A relaxed documentary exploring the career of Michael Powell is available to watch on YouTube now. Best known for his rich professional relationship with Emeric Pressburger (collectively known as “the Archers”), collaborators, technicians, performers and family paint a picture of the man and the process through which an extraordinary body of great masterpieces was made, and how it came to an end.
The most fruitful period of both Powell and Pressburger’s careers may have been under the patronage of J. Arthur Rank, who granted them an extraordinary creative freedom to produce a consistent masterful output outside the Hollywood studio system, and the latter half of Powell’s career is largely outshined for this reason. This 1992 BBC Late Show Special, however, recounts Powell’s career following his momentous break from the partnership that had produced some of the greatest films ever made, beginning with The Red Shoes, perhaps the pair’s most admired film, and charting the disillusioned world of post-war British filmmaking.
We track from extravagant technicolor epics like The Tales of Hoffman, a sort of hangover from Powell’s previous, sumptuous films, past curious favours for the studio and stock war pictures, up to his last features made in Australia, long past when financing was plentiful in the U.K. once Peeping Tom had made a pariah of the director. Now considered a masterpiece, the 1960 voyeuristic horror was labelled disturbing, and therefore made by someone disturbed. As fellow English director Alfred Hitchcock’s career was revived the same year by a shock of unnerving filmmaking, Powell’s was irreparably damaged.
Powell’s methods are labelled as “sadistic” and “remorseless”, since he had no time for fools but was interminably patient when it came to getting things to be precisely as he wanted them. That unshakable vision and lack of decorum lead to disagreements with producers, including a row that led the legendary Alexander Korda to conclude: “I will see to it that you do not make another film in this country. You’ve gone too far.”
And so began the road to his directorial decline, leading all the way to his final pair of Australian productions (as consolation, one stars a young Hellen Mirren), before we transition to claims about the illegitimacy of his memoir, and Powell’s knack for flights of fancy. One particularly exotic episode, involving a crazed nude starlet attempting to gun the director down in cold blood, sounds too outrageous to be true (probably because it is).
On the subject of his final years, Powell’s biggest promotor, Martin Scorsese, makes several appearances to discuss craft and his relationship with Powell, introducing his renowned editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to become Powell’s third wife. As is to be expected, Schoonmaker has some of the most insightful comments in the documentary, including a final bit of advice from a grandmaster of the art: “Whatever you do, don’t be boring”.