Together known as “The Archers”, Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) were a writer-director-producer British duo who made over twenty films between 1939 and 1972 – their most dramatic and influential works being produced in the 40s and 50s. Powell, a fairly experienced English film director, first met the Hungarian immigrant screenwriter Pressburger while working for the Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda on the First World War thriller The Spy in Black aka U-Boat 29 (1939). The two incorporated their own production company – Archers Film Productions – in 1943 and around that time also developed a clear-cut artistic manifesto which went as follows:
We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
At any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.
~ Quoted in Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology (2014) edited by Scott MacKenzie
Initially devoted to making propaganda movies to support Britain’s war efforts, the Archers soon evolved to produce, as British Film Institute’s online curator Mark Duguid states “a body of films notable for their passion and fantasy” that was “quite unlike anything produced in a national cinema traditionally dominated by ‘realism'”. Their filmmaking inspired several notable filmmakers of subsequent generations, among them Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola.
This blog post will focus on three Powell-Pressburger productions – The Red Shoes (1948), Black Narcissus (1947) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – which also, arguably, happen to be their best known works. All three were included in the British Film Institute’s list of 100 Best British Films of the 20th century (compiled in 1999) at numbers 9, 44 and 20, respectively.
Easily the most vivid Archers production, The Red Shoes (1948) is the story of an obsessive ballet dancer called Victoria “Vicky” Page. Parallels could be drawn between this film and Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed psychological-thriller/horror Black Swan (2010). Both are committed to exploring and exhibiting the dangers – madness and self-destruction – of an unchecked devotion to art/worship of one’s work but the first certainly remains less dark and more family-friendly than the second. Unlike Black Swan, where drama is primarily internal and related to the dancer’s perception of herself, the main conflicts in The Red Shoes emerge when the dancer interacts with those around her.
As the plot progresses, Vicky gets torn between the demands of her boss Boris Lermontov (the stern but magnetic impresio of the dance company Ballet Lermontov) and her duties to her husband Julian Craster (a talented but somewhat dull composer). She is ultimately driven to an end that is at once theatrical and tragic.
The Red Shoes employs the frame story (narrative within a narrative) technique, the secondary plot (here a ballet production) being based on the Danish children’s author Hans Christian Anderson’s (1805-1875) fairy-tale The Red Shoes.
Watch the trailer below (this is not the original; it was released by the New York-based video distribution company The Criterion Collection).
“A group of nuns (played by some of Britain’s finest actresses, including Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, and Flora Robson) struggle to establish a convent in the Himalayas, while isolation, extreme weather, altitude, and culture clashes all conspire to drive the well-intentioned missionaries mad” – so runs a promotional description for Black Narcissus (1947). The film, based on a 1939 novel of the same name by British author Rumer Godden, was, for Michael Powell, his “most erotic work…with eroticism in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end…all by suggestion.”
On a Himalayan mountaintop, five Anglican (yes, “Anglican” not Catholic) nuns find it hard to transform the old Palace of Mopu (a former sergalio) into a church-hospital-school for the locals. Things get worse with the arrival of the very macho British agent Mr. Dean, who attracts both the assertive and melancholic Sister Clodagh (embittered by memories of a thwarted romance back in Ireland) and the psychotic Sister Ruth (who is all too willing to violate her vows of celibacy). There is another foray into the forbidden as an Indian prince (played by Sabu Dastagir) who has come to the convent for his education begins romancing a beggarmaid of lower caste.
The inhospitable clime and strong emotions of desire and jealousy in the nunnery finally lead to an insane and violent climax.
Sexual tension, examined in a creative and respectful manner, remains a major theme of Black Narcissus. But other ideas pervade the narrative as well. One, the movie is a compelling study of the frustrations of the human will that occur when it is unable to overcome the mismatch between the real and the ideal. Second, the film is a tacit acknowledgement of India’s independence. The fact that the nuns, finally, fail in their mission suggests that it is now time for the British to withdraw their civilising efforts – no matter how sacrificial and altruistic – and depart from Indian soil.
Watch the trailer below. Yes, this is the original.
In 2004, London-based Total Film magazine ranked A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven (1946) as the second greatest British film of all time. And that is no exaggeration. This part-coloured, part-blank-and-white flick of surreal special effects and spectacular production design is a most unusual investigation of a variety of issues – among them death and the afterlife, law and justice, Britain’s relationship with other countries and above all, the nature of love.
Set in the year 1945, the story opens when the British pilot Peter Carter, returning from a mission in Germany in a badly damaged plane, calls home in desperation. Before jumping without a parachute he talks to June, an American radio operator based in England – and almost falls in love. He is supposed to die then and there but the messenger sent to escort him to “the Other World” – an 18th-century French aristocrat by the name of Conductor 71 – gets lost in a fog over the English Channel. Carter lands on earth, unharmed, and meets June. Conductor 71 finds him soon and insists that he accept death and travel to the next realm. Since the pilot has found a new commitment, he is compelled to launch an appeal for additional time on earth before a celestial court, which, it turns out, is an amphitheatre populated by a large, multicultural audience.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a trailer for A Matter of Life and Death. Here’s a scene instead, a very important one.
British Cinema: A Very Short Introduction (2017) by Charles Barr
Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (2012) by Andrew Moor
A Life in Movies (2000) by Michael Powell
British Film (National Film Traditions) (2004) by Jim Leach
Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016) by Jeremy Arnold
Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1985) by Ian Christie