As dozens of new films appear on television, DVD and streaming sites every year, yet the chance to see the work of the great directors of the past becomes more restricted. People such as Robert Bresson or Federico Fellini or Robert Altman or Derek Jarman. Happily, though, we have had a decent chance in recent times to see on British television the distinctive films of Powell and Pressburger.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, produced and directed about 20 films together, usually under the banner of their production company The Archers, in Britain during the 1940s and 1950s.
Seen now, these films do resemble others of that long ago period. Actors speak and dress in the same old-fashioned way. The pace and tone of the narratives seem similar. Some technical features do stand out, notably the rich colours, although occasionally also the camera work.
The scripts also make the films individual – in a number of ways. They often seek to connect the present day to the historic past; they often blend film genres within a single work. Then there is the attention they give to women and people from countries other than Britain, and the characterisations which are in general more subtle and full than in other films of the time.
Two early films, 49th Parallel and One of our Aircraft is Missing, are clearly propaganda productions to encourage the war effort and to build an international anti-Nazi alliance. However, the former, set in Canada, has as its protagonists a German U-boat crew who are not all stereotypical Nazis and who are opposed by a motley army of fur trappers, Eskimos, Hutterite farmers, mounted police, rural adventurers and railway officers. The latter has a 15 minutes-long depiction of a bombing raid with a backing track of aircraft engines rather than soaring orchestral music which must surely have seemed as grimly realistic to the original war-time audiences as the opening of Saving Private Ryan 50 years later, plus a Dutch setting and vivid civilian characters who include two female resistance leaders.
Banff, Alberta. One of the German U-boat fugitives is captured here in “49th Parallel”.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, their first truly idiosyncratic film, has a long and rather rambling narrative about a British officer and his friendship with a German over forty years, but is brilliant in the sections set during World War One and especially the contemporary World War Two. Deborah Kerr plays three different characters in the film but she is especially striking as the perky modern young military driver.
Colonel Blimp has a brief use of two US soldiers in one scene, and A Canterbury Tale employs another US soldier as one of the stars in a story about the tensions between army and civilians living cheek by jowl in Kent and of three modern pilgrims going to Canterbury on their own modern quests. Sheila Sim is the leading female character, a “land girl ” who helps two soldiers investigate a local crime.
Canterbury Cathedral. At the end of “A Canterbury Tale”, each of the three leading characters receive different kinds of blessings at or near here.
The cinematography of A Matter of Life and Death is the team’s most striking in its mix of colour and black and white to reflect heaven and earth in the fantasy story of the airman who miraculously escapes death after his Lancaster bomber is hit. June, the American girlfriend of the airman, played by Kim Hunter, is another distinctive female character.
I Know Where I’m Going is filmed in black and white, but it has other considerable virtues of a female-centred story, influenced by the Hollywood screwball comedies, about an independent modern woman who falls in love with a Scottish laird who believes strongly in both community values and Celtic legends, and which romantically compares Pamela Brown’s flamboyant Highland Catriona with Wendy Hiller’s ambitious metropolitan Joan.
Duart Castle, Mull. It becomes Sorne Castle, visited by Joan, in “I Know Where I’m Going”.
Black Narcissus has another female-centred narrative, which pits sensuality and romance against religious devotion and duty, within a convent of nuns in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr’s self-controlled Sister Superior is contrasted dramatically with Kathleen Byron’s intense, disturbed Sister Ruth.
The Red Shoes, featuring ballet dancer Moira Shearer, could be seen as an apotheosis of the Archers production style of full-colour theatricality and romance with a female-centred narrative which is actually set in the world of performing arts and includes the performance of a ballet.
Gone to Earth has many of the familiar features of brilliant colour, a female-centred narrative and human behaviour influenced by landscape, although the usual Powell and Pressburger subtleties were somewhat coarsened within the commercial Hollywood partnership with David Selznick.
Famously, the 1940s was the decade in Britain which saw the highest ever numbers of visits to the cinema, and Powell and Pressburger films enjoyed their share of popularity. But their qualities came to be appreciated still more in later decades.
Emeric Pressburger might be the model for the Hungarian émigré producer Gabriel Baker in Their Finest, the recent film about the wartime British film industry – whose title is rather less witty and suitable than the source novel’s Their Finest Hour and a Half! The Dunkirk film which is being made by its characters has Archers-like colour visuals.
In one scene of Their Finest, Baker promises the Ministry of Information that he will give the government “a picture to win the war” with its “authenticity and optimism”. I’m not sure how many cinema-goers during the 1940s realised that Powell and Pressburger were filming many of the finest hours of British cinema – but it’s surely vividly clear to us all now.