Hits and misses of a dreamer

The Cinema of Michael Powell
October 28, 2005

Alongside hoary old favourites such as L'Avventura , The Godfather and Tokyo Story in any poll of critics' top films there will usually feature one or more titles by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Polls are to a degree self-replicating, but such durability in such a forgetful industry is nonetheless impressive. But as the editors of The Cinema of Michael Powell remind us, Powell and Pressburger - known together as the Archers - were not always the critics' darlings. In 1948, the editors of the film magazine Sequence concluded - at a time when the Archers' worst work lay in the future - that "the qualities of their films remain the same, their failure constant". Ian Christie and Andrew Moor dismiss such snippiness as anti-British prejudice, but - like Powell's insistence that his career went downhill after the critics failed to understand his 1960 shocker Peeping Tom - it tells only half the truth.

To be sure, there was a marked strain of antipathy towards domestic product in 1940s film criticism: looking at the bulk of British films, rather than just the tiny minority we still cherish, one can see why. But there was something more than self-loathing in some critics' dismissal of the Archers. Lindsay Anderson - often to be found writing in Sequence just after the war - was one of those who felt that Powell and Pressburger failed to reflect the aspirations of a new breed of radical film-maker. A critical pitbull in his twenties when he savaged the Archers most violently, Anderson had softened considerably by the time he reviewed Powell's autobiography, A Life in Movies , in 1987, but his comments are nonetheless revealing.

"The generation which - however briefly - attempted to make British films more closely, more directly related to contemporary realities, did not rate the Archers' achievement as highly as Powell does himself. There was always, we felt, an element of kitsch about it, of eccentric fancy rather than true imagination. We had all made documentaries. But when Powell made his first really personal film, The Edge of the World , he declared: 'I don't want to make a documentary. Documentaries are for disappointed film-makers.' He always remained like the young man of whom he wrote: 'He stands about dreaming... He sees what is going on, but he makes no attempt to change things.' We were not like that."

The charge "eccentric fancy rather than true imagination": requires a response, if not necessarily a guilty verdict. But to commentators such as Christie and Moor, you either love or loathe the Archers. They love, and criticisms such as Anderson's are barely referred to. This might have been expected after Christie's Arrows of Desire (1994), which, while informative and cleanly written, attempts to paper over the cracks in Powell and Pressburger's output, even when the cracks are gaping crevasses. And Moor, who earlier this year published Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces , dealt with the lamentable quality of some later Archers films - The Elusive Pimpernel , The Battle of the River Plate and Ill Met by Moonlight , all scarcely recognisable as by the same hands as A Matter of Life and Death - by not mentioning them at all.

This proves typical, and again and again The Cinema of Michael Powell impresses with what it omits rather than what it includes. It is a collection of essays put together in the optimistic expectation that a scattergun approach will hit all the important targets. But it does not.

The decline of the Archers is an interesting subject, however, first one must admit that it happened. Was it the switch from making films for the Rank organisation to Alexander Korda, which occurred at about the time the rot set in? Was Korda's insistence on bringing in money with Hollywood strings attached a fatal betrayal of the Archers' ethos? And there is no discussion of the silent movies that were Powell's professional cradle, and whose example he claimed to emulate ("For us, a movie would always be a piece of visual entertainment with sound and dialogue heightening it," he wrote in A Life in Movies .) Nor is there anything substantial about the Powell-Pressburger collaboration, the system of negotiation, of individual and collective effort, of creation and revision that resulted in the famous credit "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger". Nor - with the exception of Hein Heckroth, the production designer from The Red Shoes onwards - much about the other Archers regulars who made the cinema of Powell possible, the composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale, or the designer before Heckroth, Alfred Junge, or Roger Livesey or Jack Cardiff or Deborah Kerr.

The essays that do make it into the volume broadly reflect the polar influence of the two editors. The nearer the approach to Christie, whose own contributions are well reasoned, lucid and generally free from academic garbage, the better. The nearer to Moor, who relentlessly verbs his nouns, is pretentious, opaque and jargon ridden, the worse. Indeed, Moor submits the most redundant essay of the book, titled "Bending the arrow: the queer appeal of the Archers". The Archers' films are "ripe for requisition" as queer artefacts, Moor announces, although "unsurprisingly, there are no signs of manifest same-sex desire in the films, let alone gay activity".

Undeterred by the absence of evidence, Moor ploughs on with his thesis - although as the above quote illustrates, not even he seems to believe in it. His contribution gives the field of gender studies its day in court, but at the expense of other contributions whose relevance to Powell's achievement might have been more discernible.

On the plus side there is John Ellis's exploration of the paradox of Powell's national orientation: at once deeply English, he was also an internationalist with a thorough knowledge and love of European culture - something that worked hugely to the benefit of Powell and Pressburger's most successful movies, and probably discouraged the type of pent-up, emotionally retentive Englishman that both Powell and Anderson were always railing against. An essay by Christie, while failing to deliver on its promise of delineating the Powell-Pressburger collaboration, includes sensible comments about the disturbing Glueman, the character played by Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale , who occupies an uncomfortable place at the heart of that movie, and whose pathological, perverse behaviour the film-makers were more willing to forgive than many viewers. In another essay, again mostly about A Canterbury Tale , Christie explores the film's roots in propaganda - an effort to persuade the English to accommodate willingly the vast numbers of American servicemen stationed in England in the months prior to D-Day - and its transcendent emergence as an expression of the mystic powers of landscape, the threads tying the past to the present, the dichotomy of town and country, and "the ideology of England".

But in Powell's centenary year, we could have hoped for something more. As masterly purveyors of intelligent popular cinema, Powell and Pressburger deserved something in their own image. Anderson, for one, wrote about films in a way that was accessible without pulling punches, delivered uncomfortable truths and tackled big intellectual questions but was comprehensible to anyone who took the trouble to engage with him. It could still be done, but there is too little of it in The Cinema of Michael Powell .

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on film and music.

The Cinema of Michael Powell

Editor - Ian Christie and Andrew Moor
Publisher - BFI
Pages - 296
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 84457 094 0

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