The Criterion Shelf: Directed by Powell and Pressburger

The ideal artistic pairing who ruled British cinemas in the war years are celebrated by ThatShelf contributors Bil Antoniou and Emma Badame

It’s not just marriages that are made in heaven. Some film collaborations are as well. The art form rarely benefited more from two artists collaborating than when Austrian émigré screenwriter Emeric Pressburger was paired with English director Michael Powell and they formed the Archers. Believing their duties to overlap enough to not require specific credit, the team made most of their films under the label of having been “written, produced and directed” by both of them, opening all their films with a sly wink to the audience as to how they felt about their own work. Watch the arrow as it shoots the target in their company logo, and if it hits the bullseye, that means they were themselves very satisfied with the result (and I’m always glad that, on my favourite of their films, they agree).  Like The Merchant Ivory partnership would do later, they made films that were unlike anything that anyone else was making at the time, even in cases when their efforts were not up to par with Black Narcissus or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.

North Americans never got to appreciate Powell and Pressburger properly in their time. Their films did win Oscars. (Including one for Pressburger himself, for writing 49th Parallel.) Their films were often cut down, or in some cases censored (like Narcissus, because of pressure from the Catholic Church), and the current fame they enjoy on our side of the ocean is relatively recent compared to their popularity in England. Considered a vital part of the war effort in Britain, they had their most popular period in the ’40s, then saw their success wane through ’50s until Ill Met by Moonlight, their recreation of the kidnapping of General Kreipe in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor and company, was their final production as The Archers (though they worked together on two projects after).

Powell’s own career never recovered from the devastation of Peeping Tom, his 1960 serial killer drama whose theme is de rigeur to fans of horror today, and whose manner is laughably tame for our time. However, it was treated as an assault on the morals of all good Britons back then (and inspired Hitchcock to be very careful about how he opened Psycho that same year). Powell’s widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, recently spoke in an interview that getting work was so hard for him after the admittedly puritanical (and unreasonable, even for its time) response to the film that he was at one point reduced to chopping his own wood to heat his home. Thankfully, he and Pressburger did at least live long enough to see the beginning of the revival of their popularity in North America, due in great part to Schoonmaker’s collaborator Martin Scorsese singing their praises and inspiring efforts to restore their work.

Now, thanks to Scorsese and The Criterion Collection, Powell and Pressburger’s films enjoy adoration and reverence regularly. (I’ve seen most of their movies on a big screen over the years.) I don’t believe that a film lover’s repertoire is complete without having seen their essentials. The Criterion Channel’s collection is missing more than a few entries (including One of Our Aircraft and A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway To Heaven, which we include a write-up on here anyway), but includes essentials that are a great place to start truly appreciating what these geniuses gave to audience as both great artists and great entertainers.

Myself and Emma Badame are here to tell you why you should watch all six, though ordered by my preference:


Black Narcissus (1947)

The team’s greatest achievement, adapted from the disturbingly erotic novel by Rumer Godden. Deborah Kerr is superb as the Sister Superior to a group of Protestant nuns who are sent to turn a pleasure palace at the top of a mountain in India into a convent. They show up with all their confident western bluster and, after a few weeks of the clear, haunting air and an endless view that keeps throwing them into distracting reveries of their younger days, find themselves undone by the majesty of the east. It isn’t long before Kerr is having to outrun the jealous anger of a sex-crazed sister, and the richly colourful images rendered by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, winning an Oscar for his effort, reach their zenith in the stunning conclusion.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

P & P bite off a lot but it turns out not to be more than they can chew in this sublime, epic war propaganda that folds themes of love and friendship into a tale meant to inspire the people of Britain to remain vigilant against Hitler. Based on a character from a political cartoon series, it stars Roger Livesey as a blustery old general who is hosting Home Guard war games and is appalled by the state of current affairs in the army. He flashes back to his own life rising through the ranks, maintaining a friendship with German soldier Anton Walbrook, falling in love with Deborah Kerr (who plays three different roles). Pressburger was particularly keen on warning a class-conscious country that to fight someone as ruthless as Hitler, England would have to forget all ideas being gentlemen in war, which got the film banned by Churchill as a result.


49th Parallel (1941)

The Spy In Black was the team’s first notable collaboration to put them on the map, but 49th Parallel (released as The Invaders in North America) was their international breakthrough and their first masterpiece, a spy thriller that takes its characters across Canada. After a German U-Boat sinks off the coast of Nova Scotia, stranded Nazis find themselves fleeing west to get to the United States and avoid internment. Their journey takes them through Quebec (with guest star Laurence Olivier doing a real Pepe LePew accent), to a Hutterite community in the Prairies and eventually to the beautiful forests of British Columbia. It threatens to subvert our traditional notions of sympathy by making the bad guys the protagonists, but Eric Portman’s Lieutenant Hirth is constantly being made to understand the impact of his country’s ideology on the world at every step, never more beautifully than by a monologue delivered perfectly by P & P regular Anton Walbrook.


I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

Emma Badame:  Powell and Pressburger’s eighth film together is a romantic gem bursting with unassuming charm. From the evocative atmosphere of Scotland’s breathtaking Inner Hebrides to a picture-perfect script winningly delivered by its stars Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, I Know Where I’m Going! is a comfortably cosy treat from start to finish. Quickly pulled together as a stop-gap project for the filmmakers during World War II (while the filmmakers waited for colour cameras to become available to start work on their masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death), this tale of a mercenary young woman whose immaculately planned life proves no match for fate, love, and the Scottish weather, more than holds its own as one of the best romances the team ever produced. Keep your eyes peeled for an incredibly young Petula Clark as the Robinsons’ young daughter and—making their third appearance in a Powell and Pressburger film—Erik and Spangle, Powell’s incorrigible cocker spaniels.


The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s most popular work, the first major film to successfully marry cinema with ballet, comes down to the successful casting of Moira Shearer. She more than fulfills her duties as actor and dancer in the role of a young woman who achieves her ambition of dancing under a great master (Anton Walbrook as her Svengali). In a parallel to the Hans Christian Anderson story that is set to ballet within the film, she is herself eventually torn between her commitment to Walbrook and her love of Marius Goring, and *spoiler alert*, the team’s idea of getting a woman out of the conflict between work and marriage isn’t encouraging. Narratively, it doesn’t get much deeper than its archetypes, but it’s not really meant to, the pleasure is in the aesthetic indulgence. The ballet sequence is likely what set the bar for Gene Kelly to outdo it three years later.


A Canterbury Tale (1944)

One of the team’s most unusual narratives, although also one of their most original films. John Sweet, a real G.I. with no acting experience, plays a G.I. who gets off at the wrong train station on his way to visit the tourist attractions at Canterbury. He stumbles into a small village where the girls are being attacked by an unknown assailant dumping hot glue on their hair. While investigating this mystery, he becomrd involved with a number of the inhabitants of this charming hamlet. The film is a tad too long and it doesn’t have the clean polish of Powell and Pressburger’s best work, but it’s beautiful and well worth the effort.