Michael Powell: an auteur who loved to work with others

In our age of the Saw torture-porn franchise, Peeping Tom still has the capacity to disturb

In Praise of Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the pantheon of great British film directors, Michael Powell is somewhere at the top, along with Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. 

All three found different ways of escaping the straitjacket of parochialism and Britishness: Hitch by “becoming” American in the late 1930s, Lean by branding international historical epics in the 1960s, and Powell by embracing artifice to convey emotion, by exploring foreignness, and by actively seeking to make films that would appeal to international audiences. 

Powell’s films, while in so many ways having a quintessentially English flavour and containing so many English types, often give a sense of the world beyond Britain and are part of what film historian Charles Barr has called the “open” tradition in British cinema.

At the end of the silent era, Powell worked as an on-set stills photographer for, among others, Hitchcock. When sound came in, cameras initially had to be housed in soundproof boxes. Powell told the dejected director: “It was great while it lasted, Hitch. We got the camera moving, we had it running, we had it flying. Once the camera learnt to move, to pan, we could do anything, couldn’t we?”

Hitchcock agreed. “We’ll get the camera moving again,” he said.

Powell knew instinctively how to free the camera and make it move. He was responsible for one of the great cinematic crane shots, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, when the camera ascends into the roof of the gymnasium where the two main characters are dueling with swords. He understood visual storytelling and no other British director was better at using colours to stimulate our emotions.

Powell was also one of the most enthusiastically collaborative of directors and yet at the same time he qualifies as a highly distinctive auteur. His greatest collaboration, of course, was with Emeric Pressburger, the Hungarian émigré with whom he was co-producer, co-screenwriter, and co-director of 19 features. Alfred Junge was his production designer on eight films, Hein Heckroth his costume designer on four, Jack Cardiff his cinematographer on three, and David Lean his editor on two films.

And then there were the actors and actresses. Powell worked with Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Raymond Massey, and Cyril Cusack four times; Conrad Veidt, Roger Livesey, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Deborah Kerr, and Robert Helpmann three times; and Eric Portman, David Niven, and Jack Hawkins twice.

After the debacle, both critical and commercial, of Peeping Tom in 1960 (the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho), Powell was spurned by the British film industry. Intriguingly, his next project was a 1964 film for West German television of Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle — like Peeping Tom, a tale about a man who murders and “collects” women.

Powell acknowledges in the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Movies, that it was the academic film critic David Thomson who revived his reputation, with an entry in Thomson’s seminal A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975). This was during the golden age of the London repertory cinemas and before the age of the videocassette, let alone the DVD. Powell’s reputation was in limbo. Thereafter came the retrospectives, rediscoveries, and restorations of so many of his films.

Recently, I saw Peeping Tom again on Freeview. With a story once considered morally depraved by critics, about a young cameraman who films the terrified reactions of his female victims as he murders them, it was broadcast as early as 9pm. Nonetheless, in our age of the Saw torture-porn movie franchise, Peeping Tom still has the capacity to disturb, though without a single frame of gore, and even on the small screen Powell’s fluid camera and the film’s vibrant colour palette remains impressive. 

My most recent viewing of Black Narcissus — probably my favourite of all Powell’s movies — was at the Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, in a crisp new print. Every shot is like an exquisite painting (though with plenty of movement). Powell’s unfailing painterly eye complements Alfred Junge’s extraordinary stage sets that depicted the Himalayan nunnery (in a former pagan temple) on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios but also Walter Percy Day’s matte painting of the vertiginous mountain abyss that plays such an important part, both real and symbolic, in the story.

Black Narcissus (1947) is a melodrama set in colonial India about the depths of erotic desire and the dangers of its suppression, but it is also about imperialism in a tangential sense: the local Indian ruler, the General, has an English manager, Mr. Dean, who runs his estates, and he wants his adolescent son, the Little General (who wears the perfume called Black Narcissus) to learn some of the ways of the foreigner. 

Other themes are the clash between paganism and Christianity, the conflict between superstition and modern medicine, and the association of the exotic with the rampantly erotic.

The only other reference to the British Empire in Powell’s work is the trick shot of animal trophies magically appearing on the wall of Clive Candy’s home to denote the passage of time through his off-screen travels in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. 

Most directors are haunted by what-might-have-beens

Most directors are haunted by what-might-have-beens and in his autobiography Powell tells of some movies that he wanted to make but never did. One was a colonial adventure story called Burmese Silver, another was an epic about Spanish conquistadors in Latin America, and yet another was to have been based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 fantasy novel for teenagers, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Sadly, Powell made no feature films after the age of 64, although his two-volume autobiography was a masterpiece of its genre. Yet his cinematic legacy offers so many visceral pleasures, just a few of which, for me, are The Archers production company logo that precedes most Powell and Pressburger films and betokens the joys to come, the mellifluous sound of Roger Livesey’s voice, Marius Goring’s time-travelling fop from the court of Louis XVI in A Matter of Life and Death and his precious way of calling David Niven’s character “Pee-tair”, and, in Black Narcissus, those nuns’ hearts being set a-flutter by David Farrar’s sudden appearance among them, bare-chested, and Sister Ruth’s later descent into lust-driven madness. 

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