The idiosyncratic and overlapping careers of Michael Powell (1905–1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988) are arguably the strongest challenge to the auteur theory, which holds that a single artist, the director, is the primary creative force behind a film. What happens when there are two directors? Andrew Sarris, in his seminal The American Cinema, pretty much evades the question by not allowing Powell and Pressburger a spot in any of the 11 categories (including “miscellany”) by which he defines directors worth mentioning. Yet I would find it hard to believe that Andy does not find more to admire in Powell/Pressburger than others he deemed worthy of inclusion, like Gordon Douglas or Arch Oboler. He does include several P/P films in his annual rankings (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp earns P/P a ranking of 25 for 1945; The Red Shoes got them their highest rating, 19, in 1948. Personally, I would rate both of these—and several of their other films—somewhat higher.)
By lumping together the roles of producer, director, and writer, Powell and Pressburger seemed to be in open defiance of the not-yet-articulated auteur theory. In actuality, before they assumed the name “The Archers” for Colonel Blimp, the two had already worked together on four films between 1939 and 1942, in which they were credited more conventionally: Powell as director, Pressburger as writer. Since Powell had also previously directed two dozen films on his own, and would direct nine more after the collaboration ended, it seems likely that in reality he was the director of the 15 Archers films, deferential though he may have been to his partner’s scripts. Despite being staunchly auteurist myself, I would be the last to deny that the idea of collaboration in cinema offers a fertile field for exploration, as my bright young colleague Jenny He (ahead of the curve as usual) has illustrated in recent exhibitions.There is certainly enough material in Powell’s mammoth two-volume autobiography to get a clear picture of his engagingly eccentric personality. The one time I had the privilege of meeting him, in the 1980s, he was attired, as I recall, in a deerstalker cap and Sherlockian cape. This would have been entirely appropriate to the Scottish moors, but we were in a loft on 29th Street with nary a Baskerville or Moriarity in sight. Powell had started in film as a teenager, lurking about the continent with the likes of Rex Ingram and a young Alfred Hitchcock, both off-center, unconventional, expressionistic talents. Before he linked up with Pressburger, Powell directed a host of low-budget British films, culminating in The Edge of the World (1937), which attempted to do for the Shetlands what Robert Flaherty had done for the Aran Islands a few years before with Man of Aran. Powell’s subject matter, like his personality, often seemed a trifle odd, but of such oddities quite often art is made.
More than half of the Powell/Pressburger collaborations had some ostensible connection to World War II, but they brought a unique perspective to the conflagration’s reality. Winston Churchill’s Minister of War tried to stop the production of Colonel Blimp and actually prevented Laurence Olivier (star of P/P’s Forty-ninth Parallel) from playing the title role, leaving the actor free to star in his own film version of Henry V, which we’ll be showing in a few weeks. Similarly, A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) (shown in our recent David Niven Centenary exhibition) seem to use the war as a mere stepping-stone into P/P’s flights of fancy. It might be easy to dismiss the pair’s eccentricity as glib flippancy, but there is something highly original and (by the standards of commercial filmmaking) experimental in how Powell and Pressburger create their fantasies. Their unique use of color is, in itself, one of the glories of the British cinema. We’ll revisit P/P soon to examine more closely what they were trying to say and look at their later “high culture” period, an offshoot of Pressburger’s mittel-Europa background.