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 easily have been plays or novels; they were more like libretti, sustaining and accentuating the visual impressions rather than dominating them. The words were only one element of a seamless fusion, and Powell emphasized the fact by continually going beyond the words, asserting the power of the eye with spinning and meandering and plummeting camera movements, oscillations between color and monochrome, glacial tableaux, barrages of masks, unexpected intrusive vistas, abrupt changes of scale.

“In my films,” he writes,

images are everything; words are used like music to distil emotion. The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes, the whole of The Tales of Hoffmann, the defusing of the bomb in The Small Back Room, the movement of ships at sea in the Graf Spee film, the whole of The Edge of the World, more than half of Black Narcissus, the trial in Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, are essentially silent films.

In an industry that prized “invisible technique,” Powell saturated his images with texture and movement, forcing even the dullest viewer to note that a camera was behind all this. Unorthodox narrative structures involving flashbacks, parallel worlds, and visualized reveries added to the disorientation. The resulting air of flagrant unreality was often seen by contemporary reviewers as “bad taste” and “vulgarity.”

The notion that there was something not quite healthy about Powell’s recurrent motifs and stylistic ostentation came to a head with the 1960 release of Peeping Tom, a thriller so perverse in its implications that it was universally decried as “beastly,” “nasty,” and “morbid,” and effectively made Powell (then fifty-five) unemployable in his native land. This episode (recounted at length by Ian Christie in his useful anthology Powell, Pressburger and Others* ) has made Powell a heroic figure in British film annals, an all too uncommon embodiment of rebellious individualism. Recent discussions of Powell have understandably placed special emphasis on Peeping Tom, a rigorous and mesmerizing film which provides a metaphoric key not only to the rest of his work but to movies in general. The screenplay (by Leo Marks rather than Pressburger) posited a horror story superficially similar to others of the period, but uniquely well-suited to Powell’s preoccupations. A demented psychologist drives his son mad by filming him throughout his childhood, never allowing him a moment free from the camera’s gaze; the son in turn grows up to be a compulsive murderer, whose weapon is the spiked tripod of the movie camera he carries with him everywhere, and who films the death of his victims with the passionate detachment of a born movie director. (Powell’s preferred title was The Filmmaker.)


This garish premise is worked out with baroque precision, beginning with an extreme close-up of an eye and ending with a shot of a blank movie screen. Along the way Powell incorporates a profusion of variations on the acts of seeing and filming—on the glance as seduction and the glance as violence—along with an inexhaustible supply of visual rhymes, movies within movies, and somewhat sinister private jokes: the sadistic psychologist, for instance, is played by Powell himself, and the future murderer by his infant son. Rarely has a movie paraded its self-referentiality so elaborately, and to such disturbing effect. Airless and perfect, Peeping Tom resembles a claustrophobic hall of mirrors, its meanings endlessly and maddeningly ricocheting off each other. It epitomizes the kind of “esoteric masterpiece” Yukio Mishima had in mind when he spoke of works “dominated not by openness and clarity but by a strangling tightness,” in which “a writer’s most secret, deeply hidden themes make their appearance.”

The coldblooded efficacy with which Peeping Tom maps its world of fetishism and terror might well make one wonder about its director’s inner life. All of Powell’s films, in fact, have a dark and dreamlike afterecho, a suggestion that beneath the children’s fantasy or the patriotic propaganda or the quaint Celtic romance lurks an altogether different film, guided by obscure imperatives of desire. Yet any such dark traces remain well concealed in Powell’s recently published autobiography, A Life in Movies. This immense book, weighing in at 705 pages, is in fact only a first installment, taking us as far as The Red Shoes (1948), and covering the period of Powell’s greatest successes. A promised sequel will deal with the rockier road to Peeping Tom and beyond.

As it stands, A Life in Movies is as cheerful and generous a memoir as anyone could ask for, written in a vein of seasoned garrulity that conjures up an ambiance of bygone pubs and hunting lodges and country fairs. The prewar England it evokes, a web of primeval traditions and undamaged social ties, in whose innocence a cavalry charge still suggests heroic possibilities, reminds us that as a guardian of national myths Powell might be England’s answer to John Ford. The book flows along like the monologue of a remarkably high-spirited old man determined to savor the full contents of his memory. Powell’s air of voluptuous self-indulgence, his lingering over meticulously reconstructed childhood incidents and landscapes, bespeaks such a pleasant state of mind that one puts up with the book’s inordinate length; the author is too clearly enjoying himself for anyone to want to stop him. He makes for good company.

The tales he has to tell are interesting enough: of his childhood on a Kentish hop farm, his youthful adventures along the Riviera (where his restless father, leaving the family behind him, had embarked on a second career as hotelier), his apprenticeship in movies under the guidance of the legendary silent director Rex Ingram. We follow him through the phases of British film history, the “quota quickies” of the Thirties, the morale builders of the war years, the prestige pictures of the late Forties, and through the episodes of a hyperactive career crammed with extraordinary acquaintances—Alexander Korda, Fritz Lang, Ralph Richardson, Henri Matisse—and a fair share of amorous attachments. (Characteristically Powell reserves his most passionate declarations not for friends or lovers but for the technicians with whom he has worked, the cameramen and art directors and set constructors.) Yet the anecdotes wouldn’t count for much without the underlying suggestion of a keen enthusiasm prolonged indefinitely and surfacing at times in rhapsodies and outbursts of hyperbole.

Powell at eighty-one manages to radiate boyish gusto. He can make a statement like “I am cinema” seem a perfectly unassuming act of self-definition. His faith in the magical quality of his own life is contagious, and does much to explain how he managed to create the other-worldly atmosphere of his films. He is entirely convincing when he describes filmmaking as a process of dragging his collaborators with him into an adventure. For all their technical tricks and their toying with structure and point of view, Powell’s films function primarily as conduits for an irrational and somewhat childlike excitement. They are acts of recovery, insistent attempts to reconstruct a lost world.


The opening sentences of A Life in Movies might be a voice-over at the beginning of a Powell film:

All my life I have loved running water. One of my passions is to follow a river downstream through pools and rapids, lakes, twists and turnings, until it reaches the sea. Today that sea lies before me, in plain view, and it is time to make a start on the story of my life, to remount it to its source, before I swim out, leaving behind the land I love so much, into the grey, limitless ocean.

As emotional statement this is unexceptionable; as rhetoric it has the charmingly old-fashioned, somewhat hollow sonority of the writers (H. Rider Haggard or Alfred Noyes) that Powell admired in childhood. Its vitality—like the vitality of his movies—lies in its sense of actual rather than symbolic water, of the tangibility and pressure of the “pools and rapids” and “twists and turnings.”

In Powell’s work the image is more important than anything it could possibly stand for. The screenplay is an alibi providing a frame in which the images are permitted to appear. The director surrenders to a pure fascination with the act of seeing. He wants to drown in the visible. A passage in which Powell dwells on the flour mills he knew as a child hints at that rapt absorption, as he describes in turn “the deep, calm millpond where the weeds waved and the coarse fish rose to the flies,” “the iron grating to catch weeds and tree branches that might damage the millwheel, placed where the still water of the pond got sucked down into the chute,” “the millrace between narrow slippery stone walls down into the pool below the mill.” These images, with their suggestion of a gaze prolonged to satiety and beyond, are not simply vivid; they are haunted by depths and origins. No picture stands alone. Each arises and disappears and is mysteriously linked to every other picture. The visible is only one aspect of a secret geography, a network of currents.

The memoirs become a map of path-ways, whether they lead through the physical landscape of oasts and ricks and forges that he inhabited as a child, through the emotional territory shared with lovers and collaborators, or through the constructed spaces of the films. These contiguous worlds are charted with the same sort of restless, exploratory, spiraling forays characteristic of Powell’s camera movements. If only he could have filmed it: A Life in Movies is the autobiography of an eye, a scenario incomplete without the visual track that ought to have accompanied it. Behind the photographic detail of the narration one senses the frustration of a filmmaker cut off too soon from the practice of his craft. He shoots as best he can with language, but clearly feels the lack of the technical resources he once commanded. Powell’s most cherished project, sadly unrealized, was a film version of The Tempest, and in his unsought retirement he calls to mind a Prospero stripped of wands and books of necromancy.

He once likened himself, in an interview, to the homicidal filmmaker of Peeping Tom: “I felt very close to the hero, who is an ‘absolute’ director, someone who approaches life like a director, who is conscious of and suffers from it…. And I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me in the street, so I was able to share his anguish.” In the autobiography, by contrast, Powell describes his life as a series of lucky breaks, of which the luckiest was his tying in with Rex Ingram’s MGM unit, who happened to lunch at his father’s restaurant as they scouted locations on the Mediterranean. Powell’s first taste of filmmaking, on a day in 1925 at the Victorine Studios in Nice, is recounted with the awe appropriate to a tribal initiation. As he peers through the camera he looks into a fabricated space: “The object over the camera was a miniature ceiling, built in false perspective to fit over the top of the camera, and by careful adjustment make the set appear like a ceilinged room…. So my first day in movies was centred on a trick shot as, I have no doubt, my last will be.”

Powell was to become one of the great tricksters, making an Arabian wilderness out of a strip of beach in Devonshire for The Thief of Bagdad, conjuring up a gelatine whirlpool for the climax of I Know Where I’m Going, and patching together, out of some painted backdrops and a Sussex garden, a Himalayan kingdom so substantial that most audiences assumed Black Narcissus had been shot on location. The trickery was not incidental but essential. The “Beauty of Image”on which Powell once lectured at the British Film Institute demanded total control. In Black Narcissus it becomes positively oppressive, as one perfectly realized image follows another, and the psychological conflicts of an isolated nunnery take second place to the visual effect of white cowls and deep shadows on a series of female faces. By the time David Farrar remarks balefully that “there’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated,” he appears to be commenting on the art direction. That frisson of absolute fakery occurs frequently in Powell’s films, as when the heavenly messenger in A Matter of Life and Death makes a joke about being “starved for Technicolor up there,” or when Anton Walbrook—just as The Red Shoes reaches a peak of unlifelike melodramatics—declares: “Life is so unimportant!” It’s as if the illusion, so carefully built up out of props and gauzes and false perspectives, would be incomplete if it were not revealed as an illusion.

Yet the illusion is no less effective for being shown as such. The films are full of palpable presences which are not really there: the wise old man in The Thief of Bagdad who acknowledges that he exists only through Sabu’s faith in him, the hallucinatory Heaven in A Matter of Life and Death which is a byproduct of David Niven’s brain injury, the phantasmal thought-projections which leap toward Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. On the reverse side there are absences made brutally visible: the empty screen in Peeping Tom, the smashed mirror in The Red Shoes, or the spotlight standing in for the dead ballerina at the end of the same movie. If the images have a life of their own, they also have a death. The cinema—that “box of tricks out of which to create marvels”—functions as an immortality machine, attempting to cheat death with the insouciant daring of an outnumbered RAF pilot in one of Powell’s wartime pictures. The screenplay of A Matter of Life and Death asserts that love can triumph over death, but our eyes tell us it’s film alone that does the triumphing: the freeze frame stops time, the close-up isolates a tear on a rose petal, the three-strip color process carries the rose intact into a monochrome eternity.

The desire to see always counts for more than the particular content of what is seen. Powell’s camera pokes about in space, finds openings, tries always to glimpse a bit more than seems possible or permissible. That probing movement of the eye unites the apparently disparate subject matter of his films. He is forever describing initiation or intrusion into privileged interiors, forbidden precincts. The German invaders in 49th Parallel making their way into the Canadian interior, the materialistic girl in I Know Where I’m Going who becomes ever more immersed in the folkways of a remote Celtic island, the nuns ascending into the mountain retreat of Black Narcissus, Moira Shearer gaining entry into the hermetic ballet world of The Red Shoes, James Mason effecting a return to an Australian Eden in the late, much underrated idyll Age of Consent: all participate, willingly or not, in an unveiling of mysteries.

The journey can equally be through time, as in the multiple flashbacks of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, or (as in A Matter of Life and Death) outside time altogether. Powell’s peculiar storytelling genius lies not in making logical connections or even in making us care about his characters. It springs entirely from the arousing of fairy-tale expectations, the hope that this time, miraculously, we will be allowed to peer into the interior of Ali Baba’s cave. Thus all his movies, even the horrific Peeping Tom, retain the aura of children’s stories. While 49th Parallel on one level goes very ably about its business of anti-Nazi propaganda, it holds us with pictures of a dream journey only tenuously related to the ostensible theme. The ideological pretext has little to do with the effect of the opening shots, in which the camera moves among clouds, rolls over mountains, glides along the frontier, over the city, and out to sea; or of the scene in which, their stolen seaplane upended in water, the stranded Germans stagger through reeds and marsh toward an unfamiliar shore.

Powell has often been taken to task for the gratuitousness of such beauties, and it’s true that his movies often encourage a split in consciousness, as if the images sought to liberate themselves from the plots and rationales which constrict their free movement. His stated ambition was to realize a “composed” film, a visual flow analogous to music; that desire for an untrammeled cascade of images (most nearly achieved in the extraordinary ballet film The Tales of Hoffman) carries with it a potent and unsettling erotic charge. Powell lends a mythic quality to the theme of voyeurism, admitting the spectator to a world made all of eyes and glances, a world of total visibility. To William Carlos Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things,” Powell might have responded: no ideas but in sheens, textures, curvets, waverings, volumes, color harmonies. He stakes everything on the powers and pleasures of the image, and to a large extent so do his characters: that the image finally, inevitably, is not enough gives even his most lurid fancies an unexpected aftertaste of tragic splendor.

This Issue

August 13, 1987