BFI Powell and Pressburger retrospective to tour US and Canada

The BFI is collaborating with US and Canadian cultural partners to share the magic of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with North American audiences.

13 May 2024

Thelma Schoonmaker at BFI Southbank, London, 26 October 2023 © Tim Whitby/BFI

Our major retrospective Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger is coming to the USA and Canada over the next few months with a variety of cultural partners including TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, SIFF Egyptian Theater, Seattle and an extensive retrospective programme at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

The project was a major hit last autumn for the BFI celebrating one of the greatest and most enduring creative partnerships in the history of film, the legendary writer-producer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and involving expert preservation and restoration work from the world-leading team at BFI National Archive. 

Exploring the vital creativity and magic of iconic films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), films were presented on the big screen alongside archive rarities including nitrate, new digital restorations, remastered early works, new 35mm prints from previous restorations and more at the BFI’s flagship venue BFI Southbank, London and cinemas across the UK (funded by the UK’s National Lottery).

The programme also took a closer look at Powell and Pressburger’s lasting impact, having charmed and inspired a passionate fan base of filmmakers and artists including Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton and Kate Bush. True cinematic visionaries, Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces were so numerous that in 2022 six of their films appeared in Sight and Sound magazine’s Greatest Films of All Time Poll (a feat only matched by Hitchcock), with votes from directors including, Rose Glass, Andrew Haigh, Joanna Hogg, Martin McDonagh, Sally Potter, Kenneth Branagh, Tilda Swinton and Martin Scorsese.

Thelma Schoonmaker, three times Academy Award-winning editor and Michael Powell’s widow, was deeply involved in the BFI’s celebration, introducing screenings as well as the subject of In Conversation events across the UK. Alongside Martin Scorsese she has also overseen each of the digital restorations of Powell and Pressburger’s films and recently completed the feature length documentary, Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, narrated by Scorsese and directed by David Hinton which premiered in Berlin.

“The BFI Powell and Pressburger celebration, Cinema Unbound, was extremely successful and many young people turned up to the events and screenings,” says Schoonmaker. “It was thrilling to see another generation discovering the films of Powell and Pressburger. I can’t wait to see the reaction of audiences in the US and Canada. How happy Michael and Emeric would be to see the explosion of events around the world, that are honoring their fantastic films”

Following Cinema Unbound’s rapturous reception in the UK, the BFI are delighted to partner with leading cultural organisations to help present Powell and Pressburger’s films to cinema audiences across North America, collaborating on film series at TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto (10 to 29 May), Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles (18 July to 19 August), Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago (2 to 17 October), SIFF Egyptian Theater, Seattle (18 September to 20 November) and an extensive retrospective programme at MoMA, New York (21 June to 31 July).

“Powell and Pressburger are two of the UK’s most extraordinary and influential filmmakers,” says Ben Roberts, BFI CEO. “Their work deserves to be enjoyed as widely as possible and the BFI National Archive has been key in ensuring their work can be shared in all its glory. Thanks to our cultural collaborators across North America for bringing the magic to a wider audience.”

The monumental task of preserving and restoring many of the films presented in these retrospective series have been completed by world-leading conservation experts, archivists, and curators at the BFI National Archive, who care for a wealth of film and paper-based material as part of the UK’s national film collection. The BFI National Archive is uniquely placed to tell the most complete story of this filmmaking duo having preserved much of their master film material and negatives for decades as well as conserving the unique paper-based personal collections of Michael Powell (donated to the BFI by Thelma Schoonmaker) and Emeric Pressburger, that include correspondence, early drafts of scripts, plans for unrealised projects and more.

BFI National Archive also care for the paper archives for many of their exceptionally talented group of longtime collaborators, collectively known as The Archers, who helped craft and deliver Powell and Pressburger’s narrative worlds. These collections include work by production designer Alfred Junge, production designer and costume designer Hein Heckroth, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, sketch artist Ivor Beddoes, art director Arthur Lawson, and composer Brian Easdale, as well as offering insights into work with on-screen collaborators including Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, and Sabu.

The BFI National Archive is the UK’s national collection of film, caring for works by Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Carol Reed, and Derek Jarman among others, but the breadth of stories that are preserved from over a century of film are rich and varied, spanning continents, mediums, and genres. The BFI National Archive’s knowledge of the national collection, its world-leading archival expertise and spirit of innovation are international in scope, and vital in driving cultural interconnection. Cinema Unbound is a strong example of this collaborative approach to reaching new audiences across the Atlantic.

The Film Foundation and BFI National Archive have worked closely together for the last two  decades to restore many film classics, including a number of Powell and Pressburger titles (see notes to editors for full details) that will screen as part of the retrospective series. Many of the master materials, including camera negatives used in these digital restorations have come from the BFI National Archive.

Most recently The Film Foundation and BFI National Archive completed new digital restorations for I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), in association with ITV and Park Circus (with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation with additional support provided by Matt Spick), The Small Back Room (1949) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) both in association with Studiocanal, as well as a transformative restoration of Powell’s long-unavailable 1963 adaptation of Bela Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, in association with the Ashbrittle Film Foundation (Funding for Bluebeard’s Castle was provided by the BFI National Archive, The Louis B. Mayer Foundation and The Film Foundation).

The BFI have partnered on this North American tour by directly loaning materials on some titles and offering advice on US rightsholders for others. Alongside the new digital restorations being showcased, as above, film is an important part of the retrospective, with new 35mm prints, screening alongside rare archive prints, some loaned from the BFI National Archive, as well as from the collections of MoMA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

New BFI 35mm prints of Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), made from previous restorations, were created for Cinema Unbound with funding from the National Lottery and the additional support of donors to the BFI’s Keep Film on Film campaign, celebrating the art of film projection. A BFI commitment to keep screening 35mm was publicly launched at the BFI’s inaugural Film on Film Festival in 2023.  Audiences at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will be the first to have an opportunity to see a new 35mm print of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), made from the recent digital restoration.

In addition, and of special interest to cinephiles, are Michael Powell’s rare early works, that have been newly remastered by the BFI National Archive. From Rynox (1931) to The Man Behind the Mask (1936), Powell was a director in the UK’s low budget “quota quickie” sector, honing his craft, these surviving titles reveal the origins of Powell’s irreverent humour, an eye for topical issues, and his growing skill with actors. All 13 remastered surviving “quota quickies” are being presented as part of MoMA’s retrospective program, many screening in the US for the first time. Remastering for the BFI project has been supported by Matt Spick and the Charles Skey Charitable Trust. 

The Friends of the BFI is a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organisation that supports the work of the BFI around the world, particularly the activities of the BFI National Archive. US donors to the Friends helped fund vital collections and restoration work for Cinema Unbound.