In the Orbit of Powell and Pressburger

Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

As writing, directing, and producing partners, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made some of the most transporting films in the history of cinema. Introducing Black Narcissus (1947) on Friday evening, Martin Scorsese will launch Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, a comprehensive retrospective put together by the British Film Institute and now set to run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through the end of July.

On Saturday, Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell during the last four years of his life, will introduce Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, directed by David Hinton. During his years with The South Bank Show, the popular British arts program, Hinton directed an hour-long portrait of Powell in 1986. The anchor of Made in England, though, is Scorsese, who, between clips, looks into the camera and tells us about a fascination with Powell and Pressburger that began with childhood viewings of chopped-up edits of the films on his family’s black-and-white television.

Scorsese’s “adoration of their expressionistic work borders on the obsessive,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “and alongside delivering a spry narrative history of their various productions, he explains how the spirit of their work seeped into his own, and often in surprising ways.” Made in England is “unabashedly subjective,” and “it passes the test that all these films must undergo with flying colors: yes, it makes you want to watch those incredible movies.”

Starting out as a gofer at the Victorine Studios in France, Powell returned to England in 1928 to work as a stills photographer for an array of directors that included Alfred Hitchcock. Parliament had just passed the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, which required that theaters screen a certain number of British films—a protective measure against the growing dominance of Hollywood.

In 1931, Powell teamed up with American producer Jerry Jackson to shoot what became known as “quota quickies,” short and cheap British features that could balance a double bill top-lined by an American spectacle. MoMA will present the BFI’s restorations of the thirteen surviving quota quickies that Powell made between 1931 and 1936. “He dismissed most of these early efforts as potboilers,” writes Imogen Sara Smith for the Notebook, “but none is without interest. He jazzes up talky, stage-bound scripts and often silly plots with flurries of rapid, Soviet-style montage and expressionistic angles and lighting, while signature themes emerge in some films that allowed him more creative input.”

Pressburger was a reporter in Hungary who landed a job as a dramaturg at the famed UFA Studios in Berlin in the mid-1920s. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, UFA fired all of its Jewish employees, and Pressburger left for Paris, leaving the key to his Berlin apartment in the door, he said, so that the stormtroopers wouldn’t have to smash their way in. In 1935, he arrived in England and eventually found work with Alexander Korda, a fellow Hungarian and the owner of London Films.

Korda hired Powell to direct The Spy in Black (1939), a World War I thriller and a vehicle for two of his stars, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. Dissatisfied with the screenplay, Korda called in Pressburger, who had notes that immediately impressed Powell. In short, they clicked, and a partnership was born that would blur the lines between writing, directing, and producing duties and endure for more than thirty years.

In their program notes, MoMA curators point out that Powell and Pressburger built up a team of frequent collaborators, including production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, sketch artist Ivor Beddoes, art director Arthur Lawson, and composer Brian Easdale as well as recurring cast members. One way into the oeuvre is to focus on the contributions of Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, and Deborah Kerr, and then, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and dancer-turned-actress Moira Shearer.

Walbrook grew up in Vienna as Adolf Wohlbrück, studied with renowned director Max Reinhardt, and after a short stint in Hollywood in 1936, crossed back across the Atlantic, avoiding the continent—he was half-Jewish and gay—and settling in London. His first Powell and Pressburger production was 49th Parallel (1941), a wartime thriller ordered up by the British Ministry of Information. The follow-up was One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and it was so successful that entertainment impresario J. Arthur Rank offered to help Powell and Pressburger set up a production company: The Archers.

The first Archers project was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), starring a not-so-famous British actor, Livesey, as career military man Clive Candy, later Major-General Wynne-Candy; Walbrook as Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, who defends the honor of the Imperial German Army in a duel with Candy before the two become lifelong friends; and Deborah Kerr, very much a star by this point, as three women who play crucial roles in various stages of Clive and Theo’s lives.

Writing for Reverse Shot in 2017, Imogen Sara Smith noted that David Low, “the New Zealand–born cartoonist who created Colonel Blimp, a buffoonish caricature of the military old guard, marveled at Pressburger’s ‘phenomenal power of storytelling,’ quipping, ‘He left Scheherazade standing.’ The comparison was apt. In the 1001 Nights, Scheherazade preserved her life by leaving her stories tantalizingly incomplete, so that the sultan would let her live to continue them. Part of Pressburger’s brilliance was to build into his screenplays chasms that the mind has to leap, and blanks that the imagination has to fill.”

“Powell was in love with Kerr when they were making the film,” writes Molly Haskell, “and one feels delicate shadings of chemistry in every scene between her and Powell surrogate Livesey. Indeed, there’s a kind of special, surreptitious charge between and among all three actors. Powell wrote that, in the course of making the film, ‘I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.’ But Kerr, lovely and wistful though with great inner strength, deserves special note. Of the subtlety and wisdom of her performance, the shifts in register as she changes personae, too little has been said.” In Colonel Blimp, “Kerr’s three women are, in different ways, just as strong-minded as [Wendy] Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going! [1945], or the intrepid [Sheila] Sim in A Canterbury Tale [1944], incipient feminists who provoke as much as they charm.”

Writing about the “paradox of warmth and coolness, of sensuality existing alongside—even feeding off—reserve” in Kerr’s on-screen presence, Jessica Kiang notes that while Powell “used that dichotomy three times over” in Colonel Blimp, the “hot/cold contradiction is even more potent distilled into a single role: in 1947’s voluptuously sensual Black Narcissus, Kerr’s icy Sister Clodagh is brought to the precipice of madness by her unworkable lust for David Farrar’s rough-hewn hunk of libidinous masculinity.”

Black Narcissus, in which a cluster of Anglican nuns attempt to set up a school and a hospital on a high peak in the Himalayas, is “an enchant­ment, an immersion in the sheer pleasure of artifice and the play of creation,” wrote Kent Jones in 2010. For Andrew Haigh (All of Us Strangers), “this is the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s films. The lipstick, the bell ringing, the repressed sexuality . . . It’s like a strange, feverish dream.”

When Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) opened in New York, Michael Koresky asked director Craig McCall how Cardiff wound up working with the Archers. “He was brought in at the end of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp only to do pickup shots, like pipes and ashtrays,” said McCall. “But Jack also got to shoot a whole interesting sequence of heads of animals on walls—and Michael Powell was behind him when he was lighting them. So even though it seemed a throwaway, Powell was impressed and said he’d hire him for his next film,” which was A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

In one of the most emotionally enthralling opening sequences ever put on film, David Niven is Peter Carter, a British Squadron Leader piloting a bomber that’s going down. He makes radio contact with an American operator, June (Kim Hunter), and in what they believe to be Peter’s final minutes, they fall in love. Peter crashes and is stunned to discover that he’s still alive. But the afterlife was expecting him, and they send Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to retrieve him. June calls on a friend, Dr. Frank Reeves (Livesey), for help. “It’s a testament to the Archers’ geniality and sensitivity that the actors never get lost in this elaborate mix,” writes Stephanie Zacharek. “Livesey is wonderful, shifting from affable to grave and back again with the subtlety of a cloud drifting past the moon.”

Zacharek also notes that “as captured by the duo’s ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff, our living world is all vital, saturated color—technically, Technicolor—so vivid we can feel it through our fingertips. The afterworld is rendered in luminous black and white, a palette of restful, harmonic tones that are seductive in their own way but not quite right for the living . . . It’s all lovely enough, but on one of his visits to earth, even Conductor 71, in the film’s most famous line, pinpoints what’s lacking in heaven: ‘One is starved for Technicolor up there!’”

Cardiff’s Technicolor soared to searing new heights in The Red Shoes (1948), starring ballet dancer Moira Shearer in her first feature as a ballerina torn between her career and her love for a composer (Marius Goring again). “Shearer proved, to Powell’s complete delight, to be that rarest of all cinematic supernovas: a natural,” writes David Ehrenstein. “And she amply demonstrates that the filmmakers were right in seeking out a dancer for the female lead, rather than an actor whose performance would be supplemented by a ballet double. For when you look at Shearer, you see a dancer—even when she’s standing still. Adding to that is the way she so easily conveys the spirit of a young woman who knows what she wants for a career, and is willing to take on the powerful man who wants to give it to her.”

“At the center of the company and the film,” writes Ian Christie, “is the most complex and riveting character the Archers ever created: the impresario Boris Lermontov, played with malevolent, devastating charm by Anton Walbrook. Lermontov lives through his creations. People and relationships are ruthlessly subordinated to a drive which inevitably reminds us also of the passion to create films.”

Shearer reunited with the Archers for The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), “as rich and strange a confection as the cinema ever produced,” writes Kim Newman, “with astonishing work from Moira Shearer as the dancing automaton Olympia (whose absurd demise, with broken springs coiling out of her severed head, I always find shocking and sad) and Robert Helpmann as Hoffmann’s multifaced archenemy.” For Bruce Eder, this “dazzling screen adaptation of the Offenbach opera—a visual, sonic, and sensual delight—marked the capstone of their work together, and the end of an era in British cinema.”

To circle back around to Scorsese, when he put together a Criterion Top 10 in 2014, he clearly set out to give no more than one slot to any given director—or, in the case of The Red Shoes, a creative team. “Of course, it’s beautiful,” he wrote, “one of the most beautiful Technicolor films ever made; it has such an extraordinary sense of magic—look again at the scene where Moira Shearer is walking up the steps to Anton Walbrook’s villa, especially in the new restoration: it seems like she’s floating on currents of sparkling light and air. And there’s no other picture that dramatizes and visualizes the overwhelming obsession of art, the way it can take over your life. But on a deeper level, in the movement and energy of the filmmaking itself, is a deep and abiding love of art, a belief in art as a genuinely transcendent state.”

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