Michael Powell
Michael Latham Powell

(1905-09-30)30 September 1905
Bekesbourne, Kent, England
Died19 February 1990(1990-02-19) (aged 84)
  • Film director
  • producer
  • screenwriter
Years active1925–1983
Gloria Mary Rouger
(m. 1927; div. 1927)

Frankie Reidy
(m. 1943; died 1983)

(m. 1984)
8 Melbury Road plaque
English Heritage Blue PlaqueDorset House, Gloucester Place, NW1 5AG
English Heritage Blue Plaque
Dorset House, Gloucester Place, NW1 5AG

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 later controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, while today considered a classic, and a contender as the first "slasher", was so vilified on first release that his career was seriously damaged.[1][2][3]

Many filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George A. Romero have cited Powell as an influence.[4] 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.

Early life

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.

Film career

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[6] From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).[6]

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.[5] 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.

Meeting Emeric Pressburger

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."[5]

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."[5]

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) 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."[5]

The Archers

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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[8]

Personal life

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.[5] 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.[8] 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.[9]

Awards, nominations and honours



For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger.

Early films

Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies". Not all of them were really quota films, and the ones that were are often of a much higher standard than most other quota films. Some of his early films are now missing and are believed lost. But those that have survived often show some very sophisticated techniques and early versions of ideas that were reused, done better, in his later films. Those marked with an * are "Missing, believed lost".

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1928 Riviera Revels G. Ventimigla and Marcel Lucien A series of comedy shorts. Powell co-directed with Harry Lachman
1930 Caste Harry Rowson (Ideal) Uncredited as director, main director was Campbell Gullan
1931 Two Crowded Hours * Film Engineering
1932 My Friend the King * Film Engineering
Rynox Film Engineering
The Rasp * Film Engineering
The Star Reporter * Film Engineering
Hotel Splendide Film Engineering.
A Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd
C.O.D. * Westminster Films
His Lordship Westminster Films
1933 Born Lucky * Westminster Films
1934 The Fire Raisers Gaumont-British
Red Ensign Gaumont-British US title: Strike!
Something Always Happens Warner Brothers.
First National Productions Ltd
1935 The Girl in the Crowd * First National
Lazybones A Real Art Production
The Love Test Fox British
The Night of the Party Gaumont-British Picture Corporation US title: The Murder Party
The Phantom Light A Gainsborough Picture
The Price of a Song * Fox British
Someday * Warner British a.k.a. Young Nowheres
1936 Her Last Affaire New Ideal Productions Ltd
The Brown Wallet * Warner Brothers.
First National
Crown v. Stevens Warner Brothers. First National Productions Ltd a.k.a. Third Time Unlucky
The Man Behind the Mask Joe Rock Studios reissued as Behind the Mask. Only exists as a cut-down US print.

Major films

Aside from some short films, Powell wrote, produced and directed all of his films from 1939 to 1957 with Emeric Pressburger

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1937 The Edge of the World Joe Rock Productions
1939 The Spy in Black Harefield US title: U Boat 29
Smith D&P Productions.
Embankment Fellowship Co.
10-minute short film
The Lion Has Wings London Film Productions RAF documentary footage with some fictional intercuts
1940 Contraband British National US title: Blackout
The Thief of Bagdad Alexander Korda Films Inc. co-director
1941 An Airman's Letter to His Mother a 5-minute short
49th Parallel Ortus Films
(and Ministry of Information (United Kingdom))
US title: The Invaders
1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing The Archers.
British National
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp The Archers/
Independent Producers
The Volunteer The Archers.
Ministry of Information (United Kingdom)
a short propaganda film
1944 A Canterbury Tale The Archers
1945 I Know Where I'm Going! The Archers
1946 A Matter of Life and Death The Archers US title: Stairway To Heaven
1947 Black Narcissus The Archers
for Independent Producers Ltd.
1948 The Red Shoes The Archers
1949 The Small Back Room The Archers.
London Films
1950 Gone to Earth The Archers.
London Films
US title: The Wild Heart (1952) – substantially re-edited version additional scenes directed by Rouben Mamoulian
The Elusive Pimpernel London Film Productions
(and The Archers)
US title: The Fighting Pimpernel
1951 The Tales of Hoffmann British Lion Film Corporation
(with Vega Productions and The Archers)
1955 Oh... Rosalinda!! Associated British Picture Corporation.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
1956 The Sorcerer's Apprentice 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/
Norddeutscher Rundfunk
a short ballet
The Battle of the River Plate Arcturus Productions.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
US title: The Pursuit of the Graf Spee
1957 Ill Met by Moonlight Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
for Rank Organisation Film Productions (and Vega Productions)
US title: Night Ambush
1959 Luna de Miel Michael Powell Production
for Suevia Films-Cesáreo González (Spain)/Everdene (GB)
a.k.a. Honeymoon
1960 Peeping Tom Michael Powell Production
1961 The Queen's Guards Imperial.
Michael Powell Production
1963 Herzog Blaubarts Burg Süddeutscher Rundfunk. Norman Foster Produktion a.k.a. Bluebeard's Castle
1966 They're a Weird Mob J. C. Williamson Film Company (Australia)/
Michael Powell Production
Pressburger wrote the script as Richard Imrie
1969 Age of Consent Nautilus Productions
1972 The Boy Who Turned Yellow Roger Cherrill Ltd
for the Children's Film Foundation
Script by Pressburger
1978 Return to the Edge of the World Poseidon Films/
BBC Television
For British TV, framing of the original 1937 film

Television work

Powell also directed episodes of the TV series The Defenders, Espionage and The Nurses.

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1963 Never Turn Your Back on a Friend Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1964 The Frantick Rebel Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1964 A Free Agent Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1965 The Sworn Twelve Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for The Defenders series
1965 A 39846 Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for The Nurses series

Non-directorial work

Powell was also involved in the following films in a non-directorial role:

Other works

Books by Michael Powell

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.



  1. ^ It was Hitchcock who suggested using Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death.
  1. ^ Mark D. Eckel (2014). "When the Lights Go Down". p. 167. WestBow Press.
  2. ^ Forshaw, Barry (20 September 2012). British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-137-18497-9.
  3. ^ Crouse, Richard (26 August 2003). The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen. ECW Press. p. 167. ISBN 978-1-55490-540-9.
  4. ^ a b Crook, Steve. "Famous Fans of Powell & Pressburger." Powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Powell 1986
  6. ^ a b c Duguid, Mark. "Early Michael Powell." Screenonline. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  7. ^ "Features: The BFI 100." Archived 1 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine BFI, 19 February 2008. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  8. ^ a b c d Robson, Leo (9 May 2014). "Thelma Schoonmaker: the queen of the cutting room". FT Magazine. Retrieved 10 May 2014.
  9. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  10. ^ "1st Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners." berlinale.de. Retrieved: 21 December 2009.
  11. ^ Rose, Steve. "Scorsese: my friendship with Michael Powell." guardian.co.uk, 14 May 2009. Retrieved: 1 September 2010.
  12. ^ "Awards History." edfilmfest.org.uk. Retrieved: 7 December 2017.