1 November 2023


Nathalie Morris and Claire Smith (Editors) The Cinema of Powell and Pressburger. (BFI Bloomsbury, 2023
Pamela Hutchinson. The Red Shoes. (BFI Bloomsbury 2023)

Readers of Magonia have a marvellous opportunity to enjoy the current celebrations of the work of scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell. We have a new book about them and a season of their films. 
The formation of Michael Powell’s artistry really begins as far back as 1926 and Rex Ingram’s film The Magician – a fantasy horror film loosely based on Aleister Crowley. Powell was assistant director on that film and was included in one scene. He was only twenty one and Ingram’s sense of film construction influenced Powell’s much later work as a director. The 1950 Gone to Earth has a deep pantheistic energy that we can attribute not only to Ingram’s visual compositions but the Canterbury country boyhood of Powell.

Powell was never an out and out fantasist (Pressburger’s scripts reigned him in) but an anarchic romantic. The serial killer horror of Peeping Tom (1959); the fantasy frissons of their version of the opera Tales of Hoffman; the stairway to heaven sequence in A Matter of Life and Death (1946); a fairy tale expressionism for The Red Shoes (1948) - his adaptation of the famous Hans Christian Anderson story; the Scottish mythmaking in I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the profound sense of the pilgrims journey in A Canterbury Tale (1944) haunted by a controlling Magus figure, who’s been pouring glue on women’s’ hair, all make for some of the most memorable moments in British cinema.

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 intensely magical cinematic verve.

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 weird 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 discussing the voyeuristic moments of A Matter of Life and Death and Peeping Tom.

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 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.
  • Alan Price

The BFI Southbank film season Cinema Unbound: the Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger will run throughout October and November 2023, and in the gallery is a special free exhibition devoted to The Red Shoes.
  • An extended version of this review was first published in London Grip

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