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Powell and Pressburger
Powell and Pressburger were a British film-making partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known as The Archers. They made a series of influential, and sometimes successful, films in the 1940s and 1950s. They are now regarded as two of the most significant figures in British cinema.
Their collaborations were mainly written by Pressburger, with Powell directing. Unusually, the pair shared a writer-director-producer credit for most of their films.
- "He knows what I am going to say even before I say it — maybe even before I have thought it — and that is very rare. You are lucky if you meet someone like that once in your life." – Pressburger on Powell
- "He'd stood the story on its head, he'd turned a man into a woman and a woman into a man, he'd altered the suspense, he'd rewritten the end... I was rejoicing that I was going to be working with someone like this." – Powell on first meeting Pressburger
Michael Powell was already an experienced director when he made the WWI drama The Spy in Black (1939), his first film for Hungarian émigré producer Alexander Korda. Emeric Pressburger, who had come over from Hungary in 1935, already worked for Korda, and was asked to do some rewrites for the film. The collaboration would be the first of 19, most of which would be made over the next 18 years.
After Powell had made two further films for Korda, he was reunited with Pressburger for Contraband (1940). It was the first in a run of Powell & Pressburger films set during the current war. The second was Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941), which won Pressburger an Academy Award for Best Story. Both are Hitchcock-like thrillers made as anti-German propaganda.
Birth of The Archers
The pair nicknamed themselves The Archers, and cemented their partnership by adopting a joint writer-director credit for their next film, One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942), which they also produced. From now on they would begin each film with a distinctive archery target logo.
In 1943 they formed their own production company, Archers Film Productions. The company gave them new independence and allowed them to assemble a stable and capable crew around themselves. It would also release their most successful collaborations.
In a letter to Deborah Kerr, asking her to appear in Colonel Blimp, Pressburger explicitly set out 'The Archer's Manifesto'. Its five points express the pair's intention to make original, relevant and successful films:
- We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.
- Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
- When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
- No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.
- At any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on.
There are contemporary echoes in the Dogme 95 manifesto.
The classic war films
The remainder of the war saw them release a series of remarkably inventive films:
- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
- The Volunteer (1943) a short propaganda film
- A Canterbury Tale (1944)
- I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)
- A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Post-war success and decline
- Black Narcissus (1947)
- The Red Shoes (1948) --- their most commercially successful film.
- The Small Back Room (1949)
- The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)
- Gone to Earth (1950). A substantially re-edited version was released in the US as The Wild Heart (1952) by coproducer David O. Selznick, after a court battle with Powell and Pressburger. The film was fully restored by the British Film Archive in 1985.
- The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
End of the partnership
In the early 1950s the Powell and Pressburger began to produce fewer films, with notably less success. The Archers' productions officially came to an end in 1957, and the pair separated to pursue their individual careers.
The pair would reunite for a couple of films, none of which matched their earlier successes.
British film critics gave Powell and Pressburger films a mixed reaction at the time, acknowledging their creativity but sometimes questioning their motivations and taste. For better or worse, The Archers were always out of step with mainstream British cinema.
From the 1970s onwards, British critical opinion began to revise this lukewarm assessment, with their first BFI retrospective in 1970 and another in 1978. They are now seen as playing a key part in the history of British film, and have become influential and iconic for many film-makers of later generations, such as Martin Scorsese.
Regular cast & crew
Powell and Pressburger had a habit of reusing actors and crew members in a number of films. The Archers were always much more than just Powell and Pressburger themselves, they were a group of some of the most talented film makers around at the time. Some of the actors that made several appearances were:
- Esmond Knight
- Cyril Cusack
- David Farrar
- Googie Withers
- Marius Goring
- Pamela Brown
- Roger Livesey
- Anton Walbrook
- Conrad Veidt
- Deborah Kerr
- Eric Portman
- Finlay Currie
- Kathleen Byron
- Léonide Massine
- Robert Helpmann
- Valerie Hobson
Notable crew members include:
- A succession of talented cinematographers: Erwin Hillier, Jack Cardiff and Christopher Challis .
- Production and costume designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth .
- Composers and musicians Brian Easdale , Allan Gray , Sir Thomas Beecham and Miklós Rózsa.
- David Lean (soon to become a famous director) edited Forty-Ninth Parallel and One of our Aircraft....
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