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Ian Christie on Powell & Pressburger

Posted in Film on Aug 14, 2017

The following piece by Ian Christie was commissioned by Tyneside Cinema for The Luminaries programme.

Still Crazy after all these years - Powell and Pressburger in the 21st century

It may be hard to believe today, but as recently as the 1970s Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had been effectively written out of British film history. Actually, to be more accurate, they’d never been written into it. During the 1960s and 70s, when the idea of taking cinema seriously was coming into focus, there was a climate of suspicion surrounding British cinema as a whole – one highly regarded scholar described it as ‘unknown’, and the new critical magazines that were starting up often carried scathing attacks on the latest British ‘quality’ films.

Powell, with or without Pressburger, had originally been written off by the generation of Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema documentarists. Only the maverick critic Raymond Durgnat carried a torch for films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Peeping Tom, both of which were actually impossible to see in their original form in the 70s. And when I urged the National Film Theatre to run a Powell-Pressburger retrospective in 1978, their first thought was to focus on just half a dozen of the best.

But how would we have known which were ‘best’, among so many still impossible to view? That retrospective eventually included, I believe, 35 programmes, with a number of key films being seen for the first time in a generation. And it proved to be a revelation, inspiring a series of similar retrospectives around the world, at the Munich Film Museum, the Locarno Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With Martin Scorsese’s enthusiastic support, Powell and Pressburger became the great discovery of the 1980s, just in time for the two neglected filmmakers to savour some of their long-delayed acclaim. The tide of recognition also helped raise funds for restoration of their mutilated masterpiece, Colonel Blimp, and set in motion video and even laser-disc editions of the films for those unable to see them in cinema conditions.

By the 90s, recognition of Powell, with and without Pressburger, had become an article of faith among younger cinephiles, and indeed many filmmakers. The central body of their work in the 1940s – from Blimp to The Red Shoes – had magically transformed from being despised and forgotten to becoming ‘classic’ British cinema. But with this welcome recognition came a new danger: that the once-despised films would become a focus for nostalgia, for a celebration of cosy Englishness (or Scottishness, in the case of I Know Where I'm Going and Powell's Edge of the World).

Obviously, the films had acquired a nostalgic appeal - especially for those discovering them during the bleak Thatcher years. They speak of a world threatened by the shock of 'total war', as the chirpy young Lieutenant tells the Blimpish General Clive Candy. Of discovering 'English values' in unlikely situations, as in A Canterbury Tale. And also of a world alive to beauty, in Black Narcissus, and to the magical enchantment of art, in both A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes.  

But the danger is that we forget how disruptive and daring they were in their own time; what risks Powell and Pressburger were able to take, especially with the benign support of Arthur Rank, making them - as Martin Scorsese put in back in 1985, 'the only experimental filmmakers who managed to work within the system, and still get away with making truly experimental films''. That was in the foreword he wrote for my book Arrows of Desire, at a time when we were still discovering the lesser known Powell-Pressburger films, and Powell's solo work.

Since then, we have had the benefit of Powell's remarkable two volumes of memoirs, A Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie, which show not only how they consciously tried to challenge audiences and upset expectations, but also what struggles they had to maintain their independence. After the crisis of confidence with Rank over The Red Shoes in 1948, they found themselves in uncharted waters, at the mercy of Korda's need to bring American producers on board during the economic crisis that gripped Britain in the late Forties. The films that bore the brunt of this transatlantic interference, most obviously Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel, may show signs of compromise, but they also include wonderful ideas and imagery, harking back to the eighteenth-century struggle between England and France, and to the Edwardian era that had shaped Powell's own youth.

All filmmaking is the result of compromise, even the work of filmmakers renowned for their independence and determination. Scorsese's own career can be read as a neverending struggle to realise his vision for each work. Which is why he was thrilled to meet and get to know Powell at the time when he was making what is perhaps his most uncompromising film, Raging Bull. The story has often been told of how Powell encouraged him to shot this in black and white, set off by a brief burst of colour home movie, making it one of Scorsese's own truly experimental films (and you'll find on the BBC Radio 4 website a programme about how this was also when Powell met Thelma Schoonmaker, 'Love in the Cutting Room', which I was privileged to contribute to).

Powell's and Pressburger's films are now available in some of the best digital restorations of modern times, allowing us to fully appreciate their extraordinary craftsmanship - you can now literally see detail that was for long invisible in The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann, a key childhood influence on Scorsese when he saw it on television, now has a delightful final twist, only discovered during its recent restoration. But as we continue to admire these extraordinary films, it's important to remember that they really were experimental, running crazy risks with their backers' tolerance, and daring audiences to follow their sense of poetic fate. We shouldn’t let familiarity make us underestimate their originality.

Find out more about Powell and Pressburger at an Illustrated Talk with Ian Christie on Sunday 20 August at 13:45 - for tickets click here.

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