Why this might not seem so easy
In their 18 years of creative partnership beginning 1939, the writer-producer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – collectively known as The Archers – put together a formidable catalogue of films. Full-hearted and thoroughly British, loaded with ideas yet light and playful in execution, many of these pictures have long since been canonised as classics. The influence is still being felt, too: in the six decades-plus since the partnership dissolved, the work of Powell and Pressburger has bled into cinema at large.
Intimidating as it may sound to those yet to be acquainted, the P&P filmography remains easily accessible now – in part because the two filmmakers were so resolutely ahead of their time. Keen explorers of the magical possibilities of film in their editing and use of special effects, The Archers also embraced the colour revolution early. With every inch of frame in their Technicolor films appearing as deliberate as strokes from a paint brush, it might almost seem like colour cinema was made for Powell and Pressburger.
The best place to start – A Matter of Life and Death
After the “drab realism and khaki” of the Second World War, Michael Powell declared that he needed “somebody to take off with me into the future”. For that, he hired cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who would shoot The Archers’ three most vivid and original films back to back, beginning with 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death. Released the same year as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s likewise a fantasy drama involving a near-death experience, heavenly intervention and an ultimate message of sheer life-affirming humanism.
On return from a bombing raid in the closing days of the war, RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) miraculously survives bailing parachute-less out of his Lancaster over the English Channel. Back home, he begins a romance with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), but is soon informed by an angelic administrator that he survived the fall by mistake. With help from June and friend Doctor Reeves (Archers regular Roger Livesey), Carter must argue the case for his continuing mortality in a celestial court.
Shot in silvery monochrome in its heaven sequences and glorious Technicolor on Earth, and featuring still-awe-inspiring special effects (the film’s ‘stairway to heaven’ is a giant escalator appearing to stretch to infinity), A Matter of Life and Death is about as spectacular as cinema gets. It’s also a kind of handy Powell and Pressburger starter pack, with its technical showmanship, sweeping romance, wartime setting, knowing Britishness and taste for the fantastical hinting at all the places the rest of their filmography will take you.
What to watch next
From 1943 to 1948, Powell and Pressburger made nothing but masterpieces, any of which would make an appropriate next stop for newcomers. Their first colour production, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), is an epic love story centred on the decades-spanning friendship between blustering British Army lifer Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) and German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). Meeting during the Boer war, the soldiers’ bond is tested through the First and Second World Wars, the two men growing old and irrelevant as the world – and the rules of warfare – change beyond them.
The Archers’ two films immediately following Blimp, the bucolic English hymn A Canterbury Tale (1944) and romantic comedy I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), were both shot by monochrome specialist Erwin Hillier. Filmed on location respectively in Kent and on the Isle of Mull, these are romantic evocations of richly historical corners of Britain, as visually inventive in black and white as Cardiff’s films would be in colour.
After A Matter of Life and Death, there was the heady, lusty Rumer Godden adaptation Black Narcissus (1947). Set in a remote convent in northern India, where five Anglican nuns contend with isolation and repressed desires, the film was shot almost entirely on Pinewood soundstages, with astonishing painted backdrops standing in for the Himalayan scenery. The Red Shoes (1948), The Archers’ final Cardiff collaboration, is one of cinema’s ultimate portrayals of the artistic life. Taken under the wing of mercurial ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Walbrook again), Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) rises from unknown dancer to lead ballerina in his production of the eponymous Hans Christian Anderson story, finding on her way that a fulfilling creative life might come at the expense of a personal one.
Either side of the generally accepted P&P masterpieces, there are the merely great and good films. Many of them are war pictures, including espionage tales The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), each one twisty and suspenseful as a Hitchcock thriller; mirror-image propaganda pieces 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), which find respectively a self-destructive U-boat crew and a resourceful British bomber outfit trapped behind enemy lines; flinty psychological drama The Small Back Room (1949), about the broken men left behind to fight WWII on the home front; and the combat procedural The Battle of the River Plate (1956), a blow by blow recreation of the Second World War’s first naval battle.
One of Powell and Pressburger’s most influential films, 1951’s The Tales of Hoffmann, is a rainbow-coloured adaptation of the Jacques Offenbach opera, a film that’s been cited as an inspiration by filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and George A. Romero. Enjoyment may hinge on your patience for opera, though The Archers’ command of their medium is so absolute here that any film fan should be able to enjoy it on purely cinematic terms.
Once you’ve become accustomed to Powell and Pressburger’s eccentricities and flair for the melodramatic, 1950’s Gone to Earth ought to come next. Starring Jennifer Jones as an innocent Shropshire girl, and David Farrar and Cyril Cusack as the competing suitors trying to claim her, the film is a fairytale-like anti-romance, elemental in its affinity for the wind, rain and soil of the English country.
Where not to start
Of the 17 features Powell and Pressburger made together between 1939 and 1957, only 1955’s Oh…Rosalinda!!, a flawed (if visually resplendent) attempt to update Die Fledermaus for the Cold War era, could be considered a misstep. Powell himself did however also make the case for 1957’s Ill Met by Moonlight, a perfectly watchable if anonymous WWII thriller dismissed by the filmmaker as one of The Archers’ “greatest failures”. Unhappy with everything from the casting to the studio-mandated decision to shoot in black and white, Powell had such a miserable time making it that he and Pressburger officially called it quits on The Archers at the end of production.
The pair only worked together twice more, with Powell directing and Pressburger on writing duties for They’re a Weird Mob (1966), an Australian comedy, and Children’s Film Foundation mini-feature The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972). Neither represents the best of Powell and Pressburger, though even these later curios still show glimmers of the old magic.
Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).
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