Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

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Who was Michael Powell

Michael Powell, born on 30 September 1905, was an English director, famous for his collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company The Archers, together they have created a collection of classic British films, most notably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! His controversial 1960 movies Peeping Tom, while today considered a cult slasher genre, was so vilified on first release that his work was seriously damaged.

Many directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and even George A. Romero actually mentioned Powell as one of the most important directors of all time. In 1981 he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award along with his partner Pressburger, the greatest honor the British Film Academy can offer a director.

Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and studied at King’s School, Canterbury and later at Dulwich College. He began operating at the Provincial National Bank in 1922, however he quickly realized he was not inclined to be a banker.

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Michael Powell and Cinema

Powell entered the film industry in 1925 working with director Rex Ingram at Victorine Studios in Nice, France (contact with Ingram was established through Powell’s father, who owned a resort in Nice). Powell made his film debut as a “British comic traveler” in The Magician (1926).

Returning to England in 1928, Powell held a number of assignments for various directors, including as a photographer in the silent movie of Alfred Hitchcock Champagne (1928). In his memoirs, Powell claims to have suggested the ending at the British Museum, which was Hitchcock’s first true “significant” climax to his movies. Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the rest of their lives.

After writing the screenplay for two productions, Powell partnered with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make the hour-long “quote quickies” films required to meet a legal requirement that British cinemas they required for a particular assignment to British films. During this time, he consolidated his skills as a director, in some cases making up to 7 films a year.

Though he handled some responsibilities in various other movies, Powell had his first screen credit as a supervisor in Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest box office success despite its limited budget. From 1931 to 1936, Powell directed 23 movies, including Red Ensign the critically acclaimed The Phantom Light (1935).

Emeric Pressburger

Emeric Pressburger, born December 5, 1902, was a Hungarian-British writer, director and film producer. He is known for his film collaborations with Michael Powell, as well as having produced many films, including 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and also Death (United States: Stairway to Heaven, 1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Imre József Pressburger was born in Miskolc, in the Kingdom of Hungary, of Jewish origin. He later researched mathematics and engineering at the University of Prague and Stuttgart, before his father’s death forced him to drop out.

Pressburger in the Cinema

Pressburger started as a journalist. After working in Hungary and Weimar Republic-era Germany, he began writing screenplays in the late 1920s. The rise of the Nazis forced him to leave for Paris, where he worked again as a screenwriter, and then to London.

Pressburger’s first movies were mainly shot in Germany and France at UFA Studios in the Dramaturgy division (script supervision and project selection) and also as a full-fledged screenwriter. In the 1930s, numerous European movies were made in multilingual versions. 

In 1933, after the Nazis came to power, the leaders of the UFA fired the remaining Jewish employees of the company and Pressburger was told that his contract would not be renewed. He left his Berlin apartment, “leaving the key in the door to make sure the Stormtroopers wouldn’t have to damage the door” and left for Paris. Towards the end of 1935, Pressburger decided he would certainly do better in England.

Pressburger in the UK

Pressburger-and-Powell-on-the-set
Pressburger and Powell on the set

Pressburger entered Great Britain in 1935 as a stateless person; changed his name to Emeric in 1938. At Korda’s request to improve the manuscript for The Spy in Black (1939), he met with the film’s director, Michael Powell. Pressburger still did some jobs by himself.

Pressburger was more than just “Michael Powell’s screenwriter” as some have classified him. The movies they made together were mainly Pressburger stories, who also did most of the production work for the team. Likewise, Pressburger was much more involved in the assembly process than Powell. In addition, Pressburger was also involved in the selection of music for their movies.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

powell-pressburger

Powell and Pressburger began using different mediums after the mid-1950s. They remained friends but wanted to discover different things, having actually done their best together. Two of his latest movies have been made under the pseudonym “Richard Imrie”.

2 Pressburger novels have been published. The first Killing a Mouse on a Sunday (1961), is set in the Spanish Civil War. It garnered favorable reviews and was quickly translated into a dozen languages. The Glass Pearls (1966) got a particularly unfavorable rating from The Times Literary Supplement, its only review. It was defined by Lucy Scholes in The Paris Review in 2019 as “a truly extraordinary work. It should be identified both for craftsmanship and as a vital addition to the style of Holocaust literary works.”

Working together as co-producers, writers and supervisors in a collaboration they dubbed “The Archers,” they have made 19 feature films, many of which have received vital and commercial success. The BFI 100 list of “Favorite British Films of the 20th Century” includes 5 films by Powell, four featuring Pressburger.

Fans would certainly argue that Powell should review alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, too, his career took a serious turn after the launch of the thriller film psychological Peeping Tom , made in 1960 as a soloist. The film was panned by leading British critics, who were offended by its sex-related and violent images; Powell was marginalized from the film industry and has only been able to work intermittently since.

The film nevertheless met the ecstatic approval of the young critics of Positif and Midi-Minuit Fantastique in France, and those of Motion in England, and in 1965 it was the subject of a major positive re-evaluation by Raymond Durgnat in the author publication The film later found space in Durgnat’s significant publication A Mirror for England.

Powell’s films arrived cult films in the 1970s and early 1980s thanks to a collection of retrospectives and rediscoveries, as well as additional writings and publications. At the time of his death, he and also Pressburger had been identified as one of the leading film collaborations of all time and mentioned as a key impact by many directors kept in mind as Martin Scorsese , Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola.

Pressburger in private life

On June 24, 1938, Pressburger married Ági Donáth, the daughter of Andor Donáth, a salesman. However, they divorced in 1941. His daughter Angela’s two children both ended up being successful filmmakers: Andrew Macdonald as a producer of movies such as Trainspotting (1996), as well as Kevin Macdonald as an Academy Award-winning director.

Pressburger was a reserved person, at times hypersensitive and also prone to melancholy. He liked French cuisine, enjoyed music and had a fantastic sense of humor. He has lived in Aspall, Suffolk since 1970 and passed away in a nursing home in nearby Saxtead on 5 February 1988. He is buried in the graveyard of Our Lady of Grace Church, Aspall. His is the only tomb with a Star of David.

The Archers

Working together as co-producers, writers and supervisors in a collaboration they dubbed “The Archers”, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have made 19 feature films, many of which have received vital success and commercial. The BFI 100 list of “Favorite British Movies of the 20th Century” includes 5 movies by Powell, four featuring Pressburger.

Admirers would surely argue that Powell should evaluate alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and also David Lean, his career suffered a decline after the release of the psychological thriller Peeping Tom, made in 1960 without the partnership with Pressburger. The movie was panned by leading British critics, who were offended by its images of sex and violence; Powell was marginalized from the film industry, and it has been difficult for him to work ever since.

The film nevertheless met the ecstatic approval of the young critics of Positif and Midi-Minuit Fantastique in France, and those of Motion in England, and also in 1965 it was subject of a major positive re-evaluation by Raymond Durgnat.

Powell’s films became cult movies in the 1970s and early 1980s thanks to retrospectives and rediscoveries, as well as further writing and publications. By the time of his death, he and also Pressburger had been identified as one of the leading film collaborations of all time and mentioned as a key impact by many celebrated directors such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola.

Michael Powell in Private

In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American professional dancer; they got married in France and only stayed together for 3 weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron. From July 1, 1943 until his death on July 5, 1983, Powell was married to Frances May Reidy, daughter of physician Jerome Reidy; they had 2 children: Kevin Michael Powell and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell.

Subsequently, Powell was married to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his death at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire. His niece was Australian starlet Cornelia Frances, who appeared in small parts in her uncle’s early movies.

Movies to Watch

The Edge of the World (1937)

In 1937 Powell completed his first real personal project, The Edge of the World. Powell brought together actors and crew who agreed to take part in an exploration of what was later an extremely isolated part of the UK. They had to stay there for many months and made a movie that not only told the story he wanted, but also captured the natural beauty of the place.

This compelling drama is set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Shetland Islands, situated on the northern edge of Scotland. The film delves into the lives of a tight-knit community grappling with economic hardship and a dwindling population.

At its core, “The Edge of the World” is a poignant exploration of the difficult decision faced by the islanders: whether to abandon their ancestral home due to the harsh living conditions or to persevere in their traditional way of life. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the rugged landscapes of the Shetland Islands, emphasizing the isolation and beauty of this remote locale.

As the community debates their future, the film delves into profound themes such as the preservation of cultural heritage, the weight of tradition, and the enduring human spirit in the face of adversity. Michael Powell’s direction is masterful, capturing both the grandeur of the natural landscapes and the intimate moments of personal struggle.

“The Edge of the World” is celebrated for its captivating cinematography, which vividly portrays the awe-inspiring yet unforgiving environment of the Shetland Islands. It stands as a classic of British cinema and a testament to the enduring power of storytelling through film.

The Spy in Black (1939)

In 1939, Powell was actually hired as director by Alexander Korda, the producer of The Edge of the World. Powell was named for a movie being made for two of Korda’s most famous actors, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The movie was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.

The film is set during World War I and follows the story of a German U-boat captain who goes by the alias of Lieutenant Hardt and a schoolteacher named Ashington. They both work as spies, attempting to gather intelligence on British naval movements.

As the film unfolds, tension builds as their mission becomes increasingly dangerous, and they must navigate through the perils of espionage. The movie explores themes of espionage, trust, and the moral dilemmas faced by those involved in wartime espionage.

“The Spy in Black” is known for its suspenseful storytelling and is an early work in the career of director Michael Powell, who would go on to make significant contributions to British cinema. It’s a classic example of wartime espionage cinema with a strong focus on character-driven drama.

The original script for The Spy in Black was true to the tale, but it was also verbose and didn’t have an excellent role for either Veidt or Hobson. Powell then went on to testify (in A Life in Movies) exactly like:

… The European film no longer existed. … Only the fantastic world of German cinema was ready to deal with the American union, and Dr. Goebbels stopped short in 1933. The day Emeric came out of the closet was the worst day the doctor ever had to the credibility of his nation, as he would soon discover.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

“A Matter of Life and Death,” is a 1946 film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This film is considered a classic of British cinema and is admired for its blend of realism and fantastical elements.

The plot follows the story of Peter Carter, a British wartime pilot played by David Niven, who, after being severely injured in a plane crash, finds himself in a life-or-death situation. He encounters an angel, portrayed by Kim Hunter, who has been tasked with taking him to the afterlife. However, Peter decides to challenge divine laws to remain on Earth and continue his relationship with an American woman named June.

The film explores themes of love, fate, and the supernatural, blending the real world with the realm of the afterlife in a unique narrative. It is known for its visual innovations, including sequences in which color and black-and-white alternate to represent the two worlds.

“A Matter of Life and Death” is considered one of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces and continues to be appreciated for its engaging storytelling and bold cinematic aesthetics.

Black Narcissus (1947)

“Black Narcissus” is a 1947 film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This film is a notable example of British cinema and is based on the novel by Rumer Godden.

The plot follows a group of Anglican nuns who establish a convent atop a mountain in the Indian Himalayas. As they try to adapt to isolated life and environmental challenges, they face a series of internal and external conflicts. The presence of a British government agent and their attraction to the outside world test their religious devotion.

“Black Narcissus” is renowned for its extraordinary cinematography and creative use of color, which contribute to creating a unique sense of atmosphere and visual drama. The film explores themes of desire, repression, and the struggle between spirituality and temptation.

This British cinema masterpiece is still considered one of the most important and influential films of its time.

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The Red Shoes (1948)

“The Red Shoes” is a 1948 film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This film is considered one of the masterpieces of British cinema and is renowned for its extraordinary choreography and cinematography.

The plot follows the story of Victoria Page, a young ballerina played by Moira Shearer, who lands the lead role in a ballet known as “The Red Shoes.” However, her desire for artistic success clashes with her love for the ballet’s composer and the director of the dance company.

The film explores themes of dedication to art, personal sacrifice, and the conflict between artistic fulfillment and personal life. Its innovative choreography and visually stunning staging have become iconic in the world of cinema.

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

“The Tales of Hoffmann” is a 1951 film directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This film is an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s theatrical work “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and stands as an extraordinary cinematic masterpiece.

The plot follows the life of the German poet Hoffmann and his romantic experiences through a series of three stories, each of which is a tale of different love and desire. These stories are imbued with fantastical and supernatural elements, creating a fairy-tale-like atmosphere.

“The Tales of Hoffmann” is known for its spectacular set design and elaborate costumes, which contribute to crafting a visually stunning world. The soundtrack features memorable musical pieces drawn from Offenbach’s opera.

This film is an extraordinary example of how cinema can capture the essence of a theatrical and musical work and transform it into a breathtaking visual and auditory experience. It is a milestone in cinema and in the adaptation of operatic works for the screen.

Peeping Tom (1960)

“Peeping Tom” is a 1960 film directed by Michael Powell. This film is known for being one of the precursors of the psychological thriller genre and sparked controversy upon its release due to its disturbing content.

The plot revolves around Mark Lewis, a young man who works as a film lab technician during the day and as an amateur filmmaker of home movies outside of working hours. However, his obsession with capturing moments of fear and terror from his victims leads him to commit a series of murders. The film delves into the twisted mind of the protagonist and his morbid desire to capture fear on film.

“Peeping Tom” was a controversial film at the time of its release due to its portrayal of obsession and violence, but over the years, it has been reevaluated as a masterpiece of psychological cinema. Michael Powell’s direction and the performance of the lead actor, Carl Boehm, have been praised for their ability to immerse viewers in the disturbed mind of the protagonist.

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