The Bluffer's Guide
Powell & Pressburger: The Archers

toward the end of his mammoth documentary Histoire du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard goes through a list of countries, summarizing each of their contributions to world cinema. After praising the films of Italy, France, Germany, and America, he has this to say about England: “In cinema, England has always done nothing.” Fans of Carol Reed and Ealing Comedy may balk, but it’s an unfortunate fact that England has long been considered a black sheep by the film world, afforded neither the respect nor the attention it deserves. If Godard had looked a little closer, he would have found that in the ‘40s and ‘50s England was host to one of the finest filmmaking teams in the history of cinema: Producer-writer-director duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, collectively known as the Archers.

When they first met, Powell had already spent twenty years in the British film industry (he and Hitchcock had worked side-by-side as still photographers), and the Hungarian-born Pressburger, a veteran of Germany’s UFA studios, had just escaped the Nazis. After working together on a pair of films for super-producer Alexander Korda, the pair earned enough clout to open their own production company and generate original material, effectively making them independent filmmakers. Their ambitions were nicely laid out by Pressburger in a letter sent to actress Deborah Kerr, asking her to appear in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, their first major production:
1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring a profit, not a loss.

2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgment.

3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for no other reason than her nakedness.

5. At any time, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject.
Although their work always bore the shared credit “written, produced, and directed by,” Powell is generally seen as the director and Pressburger as the screenwriter, but both took part in each step of the process. Dubbing their production company “The Archers,” together they helmed nineteen films between 1942 and 1972, developing a style that blended novelistic structure, verbal wit, thematic depth, and visual extravagance. They worked in color and in black and white, with budgets large and small. They collaborated with stars such as David Niven and Laurence Olivier, and with celebrated technicians like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and editor (later director) David Lean. In America they won Oscars, and broke box office records with their most celebrated film, The Red Shoes; but despite their many successes, throughout their career Powell and Pressburger struggled for acceptance in England, where critics and audiences alike dismissed their flamboyant, audacious work as frivolous. And while today Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman are household names, many of the Archers’ movies remain little-seen—this despite efforts to champion them by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and by the Criterion Collection, whose august shelves stand as the one place where the their work can still be found.

The Archers’ catalogue can be a bit unwieldy, with pitfalls for newcomers, so here are seven of Powell and Pressburger’s finest films, with a few notes of introduction. All but one should be readily available in America, and all open with the same triumphant production banner: that of an arrow sailing into the center of a bulls-eye.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell and Pressburger, 1943)

Conceived and completed during the Blitz, Blimp tells the epic life story of Officer Clive Wynne-Candy, a fictional veteran of three British wars. A massive production filmed in rich Technicolor, the film introduces two of the Archer’s favorite players, Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, both of whom give astonishing performances as a British and German officer that remain close friends for three decades, even as their countries twice go to war.

Sometimes called the “British Citizen Kane,” Blimp concerns itself with regret, the passage of time, and the transformation of an old world into a modern one. It’s also directed specifically at a wartime audience that was beginning to question whether the old British rules of engagement were relevant in the face of Nazi ruthlessness—the “Blimp” of the sadly dated title refers to a long-forgotten newspaper cartoon lampooning the aging military old guard. The film stands as a repudiation of those who would deny the achievements made by that old guard, while also acknowledging that their age has passed. Watch for the swordsman’s duel that first brings Livesey and Walbrook together, containing an extraordinary crane shot that has been imitated many times, but never bettered.

I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell and Pressburger, 1945)

One of the finest romantic films ever made, I Know Where I’m Going tells the story of Joan Webster (the great Dame Wendy Hiller), a middle-class English girl willing to do anything to move up in the world. As with Colonel Blimp, the film’s themes are specifically rooted in English identity—in this case, the British obsession with social class. When Joan is on her way to marry a wealthy industrialist on his private Scottish isle of Kiloran, a storm hits, trapping her on the Isle of Mull. There she meets a naval officer returning from the war (Livesey again), and an attraction forms between the two.

This may sound like it conforms to the traditional romantic-comedy cliches, but I Know Where I’m Going has a lot more on its mind than your average Meg Ryan movie. This is a serious picture, saturated with myth and superstition, and containing some of Michael Powell’s most inventive imagery, from tartan hills to a stovepipe hat that becomes an actual stovepipe. Filmed in black and white due to a wartime lack of color film stock, the movie features extraordinarily dark visuals, and uniquely relies on atmosphere—wind, rain, tempestuous seas—to convey states of mind. Parts of the film may seem quaint at first, but stick with it—this is one of the Archer’s very best movies, and a fine place for newcomers to start.

A Matter of Life and Death (Powell and Pressburger, 1946)

If Colonel Blimp is the “British Citizen Kane,” A Matter of Life and Death is the British Wizard of Oz. David Niven’s RAF pilot is shot down during World War II, but a slip-up in “the other world” (avowedly not heaven) leaves his spirit uncollected. As he lobbies a celestial jury for a second chance at life, he remains unconscious on an Earthly operating table. In a clever reversal, the Archers chose to film the “other world” in black and white, and the “real world” in color.

I Know Where I’m Going and Colonel Blimp both contained expressive visual flourishes, but A Matter of Life and Death is Powell and Pressburger’s bold leap into expressionistic fantasy. The Dali-esque production design includes a heavenly staircase that dwarfs the actors, and an Art Deco afterlife—all vertical lines and sweeping planes. At this point, the Archers’ ambition was growing by leaps and bounds. Sadly, this witty, wondrous movie is only available in a mediocre VHS edition.

Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

Probably Powell and Pressburger’s most conventional film, Black Narcissus is required viewing, even if it isn’t their finest hour. A bizarre melodrama about English nuns attempting to establish a mission high up in the Himalayas, Narcissus is somewhat of a companion piece to I Know Where I’m Going, telling as it does a story of willpower and logic succumbing to suppressed emotion. But where Joan Webster contemplated giving up money for love, the nuns in Black Narcissus threaten to give up their vows for sex; a gleefully over-the-top performance is given by Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, whose psychosexual breakdown culminates in an attempted murder.

While parts of the movie have dated—particularly the borderline-imperialist attitude toward the locals—Black Narcissus showcases some of the most breathtaking images ever captured on film. In 2001, when cinematographer Jack Cardiff was given an honorary Oscar, the audience was wowed by the astounding camerawork from Black Narcissus spotlighted in the clip presentation. Along with The Archer’s own Red Shoes, Martin Scorsese has called this one of the most beautiful color films ever made. Astonishingly, it doesn’t contain a single frame of location shooting—these Himalayas are a studio creation.

The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948)

The Red Shoes stands alongside A Matter of Life and Death as the Archers’ finest hour. Starring Moira Shearer as a young, ambitious ballerina, and featuring another powerhouse performance from Anton Walbrook as Lermontov, the megalomaniac impresario of an illustrious ballet company, The Red Shoes is the Archers’ first attempt at creating what Powell called a “composed film”—pure cinema that seamlessly fuses sound and image. But don’t let the ballet theme fool you into expecting something thin and lighthearted—this is a movie about artistic obsession, bordering on madness. Some have criticized it as melodrama, but anyone who has ever experienced the highs and lows of the creative process will understand the artistic anguish at its meta-cinematic center.

The film also showcases the most expressive color cinematography ever designed. Influencing generations of filmmakers, from Vincente Minnelli to Wes Anderson, the lush, painterly colors give the entire movie the feeling of a dream. The surreal fifteen-minute “Red Shoes” ballet sequence begat decades of Hollywood showstoppers, and its emphasis on subjective reality provided Scorsese with a conceptual blueprint for the fight sequences in Raging Bull. The dancing is mesmerizing (it doesn’t hurt that Moira Shearer is among the most beautiful actresses ever put before a camera), but this isn’t a typical feel-good musical: here, everyone is dancing on the edge of a cliff. Even better than its reputation suggests, The Red Shoes deserves to be counted among the great masterworks of world cinema. Take that, Godard.

The Tales of Hoffman (Powell and Pressburger, 1951)

Powell and Pressburger continued their experiments with the “composed film” with the idiosyncratic Tales of Hoffman, an adaptation of the Jacques Offenbach opera. This unique film doesn’t contain a single line of dialogue—every line is sung, every scene backed by a rich orchestral score performed by the Royal Philharmonic. A completely cinematic opera, Powell and Pressburger use camera movement, editing, composition, and color here just as a conductor would arrange an orchestra. The titular character, wandering poet Hoffman, frames the film as he sits in a pub surrounded by a rapt audience, telling them of his three great loves, each of which ended in heartbreak.

A kind of anthology, Hoffman presents each tale independently. Gothic fantasy images recur—Hoffman’s first love is a mechanical doll (Moira Shearer again), and a malevolent conjurer (Robert Helpmann) inexplicably appears throughout Hoffman’s life, bewitching him. Hoffman is not without missteps—the lip-synching is hard to overlook, and the drab third “tale” is a bit of a disappointment after the wonders of the first two—but adventurous viewers will find the vibrant Technicolor, intricate choreography, and expressionistic production design too grand to miss. Horror auteur George Romero has made a second career out of championing the film. Certainly not the place to start, but a good place to finish, The Tales of Hoffman was sadly the first in a long line of flops for the Archers, and the beginning of the end for their brilliant career.

Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)

If The Tales of Hoffman was the beginning of the end, Peeping Tom was the epilogue. Part proto-slasher film, part black-comedy, Tom details the sordid story of Mark Lewis, a shy, lonely photographer responsible for a string of sex killings. The victim of childhood abuse (in a clever wink, Michael Powell plays his father in flashbacks), Lewis is obsessed with filming and re-watching his own murders, creating an explicit link between sex, death, and cinematic voyeurism. Unrelentingly nasty, the film can make for uncomfortable viewing: its rich ambiguity and psychological depth forces viewers to identify with its mad central character. Filled with morbid humor and unsettling murder sequences (check out the difficult-to-watch scene in which an aging Moira Shearer is stabbed to death), Tom tackles the concept of the “Male Gaze” head on.

Years ahead of its time, the film shocked British audiences, and effectively destroyed Michael Powell’s career. Since then it has proved at least as influential as Hitchcock’s 1960 counterpart Psycho, which today seems the tamer, less intellectually challenging of the two. Far darker than anything he completed with Pressburger, Peeping Tom is Michael Powell’s final statement on the cinema, a vicious indictment of both himself, and his audience. The opening shots cut between the Archers’ arrow-studded logo to an extreme close-up of a human eye, immediately making Powell’s cinema-of-cruelty objective crystal clear. Incidentally, Tom also provided the inspiration for Raising Cain, Brian De Palma’s bizarre, underrated dissection of the thriller form, which was nearly as destructive to his career as this film was to Powell’s.

By: Patrick McKay
Published on: 2007-03-22
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