AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MICHAEL POWELL– THE BRILLIANCE OF THE WILD CARD
LETS DO THE IMPOSSIBLE
by Harlan Kennedy
See the Indian boy climb the giant spider's web to steal the jewel! Gasp at the moving stairway that ferries the immortals to Heaven! Goggle at the sex-starved nuns teetering above the Himalayan abyss! Gape at the magic-shoed ballerina spining to death and glory! Michael Powell was the Scheherazade of cinema. The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Stairway to Heaven, The Thief of Bagdad – over five decades and 54 films, made everywhere from Los Angeles to the Great Barrier Reef (but mostly in Britain) – Powell spun enchanted yarns as if his life depended on it. But the life he truly saved was that of British cinema. Wheezing from lack of oxygen in the late 1930s, the country's creative lungs could take in little but squeaky musicals, somber thrillers and smoke-gray documentaries. Britain needed a miracle and got one. Cometh the hour, cometh the chap. From 1939 to 1960, Michael Powell was the most brilliant wild card in the whole pack of British cinema.
After 1960 (such is show biz), goeth the hour, goeth the chap. After two decades of pumping life into Anglo-Saxon celluloid, the mad doctor of English cinema (who got better results than any sane doctor) was all but struck off the register. He made a little horror film called Peeping Tom, about a photographer who kills women with a sharpened tripod leg, and people screamed, Eek! Terrible! Disgusting! (Just as they did the same year over Hitchcock's Psycho.)
Powell was shaken, but not stirred to contrition. He went on working fitfully, unappreciatedly, on large screen and small. But it was another 20 years before fans caught up with him and dragged him back into the limelight.
Michael Powell was the only filmmaker I ever met who gloried in self-deprecation. No doubt, in his Indian summer of celebrity, he felt that someone had to do the job. From 1980 onward, Powell-neglect turned to Powell-mania across movieland. The man who had been slung out on his ear by the British movie establishment after Peeping Tom (today considered a classic) was the darling of retrospectives, tributes and invitations to work in – yes – Hollywood. Under Francis Ford Coppola, no less, in the days when Zoetrope Studios was a bright beacon rather than a gleam in the eye of the bailiffs. (Almost a half-century before, Powell had worked on those very same soundstages on The Thief of Bagdad.)
Before all this, we met, and met again over ensuing years. A tweedy dressed man with a singsong, upper-crust voice and a face like an animated currant bun, Powell could charm you out of your socks. As he jawed, joked and reminisced about one of the most illustrious careers in British cinema – only David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock left thumbprints as large – two things emerged.
One: this man was a maverick whose every movie was a "rogue project," rather than a stone carefully placed in a monumental oeuvre. Two: for all his country-squire voice and claret waistcoats, Powell would never be the darling of any establishment, because he shot down pomposity wherever he saw it.
So (no surprise) he never got the knighthood he deserved, unlike Sir Alfred H. and Sir David L. But in the last decade of his life, he got accolades just as precious, from his film-industry peers. And when he died on February 19, 1990, obituary writers went down to their word cellars to dust off vintage superlatives.
WHAT WAS SPECIAL about Powell? That he went his own sweet way. That he didn't give a damn, except about good art and good cinema. And that he kept surprising everyone, most of all himself.
"I only discovered what my films were about while making them," Powell once said. "When Alex Korda [the producer], who was the power in British cinema back in the '3Os, married Emeric and me, it was the beginning of a rather special period." (Emeric Pressburger was Powell's Hungarian-born partner between 1939 and 1956.) "No filmmakers ever had such a run of original scripts. And they sort of grew as we made them. I was running around filming location sequences for The Invaders (aka 49th Parallel), with a double for Larry Olivier, while Emeric was still writing the first pages of the script."
To the filmgoing world, this twinning of talents seemed symbiotic, not to say Siamese. "Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger" proclaimed the credits over the picture of an arrow thudding into a target. (They had christened their production company The Archers.)
"I suppose the reason we shared the credits was the wartime atmosphere. Team spirit and all that. Also, we both had a very visual background. I loved American cinema and was very influenced by it. Emeric had worked for UFA in Germany in its heyday – with their fantastic visual effects – until Hitler came along, and then he popped over here. So we were a team, and we shared responsibility, even though Emeric did the scripts and I was the one behind the camera. He had a great knack with words. Of course, I wouldn't have let him direct a foot!"
Powell's own greatest knack was for pulling beleaguered projects out of any fire they might fall into. When Olivier, serving in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, wasn't available for the title role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – "He was off attempting to eliminate Hitler" – Powell made a wartime star out of foghorn-voiced Roger Livesey. "I loved him! Mickey Balcon [the noted British producer] hated him – that hoarse voice. But he was very suburban, Mickey. That's why he made all those Ealing comedies."
When Livesey himself, appearing in a play in London, couldn't go north for location shooting in Scotland for I Know Where I'm Going, in which the actor co-starred with Wendy Hiller, Powell used a double. Probably the most hardworking double in movie history. "People can't believe it when they see the film today," he told me once, "but Roger never went near Scotland! Ever! We picked the double for his walk, height, everything; and in each shot, we'd cut on a turn or a change of angle or even a change of thought. Then we'd use back projection in the studios and push Roger right up against the screen so he seemed to be part of the scene
When Powell thought of the money it would cost to go to India to make Black Narcissus, that simmering tale of sexually repressed nuns in the Himalayas, he said, Heigh-ho, hired Deborah Kerr and shot it all on a British soundstage. The result – as designed by Alfred Junge, shot by Jack Cardiff and directed by Powell – is an expressionist masterpiece.
"They said to me, But surely you'll want to shoot some establishing shots in India? That's a very insidious phrase, establishing shots. They said, You can't do Mount Everest in a studio. I said, A studio is exactly where you can do Everest, and avalanches and Tibetan horns. Wonderful studio stuff. And if we go and shoot a lot of real stuff to cut into the studio stuff, it'll make all the studio stuff look terrible. And vice versa: if we do wonderful work in the studio, the exteriors will look like something from a documentary dragged in by the cat!"
POWELL'S WORKING LIFE followed the same pattern throughout his career. He said he wanted to do something; someone told him he couldn't; he did it. Even on The Red Shoes, Powell's party piece for popular cinema, the director confronted impossible technical challenges with a simple, Right, let's see how we can do this.
"One of my favorite scenes is near the end, when Moira Shearer runs down the spiral staircase and the camera follows her. What we did was rotate the staircase itself, because the camera couldn't possibly have kept up. If you look carefully, you can see the stairs revolve. And though it looks like one shot, there's actually a join; because Moira ran down so fast, we had to reshoot it to make it longer. There's a half-frame jump.
"Moira did that beautifully," Powell assessed. "It's a lovely example of movement. Most actors don't grasp that movement tends to slow down in sound film. Twenty-four frames per second is a totally arbitrary speed. I always tried to shoot scenes at different speeds, even dialogue scenes: anything from 10 to 29, although, of course, you know it'll be projected at 24 frames per second. But every shot has its own viewpoint, its own pace, its own mood. We didn't shoot Moira at normal speed in her dancing scenes onstage; it was 18 or 19.
"The camera crew loves this, once they get used to it. It means you don't have to be a slave to the dialogue. David Lean and I both learned to cut on a silent moviola. If you learn cutting on a sound moviola, you instinctively follow the bloody words. That's the last thing you want. Cinema is all about images. The words take care of themselves. You know, the actors yak away – who cares?"
But there were different Powells for different days. One day he could be this dashing cynic. Another, he could be all sweetness and courtesy to great old duffers of the British movie establishment, even to the "suburban" Balcon. Yet another time, he could be wreathed in pride and dignity as guest celebrity of the Oxford Film Festival, where the jury I was on gave him a special award – for being Michael Powell.
Another day still, one could spot his back-coated silhouette standing on a frozen Leningrad river at dawn. He had arrived early on location, was dicky with flu and resembled an undertaker surveying his latest blanched customer. (The customer here was an Anglo-Soviet stretcher-case called Pavlova, on which Powell advised but didn't direct.)
We even met on days when Powell the debonair artist seemed caught in a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle with Powell the penny-pinching accountant.
"It's all about money," Powell said.
We were talking about studio-versus-location choices in a career that spanned everything from the soundstage India of Black Narcissus to field-trip actioners like The Battle of the River Plate.
"I'm a great believer in George Bernard Shaw's remark. He was talking to some producer who was trying to persuade Shaw to adapt one of his plays into a film. And the producer was talking about how wonderful it would be for cinema and for art. And Shaw interrupted him and said, Mr. So-and-So, the trouble is that you are talking about art and I am only interested in money." Powell roared with laughter.
"I've always been very conscious of what a film cost," he continued. "If you don't plan a film properly, which means in the studio, in the offices, on the storyboards, with the bankers, there's not going to be any future film business for us. Today in Hollywood, they're so proud when a film costs $17 million, $27 million, $37 million. But no one ever knows how these prices are arrived at: Somebody must have pocketed a great deal of money! I'm entirely in sympathy with the young American directors who've tried to get rid of the studio bosses."
Powell "got rid" of the studio bosses in his day by giving them movies so bizarre – and ones that performed so unpredictably at the box office (some flopped, some, like The Red Shoes, were mega-hits) – that all a poor mogul could do was sign the checks and keep hoping. Indeed, there were times when even Powell didn't seem to know which of The Archers' arrows truly hit their targets. "Is it well done? I didn't realize that," he burbled vaguely when I raved about his Hebridean romance, I Know Where I'm Going.
Powell was either a master manipulator of men and movies or was himself a human bank check on which the Muses wrote their signature. Since his conversation was made up of equal parts mischief and innocence, the sardonic and the surprised, it was almost impossible to tell. On the fuss about Peeping Tom, he commented with an air of injured (mock?) innocence: "They called me sick, diseased, goodness knows what. Not a jot of sympathy. I had no idea the critics led such sheltered lives."
When you held the man up to his films, you realized that this ambiguity was central to Powell's magic. Movies like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus presented diabolical passions as wholesome picture-book fantasies. 'Patriotic' war movies like The Invaders or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing were spiked with antijingoist jokes, while war satires like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (on which Winston Churchill tried and failed to halt production) were sweetened with romance and lump-in-the-throat love of country.
PINNING POWELL DOWN was like trying to net a rare butterfly. The flickering beauty of his films drew you on into the chase, but you knew you would never capture them. And even if you did, they would escape at the first chance. Indeed, just when Powell seemed most docile, as man or moviemaker, he was likely to fly from your grasp with a puckish giggle of triumph.
Nothing could be more apt than that Powell, that maker of unlikely marriages between movie styles, should spend his swan-song decade forging an old-young, Brit-Yank alliance with the Turks of Hollywood. One sensed his delight that he ended his days hobnobbing with the Scorseses and Coppolas. But one also sensed his appreciation of the comic incongruity of it all: as when he spotted George Lucas in a Hollywood restaurant and popped over to introduce himself. Lucas looked at him with a shocked expression, wondering, Powell said, "who this ghastly creature was who called himself Michael Powell." The British director retreated to his meal; Lucas finished his. Then, realizing that perhaps this was the Michael Powell, he came over to chat. Result: an invitation to come up to San Francisco for a tour of Lucas' "facility."
"Wonderful – this fantastic cave of marbles! Matte shots, animation, every kind of wizardry! He showed me about 420 matte shots from Empire Strikes Back. I thought, I could do anything here if I could get my hands on all this.
"And, of course, it's wonderful to see it all in the hands of a filmmaker. That's what I like so much about these young Americans. However much their films cost, they're all personal films. George has got all his Star Wars films planned away, all there in boxes. `Little boxes on the hillside!' [singing]. And they've wrested the initiative from the studio bosses," Powell exclaimed.
"The only future for cinema is in the personal film. It always has been. But, of course, we've lost the way so often; new things have come in and distracted people's attention. Sound came in, and for 10 years no one thought of anything but sound. Color came in and no one thought of doing anything but color – which, of course, is nonsense, back-and-white is a style. There have continually been gadgets and gimmicks. But personal films: that's what it must come down to in the end."
Powell may have spent a happy old age yoyo-ing round the world, meeting movie wizards, advising on movies (in Leningrad and L.A.) and even marrying a movie editor, Thelma Schoonmaker of Raging Bull. But if he was on the end of a yoyo, it was an umbilical one, and it was always pulling him back to Britain.
Every richness in Powell's movies is a British one: the landscapes, the pageantry, the throttled, elemental romanticism (out of Wordsworth, by the Brontes). And every tension and contradiction was British, too, between shyness and flamboyance, cynicism and innocence. nostalgia and clairvoyance. America will mourn his passing, but Britain will never forget Powell, just as Powell could never forget Britain. For the Britain – the England – he loved was a visionary, not a parochial, one.
In his words, "There are those who say that England is a little island and that we all look inwards. I don't feel that. I don't regard England even as a little island. It's a world: a world I shall, when the time comes, be sorry to leave."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY 1990 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.