Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Great Directors: Powell and Pressburger

with 6 comments

Essential films: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going!

Over the course of a single decade, from 1940 to 1949, the writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced ten masterpieces, beginning with Contraband and ending with The Small Back Room. This amazing run, conducted in the face of World War II and the difficult years that followed, is unparalleled in the history of movies, and deserves a great book on the subject. (Powell’s own autobiography, A Life in Movies, goes only part of the way toward filling that need.) Even more impressive is the dazzling range of stories on display. Some are naturalistic, while others are outrageously weird; there’s comedy, suspense, history, war, romance, melodrama, even excursions into science fiction and fantasy. One of their greatest films, A Canterbury Tale, doesn’t seem to be about anything at all, until we realize that it’s actually about everything in life that matters.

And yet every one of these movies is recognizably the work of the Archers. A film by Powell and Pressburger doesn’t look or feel like anything else: it’s the result of a very British mixture of humor, common sense, visual and narrative ingenuity, superstition, and a genuine curiosity about how the world works. If The Red Shoes had nothing to offer but dancing, music, and art direction, it would still be a classic, even an object of religious devotion. The fact that it also has a richly detailed story, fine performances, gorgeous locations, and cinematic inventiveness to rival Citizen Kane—and in color!—makes it seem almost inhumanly generous. Add this to the fact that it’s the best movie ever made on the creative process, and you have the work of art, after a lifetime of moviegoing, that has inspired and consoled me more than any other film.

Tomorrow: the dangerous example of Stanley Kubrick.

6 Responses

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  1. I’m suprised they didn’t call for a strip search.

    Any excuse you know.

    I mean passport control, not the directors.

    Glenfin y'all

    February 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm

  2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

    He died the way he lived, biting into something yummy.

    Glenfin y'all

    February 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm

  3. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

    I’ve never heard of them. Where have I been?

    They sound very interesting though.

    Where did they get the money to make films then? I wonder…during those times it must have been hard.

    A film ABOUT them would be interesting.

    Glenfin y'all

    February 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  4. “When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times”


    Glenfin y'all

    February 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm

  5. Start with The Red Shoes, then go from there. If you like what you see, you probably won’t want to stop.


    February 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

  6. These guys totally get my creative juices going.

    I imagine smoke and suits. Money exchanged in paper bags, blackouts…in-fighting…etc.

    Opening scene: smoke billowing from an ashtray, hushed, excited voices in the background.

    I thought it was a stroke of genius in “Winslow Boy” that we never saw Northam until after we heard his voice.

    That’s how it is in real life. And we were meant to imagine the significance of Northam. It sort of built up. And Northam’s voice had to be engaging from the start.

    It just wreaks of “write it!”…

    I love the time period, the theme of “creative process”…

    Northam plays Pressburg.

    “…they could never work on it together in the same room…dialogue, Pressburger would know what he wanted the characters to say but Powell would often supply some of the actual words.

    They would both act as producers, perhaps Pressburger slightly more so than Powell, since he could soothe the feathers ruffled by Powell’s forthright manner.

    The Archers generally worked as a team, with the cast and crew often making suggestions. Pressburger was always on hand, usually on the studio floor, to make sure that these late changes fitted seamlessly into the story.”

    I get it. I as a writer would have trouble with dialogue. I could write music, but I would do best with the arranging. I feel things. I am not as well read as some (lately) so the conversation…well it would come a bit harder.

    Glenfin y'all

    February 8, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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