It’s the Summer of Powell and Pressburger in New York


Toward the end of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus” (1947), set at a convent high in the Himalayas, the crazed Sister Ruth sneaks up behind her perceived nemesis, Sister Clodagh, who is ringing the convent’s cliffside bell, and gives her a good shove.

The scene, a classic in the Powell-Pressburger canon, is remarkable for many reasons. For one, the mountains are an illusion, conjured with paintings on glass and matte work at Pinewood Studios near London. “Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting — it must all be under our control,” Powell recalled explaining to his collaborators.

For another, the whole sequence was filmed to a precomposed score. Shooting action to music fascinated Powell. He and his filmmaking partner, Pressburger, would refine the technique in “The Red Shoes” (1948) and in the filmed opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951). In the new documentary “Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger,” Martin Scorsese says that repeated childhood viewings of “Hoffmann” taught him “pretty much everything I know about the relation of camera to music.”

Scorsese is hardly alone in feeling that Powell and Pressburger, the greatest British filmmakers this side of Alfred Hitchcock, left a profound mark on his way of thinking about movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s forthcoming “Megalopolis” pays tribute, too, by lifting an exchange from “The Red Shoes.” For those who already are or who long to be similarly entranced, Powell and Pressburger are blanketing New York this summer.

For five weeks beginning Friday, the Museum of Modern Art is screening “Cinema Unbound,” the most comprehensive Powell-Pressburger retrospective ever mounted in the city. Scorsese will introduce “Black Narcissus” on Friday, while his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell until his death in 1990, will introduce a preview of “Made in England” on Saturday. That film, which features Scorsese as an onscreen guide, opens July 12. And Film Forum is giving a run to “The Small Back Room,” the noir that followed “The Red Shoes,” starting June 28.

The retrospective offers multiple points of entry for newcomers and completists alike. There are several ways to classify the pair’s movies, but they all feel inadequate, perhaps because the two men were seeking a purely cinematic form of expression that isn’t easily reduced to words.

Many of their most famous images — like the dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in sweaty close-up, hallucinating visions of her Mephistophelian mentor (Anton Walbrook) and her composer (Marius Goring) during the “Red Shoes” ballet — are in Technicolor. Certainly, the way the directors harnessed the potential of that format’s golden era, through a harmony of cinematography, production design and costuming, was never equaled.

But to characterize Powell and Pressburger as mere maestros of color is to shortchange the magic they brought to their black-and-white films. In “A Canterbury Tale” (1944), shot in the English countryside, and “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), filmed in the Hebrides, the British landscape becomes an essential character, rendered in shades and textures as mysterious as anything the filmmakers could dream up for a soundstage. Still other films (“Gone to Earth” or Powell’s pre-Pressburger “The Edge of the World”) confirm that their genius was hardly confined to the studio.

You might also be tempted to divide Powell and Pressburger’s films into wartime and postwar efforts (the dates in this article refer to when the films were first shown, not necessarily in the U.S.). But the sheer range of their creativity and subject matter in the war years, when British pictures required official approval to get made, inevitably makes those categorizations look reductive.

They warned America about the looming Nazi threat in “49th Parallel” (1941), which depicts Germans invading Canada, and saluted the Dutch resistance a year later in the similarly gripping “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.” They charted 40 years of military history (and friendship) in the deeply moving “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943). They addressed a home front feeling of uprootedness in “A Canterbury Tale.” And at war’s end, they even had room for a romantic fantasy, “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), in which a Royal Air Force pilot (David Niven) and an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) fall for each other as his plane goes down — a catastrophe he miraculously survives through an error of divine accounting.

Then there is the chilly and despairing “The Small Back Room,” a 1949 premiere set in 1943, centered on a British scientist, Sammy (David Farrar), who is called on to defuse explosive booby traps that the Nazis have been dropping on Britain. He is alcoholic and wounded in a way that connotes impotence. (He repeatedly raps on the prosthetic he wears on the lower part of one leg.) While the film delivers the suspense of a thriller, it also taps into his agonized mind.

On the surface, the stark ambience couldn’t be more different from the lush Technicolor highs of “The Red Shoes,” which devotes 15 minutes of screen time to a surreal, proscenium-dissolving ballet performance. But for Sammy, like Vicky Page, success requires risking oblivion. Reuniting Farrar and Kathleen Byron from “Black Narcissus,” “The Small Back Room” adds new layers to that film’s dynamics of sexual repression and need.

That Powell and Pressburger’s art is, frequently, “not at all comforting,” as Scorsese says of “The Red Shoes,” is part of the key to the sophistication that they were able to achieve together. Although they usually took a joint credit, their partnership had defined contours. “As far as we could we shared every decision,” Powell says in “Made in England.” Pressburger elaborates: “Michael directed on his own, and I was more the writer, and we produced together.”

Before they first collaborated, on “The Spy in Black” (1939), and before they started their own production company, the Archers, which put out films from 1942 to 1957, the men came up in separate film industries. Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew, worked on movies in Berlin before fleeing the Nazis and landing in Britain. Powell ground out features in Britain’s “quota quickie” sector. A law compelled British theaters to show a certain quota of British films, and the industry responded.

One reason the MoMA retrospective is the most complete yet is that it has a lot more of Powell before Pressburger. The museum is screening 13 quota quickies, all but one recently remastered by the British Film Institute, that Powell made from 1931 to 1936. Several others are presumed lost.

But they improve more or less chronologically. They offer an opportunity to watch Powell experimenting with different genres, including a musical comedy (“His Lordship”), a class satire (“Something Always Happens”), a ghostly lighthouse story (“The Phantom Light”) and a murder plot (“Crown v. Stevens”). Powell’s sense of camera movement and lighting grows toward the end of the cycle. The most delightful entry may be “The Love Test” (1935), which follows the romantic misunderstandings among a group of chemists seeking to fireproof celluloid.

This from a filmmaker who would soon set the screen ablaze in one feature after another with Pressburger (and a late one without — the disturbing “Peeping Tom”). Watching the dissolves in the “Red Shoes” ballet, as dancers turn into flowers and then birds in flight, you sense that Powell and Pressburger are the rare filmmakers who embraced the full freedom of the art form.

“I like that it sometimes seems out of control,” Scorsese says of “The Red Shoes,” explaining, “Not the emotions of the characters, but the emotions of the people who made the film. Their passion’s out of control.”



Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top