10 reasons why you need to see a Powell and Pressburger movie

‘A reminder of what life and art are all about.’ That’s how Martin Scorsese describes the filmmaking partnership between Kent’s Michael Powell and Hungarian émigré Emeric Pressburger – arguably Britain’s greatest ever filmmaking partnership. Nominally Powell directed and Pressburger wrote (under the collective banner of The Archers) but their collaboration blurred standard distinctions forming a singularity of voice that remains magic. As the BFI launches a major retrospective, here is a primer for their unique brand of cinematic alchemy.  

A Matter of Life and Death
Photograph: BFI/Park Circus

1. They’re made on an epic scale

P&P films are ambitious on every count; narratively, emotionally, cinematically and intellectually. ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ charts the lifelong friendship of a British army office and his Prussian counterpart (perhaps a thinly veiled version of Powell and Pressburger themselves). ‘A Matter Of Life and Death’ tells the story of a RAF pilot on trial for his life in the afterlife (the escalator to heaven is iconic). Black Narcissus is built around a community of nuns in the Himalayas aroused by the arrival of a handsome stranger. Typically, these works are marked by wit, experimentation and maximum audacity.

2. They’re full of wonder

P&P could also work in a smaller register. Shot in shimmering black and white, ‘A Canterbury Tale’ relocates Chaucer from the 14th century to World War II Britain. ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ is an intoxicatingly imaginative story of mysticism and romance on a small Scottish island. ‘Gone to Earth’, the pair’s only foray into Hollywood, concerns a Shropshire girl with a deep affinity to nature. Few filmmakers know how to harness the power and poetry of landscapes like P&P.

Photograph: Courtesy Film ForumRoger Livesey in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’

3. P& always got career-best performances

P&P worked with the best actors in Britain and beyond. David Niven, Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Wendy Hiller, Jennifer Jones all did career-best work with them.

Tales of Hoffman
Photograph: BFI

4. Forget Michael Flatley, they are the Lords of Dance

No-one has put dance on film to more entrancing effect than P&P. ‘The Red Shoes’, the story of a ballerina caught between a young composer and a monstrous svengali, is graced with a 17-minute ballet sequence that toggles between wonder and terror. Three years later, P&P pushed dance on film even further, with ‘Tales of Hoffman’, a sumptuous adaptation of Jacques Offenbach.

Black Narcissus
Photograph: BFI/Park CircusBlack Narcissus (1947)

5. They feel handmade

P&P’s films are filled with fantastic handcrafted flourishes that lift the film out of the ordinary. In ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, rather than use a fade in from black, Powell simply breathed on the lens to create dream-like transition to a beach scene. On ‘Black Narcissus’, the backdrop for the Himalayas were black and white photographs blown up and then enhanced by pastel chalks to create stunning, stylised vistas. 

Black Narcissus
Photograph: BFI/Park CircusBlack Narcissus (1947)

6. No one uses colour quite like them

P&P were masters of Technicolor, a motion picture colour process that, especially in P&P’s hands. delivered ultra-vibrant hues. Perhaps its most amazing use comes in ‘Black Narcissus’ when Kathleen Byron’s disturbed Sister Ruth opens a door and is seen sporting bright red lipstick. Indelible. The image, not the lipstick.

7. They have romantic streak a mile wide

P&P speak subtly but directly to the emotions and nowhere is this more to the fore than in the beginning of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. It’s May 2, 1945. A Lancaster bomber is limping over the channel and RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is the only one left alive onboard and bereft of a parachute. He starts talking to June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and the exchange that follows is heart-breaking and spirit-affirming all at once (‘You’re life, June, and I’m leaving you!’). Contemporary critics dismissed it as saccharine, but from this vantage point it’s as moving as movies get.

‘Gone to Earth’
Photograph: BFI/Bert CannOn the set of ‘Gone to Earth’

8. They hired the very best

To truly understand P&P is to know their genius was only made possible by a raft of key collaborators. Names to drop include cinematographers Erwin Hillier, Christopher Challis and Jack Cardiff; art directors Hein Heckroth and Alfred Junge; and composer Brian Easdale. ‘Shoot the works,’ Powell told his crew. And, boy, did they. 

‘A Matter of Life and Death’
Photograph: BFIDavid Niven and Kim Hunter in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

9. They made films about Britain that are universal

It would be easy to dismiss P&P’s visions of airmen and nurses as depicting a stiff-upper-lipped Britain that never existed, but their worldview is more nuanced than that. Their wartime output – ‘The Spy in Black’, ‘49th Parallel’, ‘Contraband’, ‘Blimp’, ‘One of Our Aircraft Is Missing’, ‘A Canterbury Tale’ – imbues standard anti-Nazi propaganda with complexity, compassion and a gentle humanism.

The Red Shoes
Photograph: BFI‘The Red Shoes’ was a key influence on Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’

10. They inspired ‘Barbie’ – and others

The influence of P&P is everywhere, informing filmmakers as diverse as Gene Kelly, Spike Lee, Joanna Hogg, Wes Anderson and Greta Gerwig, who cites their work as big influence on the fantasy feel of ‘Barbie’. But their inspiration is perhaps most clearly detected in the work of super-stan Martin Scorsese, from the reds of ‘Mean Streets’, the changing frame rates of ‘Raging Bull’s fight scenes (pilfered from ‘The Red Shoes’), and the refined aesthetic of ‘The Age Of Innocence’. But don’t wait to see their brilliance through another filmmaker’s lens. See it unfiltered at the BFI this autumn.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger runs October 16-December 31 at BFI Southbank