA as Night Ambush, is a film by the British writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the last movie they made together through their production company "The Archers". The film, which stars Dirk Bogarde and features Marius Goring, David Oxley, and Cyril Cusack, is based on the 1950 book Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe by W. Stanley Moss, which is an account of events during the author's service on Crete during World War II as an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The title is a quotation from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the book features the young agents' capture and evacuation of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.
Erwin Hillier was a German-born cinematographer known for his work in British cinema from the 1940s to 1960s.
Jack Cardiff, was a British cinematographer, film and television director, and photographer. His career spanned the development of cinema, from silent film, through early experiments in Technicolor, to filmmaking more than half a century later.
The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) is the last film collaboration by the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the last theatrical film directed by Michael Powell. The film was made for the Children's Film Foundation.
Raymond Durgnat was a British film critic, who was born in London of Swiss parents. During his life he wrote for virtually every major English language film publication. In 1965 he published the first major critical essay on Michael Powell, who had hitherto been "fashionably dismissed by critics as a 'technician’s director'", as Durgnat put it.
Thelma Colbert Schoonmaker is an American film editor, known for her over fifty years of work with director Martin Scorsese. She started working with Scorsese on his debut feature film Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), and has edited all of Scorsese's films since Raging Bull (1980). Schoonmaker has received eight Academy Award nominations for Best Film Editing, and has won three times—for Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and The Departed (2006), which were all Scorsese-directed films.
Miracle in Soho is a 1957 British drama film directed by Julian Amyes and starring John Gregson, Belinda Lee and Cyril Cusack. The film depicts the lives of the inhabitants of a small street in Soho and the romance between a local road-builder and the daughter of Italian immigrants.
Ian Christie is a British film scholar. He has written several books including studies of the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Martin Scorsese and the development of cinema. He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine and a frequent broadcaster. Christie is Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London.
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