Grand Illusions

A Life in Movies: An Autobiography

by Michael Powell
Knopf, 705 pp., $24.95

Michael Powell
Michael Powell; drawing by David Levine

The reassessment of Michael Powell’s film career has been one of the archival triumphs of the last decade, revealing Powell not just as the director of a few old favorites (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) but as a philosopher of the camera whose distinct point of view infuses all his work. Initiated by a British Film Institute retrospective in 1978 and bolstered by the enthusiasm of such admirers as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the Powell revival has done belated justice to a director who even at the height of his career (in the 1940s) experienced more than his share of critical attack, and whose films have been to an unusual degree mangled, abridged, or hidden from sight. Today he looks very much like the visionary filmmaker that England never thought it had, a formalist poet whose gaudy inventiveness was entirely at odds with the cautious traditions of the British film industry.

A few decades back, François Truffaut suggested that the terms “England” and “cinema” were incompatible, and the remark, although no longer defensible, was understandable in its context. For French critics who were uncovering a silent language of mise en scène in directors as varied as Max Ophuls and Nicholas Ray and Roberto Rossellini, the absence of such personal expression among the English was striking. (There was Hitchcock, of course, but the French in any event preferred his Hollywood output.) A certain boxlike stiffness afflicted even the most capable craftsmen, the Asquiths and Reeds and Leans. Too often their films seemed illustrated sound tracks, in which the image tamely adapted itself to an essentially literary conception. The real auteurs of English cinema were the authors it so respectfully adapted: Shakespeare, Dickens, Noel Coward, and Graham Greene.

That respect for the primacy of the word reflected a deep cultural conservatism, a basic mistrust of what film could do. Rather than breaking into new territory, the movies were supposed to recapitulate scenes already familiar from other media. This wasn’t all to the bad by any means; it accounts for the remarkably tranquilizing effect of old British movies, their sense of beloved scenes revisited and ancient rituals faithfully carried out. Seen today, even ostensibly realistic movies like Carol Reed’s The Way Ahead and David Lean’s This Happy Breed seem as hieratic and predictable as an Anglican service.

Against this background it becomes easier to see why Powell was never quite accepted as a mainstream director. For one thing he was never predictable: his work presented an eccentric mix of the nationalistic, the erotic, the mystical, the whimsical, and the hyperaesthetic, an assortment of personal obsessions arranged in striking but sometimes bewildering patterns. Nor was he content to be an adaptor. He preferred to develop original scripts with the Hungarian screen-writer Emeric Pressburger, to whom he insisted on giving equal credit. Unlike so many other English films, these were not scripts that might as…

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