The Powell and Pressburger Mystery – Raymond Durgnat

Rich and strange are the movies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Masterpiece or misfire, stunning or disappointing, they bristle with odd angles, they hook and tease the mind. Underappreciated by critics in their day, their Hollywood admirers ranged from Cecil B. De Mille to Billy Wilder. Paramount used I Know Where I’m Going to demonstrate classical scriptwriting. Gene Kelly used The Red Shoes to change MGM’s policy on musicals. Their cause was championed by movie ‘brats-with-beards’ Scorsese and Coppola, by mainstream innovator Ken Russell, and by outright avant-gardists Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman. Finally film academics have followed suit, but find the films hard to handle, partly because they’re sodiverse (where auteur. theory liked consistency and repetition), partly because they draw on cultures film studies have chosen to repudiate – the ‘rich’ avant-gardes (like Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Matisse), Film as Spectacle and Pleasure, Life for Art’s Sake, cranky English individualism, a ‘field’ culture (geography, hunting, walking, soldiering), gentlemanly patriotism (not chauvinism), and a mixture of decency, delicacy, and cool ruthlessness. Even their quiet films, like A Canterbury Tale, which invokes an unconscious religious spirit around in wartime, make life mysterious, dangerous. They make the familiar strange, as naturally as breathing.
Oddly enough, it was the utterly English Powell who contributed the foreign influences (German Expressionism, Frenchdecadence, Hollywood), while Pressburger, the Jewish-Hungarian from UFA, elaborated that English specially, the narrative which, rather than charge through storypoints as fast as possible, winds and rambles and enjoys the scenery-without losing its momentum. Powell, having absorbed what Hollywood had to teach him, stayed close to his English ‘roots’; Pressburger, like so many other European refugees from Hitler, became more Anglophile than the English. From one angle, they’re conservatives, respectful of a tradition, but in the spirit of the Laird in I Know Where I’m Going, who lives up to family tradition by defying it.
It’s a tradition of evolution, usually more flexible than the, abstractly planned, radical break. They fit awkwardly into film theory, since Powell, though a true auteur, often thought more like an impresario, or a producer, who draws ideas from a team of collaborators. (He deplored ‘one-man’ auteur theory.) His career first went seriously awry through projects using artists from many media – Stravinsky, Dylan Thomas, Matisse, Kurosawa. Pressburger I think is not an auteur, but the kind of mind which, responding to the visions of others, develops them as they alone could not, or wouldn’t know how.
Some left-wing critics think P & P ‘subversive,’ if not by content/meaning, then by form/language. I don’t think originality as such subversive, but P & P speak to a modern loneliness, and its nostalgia for a ‘lost’ Mixture, of ‘roots’ (a.k.a. evolving tradition), loyalty, passionate colour, and free-spiritedness. As a study in killer-solitude, Peeping Tom anticipates Taxi Driver; but it’s a softer, more tender film, with a stronger sense of ‘lost family.’ The Red Shoes celebrates dedicated egos, colliding, to generate a collective art. The theme which links the films is a tense, baroque relation between individual vision and team spirit, between purposes and life. The conflicts are smooth, devious, oblique, and different every time. A Canterbury Tale has an intersection of different ‘pilgrimages,’ like cross-purposes briefly united. The Red Shoes has a brief ‘consensus’ among artists.
Graf Spee has a convocation of battleships. In Peeping Tom the serial-killer son is a loyal distortion of his coldly dispassionate father. Strong egos engage with strong disciplines, sometimes constructive, sometimes fatal, sometimes both, as in The Red Shoes (life carries no guarantees). The strangeness of the structures which link individuals, their little, local, group loyalties, and wider ‘connections,’ explores that often overlooked dimension between personal togetherness and political collectivism-the dimension which ‘ideology theory’ claimed, but failed, to explain. Two wartime films by P & P begin with R.A.F. bombers crashing. In One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, the crew, escaping from occupied Holland, must improvise democracy on-the-hoof; here’s a primitive, ‘local,’ anarcho-Communist spirit. But in Stairway to Heaven the last crew member left alive refuses to enter a loftily bureaucratic Utopia. As if to say – ‘Little’ structures, yes, megastructures, no thank you. Perhaps it’s no accident that ‘left’ film culture ‘discovered’ P & P just before the left’s wider retreat from ‘megatotalizing’ Socialisms, political (Leninism) and intellectual (structuralism), and its reopening to Socialisms not hegemonized by Marxism, but improvised ‘on the ground’ – Social Democracy (Europe), ‘mixed economics’ (China, Eastern Europe), and devolution (Britain).
Film studies, too, have been moving away from the grand rigid theories, of ideology, syntax, auteur, genre, codes, and so on, to empirical research into ‘local’ history – oral histories and interviews, studio memos and correspondence, trade practices, and so on – whose version of how cultures work, and change, has much in common with chaos theory!
A scholarly empiricism dominates this basket of books. The James Howard book is essentially a handbook, a sort of ‘Companion to Powell’s Films.’ it assembles copious data-about their production histories, their collaborating artists, their critical and box-office receptions, some cultural influences – and briefly indicates interpretative slants. In a way it’s a scissors-and-paste job, but extremely useful, drawing on diverse and out-of-the-way sources. The comments are sensible, but sometimes try too hard to make P & P unique. “Ballet had never been a box-office attraction””- true. But The Red Shoes was Korda’s idea; Slaughter on Tenth Avenue twice featured in films; and MGM had just had a hit with The Unfinished Dance.
It’s tempting to locate P & P’s originality in subjects and themes, where it’s usually in the ‘fine detail’ of strategies and styles, and so quite difficult to talk about, even when it vividly transforms a story – or trance-forms it. The Films of Michael Powell and The Archers is the fifty-second in the long-running Scarecrow series of monographs. It combines a fair rundown of data with description, interpretation, and appraisal, taking in some of the rarely discussed Bs on which Powell cut his teeth. It’s a generally reliable study along currently orthodox lines, with sagacious observations and some nicely disconcerting insights, like the affinities between The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and a musical. Sometimes it reads a bit distant from the battlefields, rather confusing Powell’s ‘Quota Quickies’ (Z features, shot in six days flat) with his honest Bs’ (the films for Michael Balcon). The headline that boosted the box-office of A Spy in Black was not the mere appearance of a German U-Boat off the Orkneys: the U-Boat sank an aircraft carrier, with heavy loss of life, beside the main fleet’s anchorage, rather disgracing the Royal Navy.
Enthusiasts for P & P, turned on by the ‘fanatical’ subjects and fantasy styles, often seem baffled by less unconventional, or delicate, films, and, as if to compensate, exaggerate British hostility to P & P and what they stood for. First of all, Peeping Tom did not make Powell an outcast; his career suffered from a combination of factors, mainly a succession of box-office flopsin various genres. Even then, top-flight talents, like Peter Sellers, wanted to work with him; but Powell, charmer as he was, could be impossibly difficult like, in different ways, Orson Welles. Both men inspired the phrase, ‘A genius, but …’ Welles was arrogantly whimsical, his enthusiasms fitful, he didn’t pay people, and when crossed, became physically dangerous (the rage scene in Citizen Kane is Welles himself). Powell was more together, but his icily aloof sarcasm hurt people more than he knew (or cared).
Second misconception: that Powell’s departures from ‘realism’ were a problem. ‘Realism’ was indeed popular, and part of a turn from ‘glamour’ to ‘ordinary people’ – i.e., a left shift – but there was little antipathy to fantasy (Disney, Olivier’s Henry V, such wartime fantasies as Heaven Can Wait and Here Comes Mr. Jordan, on the last of which Stairway to Heaven plays many variations). Most critics thought the ultrafantastic ballet the best part of The Red Shoes. (Incidentally, the fanatics for realism were all on the left: documentarists like Paul Rotha; Marxist cinetheorists like Kracauer; and a press reviewer, Richard Winnington, Communist journalist on the left-liberal daily News-Chronicle, whose brilliantly terse reviews mesmerised ‘serious’ film-lovers – Lindsay Anderson, me, and Gerald Kaufmanns, later Labour government Minister’).
Third, P & P, in their prime, enjoyed enormous industry prestige. Rank gave them hefty budgets and a free hand. They secured independence for other Rank production units. They had ready access to government circles (Britain, Canada, Israel). John Davis ‘ Rank’s brutal supremo, eventually had it in for Powell, as for several people, but he wasn’t the industry,’ only one-third of it. The producers of Peeping Tom honoured Powell by giving it their biggest budget ever. In the press witch hunt after it the militant left was well to the fore (The Tribune, The New Statesman, The Daily Worker, the B.F.I’s Monthly Film Bulletin).
When Kevin Gough-Yates, then head of the National Film Archive, proposed a Powell season at the National Film Theatre, B.F.I. officials fought it tooth and nail. Until Scorsese’s name effected a miraculous conversion. As generously as Powell honoured Pressburger’s co-creativity, even billing him as co-director (which he wasn’t), he remained a shadowy figure. Now Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter illuminates the quiet, solid, withdrawn man. Written by his grandson, himself a filmmaker, it’s the best film biography I’ve read for a long time. It combines vivid personal detail, from family acquaintances, his lifelong journals, interviews with fellow artists, and very thorough research.
Powell, who loved him, saw only what was useful to Powell; this book rounds him out. It researches his family tree (a forebear was the mother of Karl Marx), and the origin of his patronymic (the Austrian Empire gave all Hungarian Jews Germanic names, for taxation purposes). Pressburer’s early wanderings-Prague, Berlin, Paris, London-open up little-known areas of film history: the intimate workings of UFA, German refugees in Thirties Paris. Pressburger’s decline, different from Powell’s, is sympathetically understood (without amateur Psychoanalysis blurring matters). History comes alive, with a sense of people struggling, surviving, pitching, throwing ideas around, striking sparks from each other.
Generally, Powell directed, Pressburger did most of the production administration, and the scripts emerged from their discussions, a basic draft by Pressburger being rewritten by both, alternately or together. Powell, I suspect, was the virtuoso of the scene as a ‘spot,’ and of terse, barbed dialog; Pressburger was the master of discursiveness. Powell was an explorer, of locations, of colour-spaces; Pressburger was an exile, in geography, in language. Of their drifting apart, Powell said: “We even started listening to each other, after fifteen years of reading each other’s thoughts.” The book sheds much light on Powell, whom it describes as “part-boy scout, part-fanatic, part artist.” Not a bad recipe for creativity, combining the kid’s freshness, the fanatic’s ruthlessness, and the artist’s feeling. It also fits Kipling (whom Powell deeply respected) and Hemingway (whose play, Fifth Column, he staged), with their manly, yet sensitive, scrupulous action-morality. Million Dollar Movie is Powell’s second volume of autobiography, all the livelier for being dictated, as by 1985 he was blind. Not that you’d know it, to see him glide up and down the steps to the stage in festival cinemas (having worked out all his moves beforehand), and charm audiences (whom he couldn’t see) with his terse, brisk frankness. Million Dollar Movie covers his decline and fall after The Red Shoes (a period abounding in bold projects) and his ‘Indian Summer’ of celebrity, at American Zoetrope, and interest by young critics (though I remember an NFT seminar when Paul Willemen bellowed at Powell that he didn’t understand his own film). This very untidy book is a cascade of illuminations, about film, and about life (I deeply cherish “Memory is our sixth sense”). It’s lively ‘oral history,’ with indiscretions. Here is, not, of course, the whole truth, but a hefty slice of it, which only he could know. It’s a lively mixture of performance and confession by an artist whose idea of ‘the truth’ resembles, oddly enough, Lindsay Anderson’s: the human mind, simply by soaking up reality, makes it over, into a ‘personal vision’, expressed as, poetry’ in film style. (The mind, though always ‘subjective,’ can grasp much that’s ‘objective,’ and encompass enough truth to operate reliably.)
Sometimes the autobiography tilts over, from ‘reality subjectivized’ to ‘printing the legend’ (and not only on page 567, with its editor’s footnote). On the whole, though, his recall is prodigious, and what he probably reinvents, like the exact words of long conversations, rings true to the spirit of things. He’s fascinated by cunning and constructive egoists, regardless of colour, creed, politics, or whatever: intended projects ranged from Richard Strauss (who respected the Nazis because they loved his music), to Chaim Weizmann (the chemist who founded Israel), from Lawrence of Arabia (a freelance imperialist-militarist-and organiser-liberator of the Arabs) to Arthur Upfield’s ‘Boney’ stories (about an Australian aborigine turned shrewd detective).
Political correctness didn’t exist for him; but gays like Jarman adored his films, perhaps for them firm but delicate manliness; and his loves were spirited women, like Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron (‘Sister Ruth’ in Black Narcissus, who once pulled a gun on him while she was stark naked) [Kathleen strongly denies this]. The little B.F.I. book on Blimp looks like a handy guide to a classic film, but it’s more of a personal essay, by a feminist novelist, A.L. Kennedy. It has the freshness one expects from a ‘real’ writer, as distinct from specialists in academic film study routines. “I adored … the animal grace of Cary Grant, she writes, and “the cylindrical head and stately bearing of Mervyn Johns.” Ah, Mervyn Johns. He was a homely character actor, such as British audiences always recognise with pleasure, and who give British cinema much of its texture, but whom academics never write about, either because ‘actors aren’t auteurs’ (?) or because ‘the narrative is the meaning’ (as if characterisation didn’t transform plots). Kennedy’s eye for physique, for personality-atmosphere, puts her on the track of Powell’s way of seeing (e.g., his rock climber’s observation about Jennifer bones: “She had long toes, good for gripping, and the soles of her feet were like tanned buckskin”). Kennedy is spot-on about a lot of things-the sensuality of flags, the solitude theme, the detail of a duel (the men tread rosin onto their shoes-like ballet dancers!). She’s well alert to the visual details, and the ‘pictorialist’ tableaux, that time and again lift a P & P scene above its ‘narrative’ value, into the distillation of a life (Lermontov smoking alone).
Too often, alas, wildly subjective responses alternate with political correctness. There are pages of vague self-pity. The duel in the gymnasium evokes her grandmother’s funeral (the coffin is described as ‘a box full of meat’ – as if that’s what the pallbearers were thinking). The Turkish bath full of chubby English gents reminds her of Nazi concentration camps. I’m not sure if that’s film criticism or True Confessions. At least it illustrates how spectators’ associations to films are freer than ideology theories understand. (The relation between ‘codes’ and ‘free associations’ is highly problematic, since free associations carry the different life-histories which diversify individuals and their minds.) Kennedy, a leftist-feminist-pacifist, clearly loves the honourable old soldier and his ex pro-Nazi ex-enemy – good for her – but ‘political correctness’ induces strange spins on everything else. She thinks the ruthless young officer is faintly Fascist and approves of Nazi methods; she blames the government for sending Blimp to his death (overlooking the heroine’s crusading jingoism); she assumes ‘Government’ and the Ministry of Information were too stupid to understand the film. But all this is too indiscriminate. Churchill and Army people did take against Blimp, but got little sympathy from other Government departments.
Rank, the patriotic tycoon, gave the film a hefty budget, and, ignoring government complaints, a gala premiere. The public warmly received what is probably the most self-critical film from any nation fighting in that war. M.0.I. policies were heavily influenced by left-wing documentarists. Kennedy even believes that Churchill ordered British troops to fire on Welsh miners (not true), and digresses into rants against Mrs. Thatcher (how British feminists loathe their successful Sister!). She thinks a modern version of Blimp would meet with “punitive action and almost inevitable suffocation.” Like what? Gandhi? Ascendancy? In the Name of the Father? To be sure, my own reaction is coloured by my own life-history. The first time I saw Blimp, the bomb that kills Blimp’s servant was immediately followed by antiaircraft guns opening up all around the cinema, and audience silence was followed by laughter that was really pretty nervous. Naturally, that perspective on the film will die with my generation, and others should see it differently. My point is rather the oversimplification of Politics, as if we ought to have despised ‘the government’ (of which the left was a solidly hawkish part!). The film surprised and touched us by its nuances – just as it refused the even more tempting prejudices against Germans. (Prejudices, I hasten to add, weaker than might be thought; the moment Germany surrendered, German P.O.Ws could walk about the streets, identifiable in prison-camp uniforms, with negligible hassle.)
I don’t mean that art should be understood only as the artists intended (though grasping ‘original’ meanings is an enriching project to set oneself), or that there’s only one way of reading a film. The politically militant will rightly be preoccupied by a film’s political correctness. Other equally political spectators may welcome adversarial views, as aids to sophistication (that useful though dangerous thing). Others again will prioritise a film’s witness to human thought and experience, whether ‘correct’ or not. All three uses of art make sense – the trouble begins when they’re confused, as I think they are here. It’s not just Kennedy; it’s an abiding problem. Powell’s left-wing admirers have skidded over the shipyard boss’s drastic way with his labour force in Strike! (1934), and the airman’s reluctance to enter a collectivist Utopia in Stairway to Heaven (1946). John Ellis and Paul Willemen, devotees of the neo-Leninist Althusser, want Powell’s films to be seen as signs and forms, irrespective of their meaning: a pitiable evasion. I could understand it if P & P’s films were simply ‘reactionary,’ but their, reactionary’ aspects, which are not ‘positions’, but ‘moments’, are balanced by others. Strike! dwells on capitalist crookery and malfunction, and in Stairway, Collectivist Heaven finally treats the individual fair-mindedly. Whereas most movies of the time stayed in a safe middle-ground, Powell would contemplate extremes, – and then try to balance them. Stairway to Heaven startled British audiences, and infuriated some on the right, because, in the Heavenly Trial scene, an Anglophobe Yankee (Raymond Massey) prosecutes the British Empire, and declares in ringing tones that every nation in the world has good reason to hate the British. On the other hand, the film refuses to be ashamed of the Empire’s record overall, and rightly predicts that Britain will relinquish Empire with (relatively) good grace. The balance is very ingenious, very intuitive. Especially as much of the left in Powell’s day (Fabians like Beatrice Webb, Shaw, and H.G. Wells; Lenin; the postwar Labour government) considered the British Empire a progressive force, objectively. Meanwhile F.D.R. distrusted Churchill but trusted Stalin; hardly anybody understood Russian imperialism, in Asia, as what it was.
Two problems combine here: ‘historical relativism’ and the vagueness of political labels. Playwright Rodney Ackland called 49th Parallel “Fascist.” Why? – because a Canadian punches out a German, and because Powell made actors suffer to get akey scene in the can. The Sidneyan Society (Scottish Presbyterian Conservative patriots) thought Powell’s Unconscious mind was frill of fascist imagery – but whose isn’t ? Communist documentarist Paul Rotha called Pressburger “that Fascist” – nobody ever knew why. MacDonald speculates that Rotha disapproved of Pressburger working with Luis Trenker on The Challenge (1938) – but so did its producers (Korda, and Stapenhorst, another refugee). About Leni Riefenstahl, Rotha had no doubts at all; in the 1960s he saw her photograph on the wall of the National Film Theatre, smashed the glass, tore up the photo, and trampled on the pieces. I must admit, the last reaction satisfies me.

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