Michael Latham Powell
30 September 1905
|Died||19 February 1990 (aged 84)|
Gloria Mary Rouger
(m. 1927; div. 1927)
(m. 1943; died 1983)
(1962; died 1975)
Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 – 19 February 1990) was an English filmmaker, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company The Archers, they together wrote, produced and directed a series of classic British films, notably The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, also called Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, today considered a classic, and a contender as the first "slasher", was so vilified on first release that his career was seriously damaged.
Many filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George A. Romero have cited Powell as an influence. In 1981, he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award along with his partner Pressburger, the highest honour the British Film Academy can give a filmmaker. He has been played on screen by Alastair Thomson Mills in the award-winning short film Òran na h-Eala (2022) which explores Moira Shearer's life-changing decision to appear in The Red Shoes.
Powell was the second son and youngest child of Thomas William Powell, a hop farmer, and Mabel, daughter of Frederick Corbett, of Worcester, England. Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker.
Powell entered the film industry in 1925 through working with director Rex Ingram at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France (the contact with Ingram was made through Powell's father, who owned a hotel in Nice). He first started out as a general studio hand, the proverbial "gofer": sweeping the floor, making coffee, fetching and carrying. Soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles, usually as comic characters. Powell made his film début as a "comic English tourist" in The Magician (1926).
Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was the first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films. Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.[N 1]
After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make "quota quickies", hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that British cinemas screen a certain quota of British films. During this period, he developed his directing skills, sometimes making up to seven films a year.
Although he had taken on some directing responsibilities in other films, Powell had his first screen credit as a director on Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest success at the box office despite its limited budget. From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).
In 1937 Powell completed his first truly personal project, The Edge of the World. Powell gathered together a cast and crew who were willing to take part in an expedition to what was then a very isolated part of the UK. They had to stay there for quite a few months and finished up with a film which not only told the story he wanted but also captured the raw natural beauty of the location.
By 1939, Powell had been hired as a contract director by Alexander Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World. Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled. Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger in 1939.
The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too verbose and did not have a good role for either Veidt or Hobson. Korda called a meeting where he introduced a diminutive man, saying, "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."
Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:
"Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top [American] screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists ... the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. ... The European film no longer existed. ... Only the great German film business was prepared to fight the American monopoly, and Dr. Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the storm-troopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film."
They both soon recognised that although they were total opposites in background and personality, they had a common attitude to film-making and that they could work very well together. After making two more films together, Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel (1941), with separate credits, the pair decided to form a partnership and to sign their films jointly as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."
Working together as co-producers, writers and directors in a partnership they dubbed "The Archers", they made 19 feature films, many of which received critical and commercial success. Their best films are still regarded as classics of 20th century British cinema. The BFI 100 list of "the favourite British films of the 20th century" contains five of Powell's films, four with Pressburger.
Although admirers would argue that Powell ought to rank alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his career suffered a severe reversal after the release of the controversial psychological thriller film Peeping Tom, made in 1960 as a solo effort. The film was excoriated by mainstream British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to work thereafter.
The film did, however, meet with the rapturous approval of the young critics of Positif and Midi-Minuit Fantastique in France, and those of Motion in England, and in 1965 he was subject of a major positive revaluation by Raymond Durgnat in the auteurist magazine Movie, later included in Durgnat's influential book A Mirror for England.
Powell's films came to have a cult reputation, broadened during the 1970s and early 1980s by a series of retrospectives and rediscoveries, as well as further articles and books. By the time of his death, he and Pressburger were recognised as one of the foremost film partnerships of all time – and cited as a key influence by many noted filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola.
In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron. From 1 July 1943 until her death on 5 July 1983, Powell was married to Frances "Frankie" May Reidy, the daughter of medical practitioner Jerome Reidy; they had two sons: Kevin Michael Powell (b. 1945) and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell (b. 1951). He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.
Subsequently, Powell was married to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire. His niece was the Australian actress Cornelia Frances, who appeared in bit parts in her uncle's early films.
The Academy Film Archive has preserved A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
For Michael Powell's full filmography, see Michael Powell filmography.
For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger.
Many of these titles were also published in other countries or republished. The list above deals with initial publications except where the name was changed in a subsequent edition or printing.