Powell and Pressburger worked miracles

  • Themes: Culture, Film

A retrospective of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's oeuvre at the British Film Institute (BFI) brings their masterpieces back to life.

A still from Black Narcissus (1946).
A still from Black Narcissus (1946). Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Cinema Unbound: The Creative World of Powell and Pressburger is in cinemas and available on BFI Player.

To borrow T.S. Eliot’s pronouncement on genuine poetry, the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can communicate long before they are understood. As a seven-year-old who had only ever seen Bambi and The Aristocats, I once, while watching television, came upon a film extract entirely out of context. The experience stands somewhere between a sort of (mildly traumatic but also enormously formative) primal scene and Proust’s madeleine. The memory of it certainly has the power to transport me back to the groovy living room of my parents’ 1970s apartment. On the small screen I saw a woman, pale as death, wearing a dark dress, come out of a building. She said nothing; she stared ahead, hungrily intent on finding something, someone. Utterly terrifying music was playing. Then there was another woman, dressed as a nun, incomprehensibly ringing a bell on the edge of a precipice. The woman in black pounced on the nun, and they fought pitilessly, until the woman in black was thrown over the edge. The nun stared down, eyes wide, her hand pressed against her face. The whole thing thoroughly chilled my blood and lodged itself in my psyche forever. Then I forgot all about it.

Years later, as a cinephile student, I went to see a newly restored copy of a forgotten British film from 1947, Black Narcissus, directed by the Englishman Michael Powell and scripted by the Hungarian Jewish émigré Emeric Pressburger. The film, which is about a group of Anglican nuns trying to establish a convent and school in the Himalayas, was like being immersed in a heady cascade of Technicolor. And then, very near the end, and this time in context, everything came back: Sister Ruth in the throes of her psychotic episode, stalking Sister Clodagh; Sister Clodagh desperately ringing the bell to call for help; the attempted murder; the vertiginous fall; Clodagh’s appalled face registering the death of the rebellious wretch.

BFI is currently holding a nationwide retrospective of the work of Powell and Pressburger. It includes new BFI restorations, remasters of Powell’s early films and titles written by Pressburger for other directors. There is also a major exhibition devoted to the dance film The Red Shoes, drawn from the collections of the BFI National Archive. This is a wonderful way for Powell-and-Pressburger fans to revisit sumptuous old favourites – from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) to A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – and track down unseen curios such as the ‘quota quickie’ comedy Hotel Splendide (1931). It is perhaps an even more precious opportunity for those who have yet to discover these exceptionally inventive treasures of British cinema to immerse themselves in the worlds of Powell and Pressburger.

What makes the Powell-Pressburger films so distinctive and so memorable? One key characteristic is the overall presence of artifice and trickery. Partly in response to material restrictions but also as an expression of their idiosyncratic creativity, the duo fabricated their own reality. Of Black Narcissus, Powell said: ‘Our mountains were painted on glass.’ While the wondrous matte paintings of artist Percy Day created the illusion of lush exotic landscape and precipitous cliffs, the film was shot in England at Pinewood Studios, and in a West Sussex garden filled with appropriate plants and trees, which belonged to a nostalgic retired officer from the Indian army. Much of the 1945 wartime romance I Know Where I’m Going!  which is set in the Hebrides, was shot in the studio. The film is about a young woman intent on marrying a rich man and perpetually prevented by the weather from crossing to the island where her fiancé awaits her. A riveting pivotal scene – at once romantic, dramatic and mythical – involving the characters negotiating a dangerous whirlpool in a small boat was cobbled together from assorted local footage of nature and close-ups shot in the studio, where stage hands threw copious buckets of water over the actors.

Allied to the inventive wit and energy of the editing, this love of artifice, which often borders on the surreal, produces something of an augmented reality, imbued with strangeness. It is as though there is always more meaning, more intention, more feeling packed into every shot than we can possibly comprehend. The effect is one of suggestive compression. It is always as though, as actually happens in Michael Powell’s transporting fantasy film The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a powerful genie is trapped in a bottle. To watch the films is to see the bottle while intuiting a presence within, expressive and yet implicit.

Sometimes there are dream sequences: on the sleeper to Scotland, the heroine of I Know Where I’m Going! imagines that she is marrying Consolidated Chemical Industries, her fiancé’s industrial company, while the train travels through tartan-clad hills. Sometimes, as in the 15-minute ballet sequence of The Red Shoes, where the prima ballerina goes into a performer’s trance, there are visual manifestations of her mental space: the boundaries of the stage dissolve and she hallucinates the audience as a raging sea. Sometimes, such as when, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Clive Candy’s big-game hunting trip is illustrated by the sound of gunshots, each of them accompanied by the sudden appearance of a new trophy on a wall, there is a powerful visual effect which is at once witty and unsettling. One aspect of this compressed genie-in-the-bottle effect is undoubtedly the considerable eroticism woven through the films – Black Narcissus, I Know Where I’m Going! and The Red Shoes in particular. Though there is absolutely no sex on show, desire is everywhere, expressed through colour, lighting and rhythm.

There is yet another dimension to the films’ visual intensity and layers of meaning: the Powell-Pressburger films are fables. Across the genres of romance, dance, fantasy and wartime propaganda, a moral message is always being transmitted. This might come across as a joyous rejection of materialism for a life on the land (as in I Know Where I’m Going!), or as the belief that life is worth sacrificing for the sake of art (as in The Red Shoes), or as the recognition that ‘the past always haunts the present’, as in A Canterbury Tale (1944). Landscapes are endowed with a mystical presence. There is the suggestion of another reality behind this one. That this often happens as the result of handmade special effects, of bricolage, makes it all the more potent, uncanny and suggestive. Though Powell and Pressburger’s films are not literally religious in content, they are fervent and sincere. Within their worlds blessings are received, penance is done, and, in Powell’s own words, miracles happen on screen.


Muriel Zagha