The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger (edited by Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith).
COST = £30
The Red Shoes (Pamela Hutchinson).
COST = £12.99
BFI Bloomsbury 2023.
Since the 1970’s there have been extensive tributes to Michael Powell at the NFT and BFI Southbank. Of course they also included Powell’s collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. Yet on occasions Pressburger’s name was omitted or made less prominent in the BFI’s publicity. Emeric was understandably miffed and angry. Yet if he could return from the dead he’d be delighted to read this Bloomsbury book survey of P & P together. And he’d be even more pleased that the reinstatement of this artistic bonding will also coincided with the largest retrospective of their films to be held at the BFI Southbank this autumn (details supplied at the end of this review).
The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger is a beautifully illustrated hardcover – and I do mean colour and black and white photographs of the highest quality. It’s judiciously edited by Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith but not simply to celebrate P & P but also their inspired helpers and assistants. P & P are indisputably auteurs in their own right. Yet behind their unique, audacious and visionary contribution to British cinema are many collaborators who made it all possible. And Bloomsbury’s book is a superb acknowledgement of the powerfully collaborative nature of filmmaking.
Collaboration, backed up by the BFI’s rich P & P archive, is one of the key ideas of this book. Morris and Smith provide a succinct introduction to those Archer Film productions (Every time an arrow hit the bulls eye, on the board of the logo, I felt an anticipatory excitement) that for them possessed such intense cinematic verve.
“Fundamentally an aesthetic thorough which the details of each screen art – cinematography, design, editing, choreography, music and much more – can be read. Each film has a combinatory quality that celebrates its component parts: an elegant hybridity that is all the more beautiful for its daring embrace of wide-reaching artistic styles.”
Actors such as Anton Walbrook, David Niven, Kathleen Byron, Deborah Kerr and Roger Livesey: cinematographers Jack Cardiff and Erwin Hillier; set designers Hein Heckroth and Alfred Junge and the composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale are for all P & P enthusiasts an essential part of a film repertory company during the 1940s to the early 50s. And we are also reminded of some lesser known but important contributors W. Percy Day (special effects) and Ivor Beddoes (story board sketches). All this ongoing “elegant hybridity” (a lovely description) being produced by an eloquent and internationalist group of artists.
After the introduction we have six chapters that tackle the films.
For me the stand out chapters are ‘Pilgrims’ by Alexandra Harris (An excellent assessment of A Canterbury Tale and its Bunyan and Chaucer influences); ‘Black Narcissus’ by Mahesh Rao (Rao’s fascinating love / hate relationship with the film; its troubling imperialist assumptions, the complex identity of man / boy actor Sabu and the intoxicating visual beauty of Narcissus); Sarah Street’s piece ‘Starved for Technicolor (Powell & Pressburger’s films were central for the development of Technicolor in British Cinema) and ‘Metaphors of Vision’ (“These are images and moments that remind us we are watching a mediated form of seeing, which is cinema itself’’) One of many, finely researched and perceptive observations from Ian Christie.
Each chapter is followed by an illustrated mini-chapter by present day artists (A designer, photographer, artist, costume designer, film director and even milliner!) who continue to be influenced by P & P. Here I felt that their contributions, although they are interesting, could have been amalgamated into one brief chapter so as to give us extra pages for another P & P essay. I would have loved a chapter solely on the music of their films: that the compositions touched on in book’s chapters about The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Tales of Hoffman and Bluebeard’s Castle had been expanded to include De Falla’s El Amour Brujo a choreographed dance suite moment from Powell’s Honeymoon (1951). No matter it’s a mediocre, even muddled, non P & P film but that sequence, is terrific and well worth mentioning as a further experimental offshoot, after the earlier P & P fusions of music and dance.
I found Marina Warner’s contribution ‘The Red Shoes’ to be informative but a bit verbose. Much sharper and persuasive is Pamela Hutchinson in her BFI Film Classics book, The Red Shoes. This is an excellent close reading: a model text on how to write a stimulating book on the fate of a ‘suffering’ ballerina; the representation of dance in film; the intensity of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale and a powerful mythic story of female sacrifice as played out by Moira Shearer.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) A Canterbury Tale (1944) I Know Where I’m Going (1945) A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) The Red Shoes (1948) are for me masterpieces – with The Small Back Room (1945) Gone to Earth (1950) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951) trailing not so far behind P & P’s magnificent seven.
The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger and The Red Shoes are books about the realisation of this amazing body of work and what can be achieved in the cinema through dedicated group effort. They are an indispensable read for all P & P fans. A record of remarkable artistic freedom made possible for a prolifically imaginative director and writer to cast their spells, enthusiasm and love.
(The BFI Southbank film season Cinema Unbound: the Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger will run throughout October and November 2023 and then into January 2024).