Star Archive

Michael Powell (1905 - 1990)

Few British directors are as highly lauded as Michael Powell. His films have inspired generations of filmgoers and film makers. And yet few directors have had their reputation and the reputation of their films sink so far as Powell in the sixties and seventies. So much so that critic and historian David Shipman could write of A Matter of Life and Death "it is probably only remembered as the first selection for that odd British institution, the Royal Film Performance".

Powell grew up addicted to movies and on a trip to the South of France became involved with Rex Ingram's film unit. He did a number of odd jobs on Ingram's films, even acting in The Garden of Allah. This apprenticeship stood him in good stead when he returned to England and started his climb through the studio system beginning as stills cameraman for Hitchcock.

Soon he was directing quota-quickies. These low budget productions were done fast and, though Powell's films in this period are variable, many of them show glimmers of his talent. It was The Edge of the World that brought him to the attention of the critics, largely because it was shot on location in Scotland and had what passed for gritty realism in those days. However, it was his next film The Spy in Black which would prove to be significant since it was on this that he first worked with Emeric Pressburger.

The team of Powell and Pressburger would make some of the best films of the forties. They formed the production company The Archers which worked under Rank's Independent Producer division and took joint credit on most of their movies (listed with a * in the filmography). The fifties opened with two big flops and a steady decline. The partnership split up and Powell's career limped on with only Peeping Tom being noteworthy.

Few films have been as reviled as Peeping Tom. The critical reaction to this tale of a serial killer obsessed with film was hysterical and popular myth says it killed his career stone dead. A look at the films that preceded and succeeded it shows that his career was dying anyway and that Peeping Tom was one last, gaudy display of his talent.

He was rescued from obscurity by the generation of film makers that followed him who had grown up loving his films. Martin Scorsese was particularly vocal in his praise. Retrospectives of the films helped make The Archers respectable to the critics. Powell ended his days as adviser in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios, and married Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese's editor).  

The attitude of the critics to Powell and Pressburger was a curious one. They recognised the quality of the films while being uneasy about many of their aspects. "Tasteless" is the word that seems to have been applied most often. Perhaps the main problem was the way British film critics championed realism above all other qualities. Powell and Pressburger weren't that interested in realism. The critics knew the work was good but weren't able to fit it into their definition of what was important.

Still from The Fire RaisersPoster for One of Our Aircraft is MissingStill from A Matter of Life and DeathPoster of Black NarcissusStill from Gone to EarthPoster of Tales of Hoffmann

Filmography (as director)

1931 Two Crowded Hours
1931 My Friend the King
1931 Rynox
1931 The Rasp
1931 The Star Reporter
1932 Hotel Splendide
1932 C.O.D.
1932 His Lordship
1932 Born Lucky
1933 The Fire Raisers
1934 The Night of the Party
1934 Red Ensign
1934 Something Always Happens
1934 The Girl in the Crowd
1935 Lazybones
1935 The Love Test
1935 The Phantom Light
1935 The Price of a Song
1935 Someday
1936 Her Last Affaire
1936 The Brown Wallet
1936 Crown v Stevens
1936 The Man Behind the Mask
1937 The Edge of the World
1939 The Spy in Black
1939 The Lion has Wings
1940 Contraband
1940 The Thief of Bagdad (part)
1941 49th Parallel
1942 One of Our Aircraft is Missing
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp *
1944 A Canterbury Tale *
1945 I Know Where I'm Going *
1946 A Matter of Life and Death *
1947 Black Narcissus *
1948 The Red Shoes *
1949 The Small Back Room *
1950 Gone to Earth *
1950 The Elusive Pimpernel *
1951 The Tales of Hoffmann *
1955 Oh... Rosalinda!! *
1956 The Battle of the River Plate *
1956 Ill Met By Moonlight
1959 Honeymoon
1960 Peeping Tom
1961 The Queen's Guards
1966 They're a Weird Mob (Aus.)
1969 The Age of Consent (Aus.)
1972 The Boy Who Turned Yellow

 Michael Powell at Amazon UK

 Michael Powell at Amazon US