Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Top 10 Michael Powell (And Emeric Presburger) Films

I do not know if any director has had as formative an influence on the films I love than Michael Powell and his creative partner, Emeric Pressburger. The film that sits in the number-one slot on the list that follows radically altered what I look for in movies, and it remains my favorite of all time. On his own, Michael Powell was an extraordinarily gifted director, an innate visual genius and a conservative in the Fordian mode, reflected in films that looked fondly on a traditional Britain but also displayed an ambivalence, even borderline acceptance of the nation’s fading importance in the 20th century. (His breakthrough, The Edge of the World, recalls Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in its wistful but clear-headed appraisal of a secluded hamlet eroding to modernity for ill and good.)

With Pressburger, though, Powell crafted not only some of the most sumptuously beautiful films of all time, but some of the most resonant as well. Their propaganda films are anything but, and their postwar work celebrates the preservation of their beloved country even as it offers firm, and sometimes critical, assessments of what needs to be done to maintain Britain’s spirit. Even at their most troubling, however, the filmmakers communicate such vivaciousness of life through some of the greatest Technicolor work in history that an optimism blazes to the surface on their aesthetic mastery. The films below are not merely some of the best ever made, they are also some of the most endlessly, exuberantly entertaining.

Honorable Mention: The Thief of Bagdad

Left off the list proper only because its laundry list of credited and uncredited directorial credits makes attribution to any one filmmaker unwise. But the auteurial quagmire makes no difference on the film itself, one of the most rousing adventures ever put to the screen. Mounted on a vast scale and an extravaganza for pioneered special effects, The Thief of Bagdad also makes great use of its leads, especially Sabu as a plucky, whip-smart thief and Conrad Veidt as the manipulative grand vizier. This film announces to the audience that it intends to go wild from its first shots of a ship painted in surreal, vivid colors, and it only gets more vibrant and astonishing from there. Show this to children, not Disney’s racist, attention-deficit ripoff Aladdin.

10. The Tales of Hoffmann

It may feel like something of a rehash of the Archers’ superior dance movie, but The Tales of Hoffmann may stand as the Archers’ most brazenly stylish work. Bouncing between the vignettes of its adapted opera, Powell and Pressburger wildly vary sets, mood and movement (of dancers and camera) in a fit of orgiastic style. The whole may not equal the sum of its parts, but the film’s pleasures are so overwhelming in its isolated moments that it still manages to awe almost as much as their more cohesive displays of perfectly ordered excess.

9. A Canterbury Tale

It seems so fitting that the first major work of literature in the English vernacular is a foundational text in British humor, and somehow it makes sense that Powell and Pressburger would take look to it for their own view of England. In updating and reworking the material, the Archers offer an amusing look at the ways people are divided by a common language, and how they come together and remain apart in certain areas. The local man who goes about gluing ladies’ hairs to remind them of their fealty to their British boyfriends, the frequently alienated Oregonian sergeant suddenly finding a common tongue with fellow woodworkers as other Brits look on cluelessly. All of these glimpses of country life, and more, shade in a subtle celebration of British spirit, self-effacing, even a bit resigned at times, but proud and noble. Powell and Pressburger always approached propaganda from an odd angle, but never one so delightful as this.

8. The Small Back Room

Mixing the harrowing portrait of alcoholism of The Lost Weekend with a thriller narrative, The Small Back Room trades the Archers’ visual bombast for a confined view of a self-medicating alcoholic who must help defuse a new, booby-trapped German bomb being dropped on the island. But no bottle can stay corked around a sot for too long, and the expressionistic camerawork common to the filmmakers’ other movies soon rears its head in the form of withdrawal hallucinations and the mounting stress of its climax. One of the pair’s most straightforward works, The Small Back Room is nevertheless a good a showcase for their effortless perfectionism as any.

7. 49th Parallel

49th Parallel points to the remarkably subversive and un-propagandic propaganda films the Archers would make during the war. Much as the film depicts the Nazis stranded by the destruction of their U-boat a degenerate killers, it also bothers to dig into the beliefs of the Germans as they struggle toward the border into then-neutral United States. Nearly all in the group openly express dissent with the ideals they are forced to accept or are visibly hollowed out in order to make space for that horrid code. Here is a propaganda movie that remains with the enemy, that stays with them long enough to erode their ideology until only the unbending, grotesque rock is left. Like any truly British propaganda film, its chief weapon is dark, subtle irony: when one of the remaining Germans hesitates over selling an executed comrade’s field glasses for food, another replies, “They belong to the Fatherland. It wouldn’t let us starve, would it?” Even the ending, a hilariously rousing fade-out from a certain ass-whooping, only counts for so much nationalistic cheer in the face of its human contention with the other side.

6. I Know Where I’m Going!

Not many idyllic, romantic traipses around the Scottish countryside begin with a social climber’s dream of eroticized industrial imagery to show her equation of sex and capital. But then, not much about this film fits the mold: its technical exercises prevent the film from lapsing into pre-neorealism, while it makes an early pushback against the coming postwar influx of capitalism by favoring the quiet, emotional aspects of British life over the promise of a powerful and strategic union (hint hint). The Archers may have done their share to make sure Americans were welcomed by British soldiers, but this romance marks a subtle but firm push to keep Great Britain’s spirit.

5. Peeping Tom

Released just before Psycho, Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom is in some ways the more disturbing film. Its conceit of a serial killer driven to murder through his recorded voyeurism is one of the first explicit critiques of the exploitative properties of filmmaking, and the shots of the camera inching toward the victim make the audience shockingly complicit for a film released in 1959. It still gets under the skin, too, and it only ever becomes more disturbing the more one delves into Powell’s other work, so rich in the humanism that has been conditioned out of this film.

4. Black Narcissus

If Powell/Pressburger’s postwar films communicated their fervent wish for Britain to live up to its incredible sacrifice, Black Narcissus is their darkest and most unsettling instruction, turning outward from emotional repair and strengthening bonds with allies to the question of the nation’s now-openly hypocritical imperialism. The conceit is brilliant—nuns sent to civilize the wilds of India find themselves driven to despair and madness by a land they do not understand—but the execution more so. One of the handful of films that could lay credible claim to the greatest use of color, Black Narcissus brims with such expressive force that something as small as the application of lipstick nearly resembles a Grand Guignol flourish.

3. A Matter of Life and Death

Who has watched The Wizard of Oz and not wondered why Dorothy would ever want to return to the dreary monochrome of real life after living in lush Technicolor? A Matter of Life and Death inverts its color schemes, portraying the real world in joyous color while heaven, for all its splendor and glory comes across in stiff compositions and black-and-white. With the world still wallowing in death, the film does not glorify the afterlife but this plane of existence, where wrenching but euphoric things like love mean even more now that so many could not enjoy them ever again. Set during the dying days of the war, A Matter of Life and Death sets its sights on new causes worth fighting for, not national conflicts worth dying for but human achievements that give us a reason to live.

2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The blustering, reactionary face of an aged Colonel Blimp that opens this film reflects the satire of the comic strip it adapts. Then, the Archers move deeper, probing the life of extraordinary social, political and national upheavals that made that pompous old man who he is. The result is the greatest tribute to, and gentlest critique of, the British Empire, embodied by a man who lives equally by brashness and honor, who epitomizes nationalistic fervor but forms his closest friendship with an “enemy” who seems so unlike the faceless Other conjured by propaganda and xenophobia when met as a person. So many of Powell’s films, with and without Pressburger, display a capacity for multitudes, but never was the Archers’ ability to be shamelessly sentimental and brutally, unflatteringly honest more pronounced.

1. The Red Shoes

The best of the Archers’ work is pure cinema, and they don’t come any purer than The Red Shoes. It is a cinema of elegant but ebullient subjectivity, carefully ordered and formal but dizzying in its impact. An impresario fears life may interfere with art, and the artist under his thumb sacrifices her own for her art. Dance, a communication beyond words and sound, perfectly fits Powell’s visual gifts. Indeed, though there have been many more superior dance sequences in other films, no other film has filmed dance so cinematically, with key edits, daring effects work, and subjective superimpositions. It is the ultimate celebration of artistry, and the ultimate testament to the despair it can create.


  1. So far, I've seen 4 Powell/Pressburger films as I hope to do more in 2013. Here's how I rank them so far:

    1. The Red Shoes
    2. Black Narcissus
    3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    4. 49th Parallel

  2. Similar to Steven, I have only seen four films. My education on the works of Powell/Pressburger only started in 2012. However, I am eager to fill my blind spots on there works. Here is how I would rank the ones I have seen:

    1. Black Narcissus
    2. The Red Shoes
    3. Peeping Tom
    4. I Know Where I'm Going!

  3. Sounds like both of you have some great films waiting for you!

  4. The Archers are my favorite filmmakers, and it's gratifying to see their virtues extolled with such passion. My own Top 10 would be as follows:

    1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
    2. Black Narcissus
    3. The Red Shoes
    4. A Canterbury Tale
    5. A Matter of Life and Death
    6. The Tales of Hoffman
    7. The Small Back Room
    8. I Know Where I'm Going!
    9. Contraband
    10. The 49th Parallel

    I'm exlcuding Peeping Tom for reasons of fairness, and I have yet see Gone to Earth or The Elusive Pimpernel.