In the cool, gray landscape of the British cinema, Michael Powell was as conspicuous as a parrot gliding through the moors.
The director of "The Red Shoes," "Black Narcissus" and a dozen other classics, most created in collaboration with the writer Emeric Pressburger, Powell believed in a heightened, passionate, emotionally charged style of filmmaking. At a time when his peers--directors such as David Lean and Carol Reed--were dedicated to a meticulous, literary realism, Powell nudged his films toward dreams and delirium. He painted his images with extravagant Technicolor and filled his work with a frank, rapturous and very un-British association of sex and death.
And he paid for it. The scandal of his 1960 "Peeping Tom"--the pre-"Psycho" story of a movie buff (Carl Boehm) who murders women while filming their death throes--resulted in his virtual banishment from the British film industry. His last years were spent on television work and patched-together co-productions with Europe and Australia. His best films dropped out of sight, his career went into eclipse and he never--a personal wound--received one of the knighthoods so liberally distributed among his contemporaries.
The story, however, has a happy ending. Beginning with a tribute at the 1977 Telluride Film Festival, Powell was rediscovered by a new generation of filmgoers, and thanks to the tireless efforts of film historians Ian Christie and William K. Everson, Powell's films have returned to the museum and revival circuits. An 18-film package of Powell-Pressburger films (they called their company the Archers) will tour the country over the next year and a half, in vibrant new prints restored by the British Film Institute with funding from Piper-Heidsieck.
Michael Powell died in 1990 but not before having witnessed the revival of his reputation. Particularly meaningful to him in his late years was his friendship with Martin Scorsese, who, as a boy growing up in New York, had first fallen under the spell of the Archers while watching "Million Dollar Movie," a television program that would repeat the same film each night for a week. Scorsese found inspiration and practical solutions in Powell's films; Powell found confirmation and support in Scorsese's appreciation. And, as it turned out, he also found romance--in 1984, Powell married Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor.
Powell published the first volume of his autobiography, "A Life in Movies," in 1986; a second volume, based largely on taped recollections Powell had made during his peripatetic final decade, was assembled by Schoonmaker and published in Britain in 1992 as "Million Dollar Movie." Now, with extensive and helpful new footnotes and an introduction by Scorsese, the book has been republished here, and it stands as Powell's last great achievement, a blend of anecdote, philosophy and intimate confession every bit as eccentric and compelling as one of Powell's films.
The first volume took Powell from his boyhood in England and France through the release of "The Red Shoes," the grandly imagined, morbidly tinged ballet film that remains his most successful and well-known work. The second volume is, more movingly, a study in failure, as the Archers gradually lose their independence in the chaotic world of postwar British film. Drifting into projects not of their own choosing, learning to rely on pre-sold adaptations rather than original subjects, forced into compromises with such willful American interlopers as Samuel Goldwyn ("The Scarlet Pimpernel") and David O. Selznick ("Gone to Earth"), Powell and Pressburger find their morale ebbing, their creative energy slipping away, their partnership strained.
The end comes slowly, imperceptibly--the end of the Archers, the end of an autonomous, world-class British cinema, the end, in Powell's passionate view, of cinema as an artistic calling: "All around me I see my friends and fellow practitioners in the art taking the art in vain. Is that all there is to this great visual art form? Is money everything? Is greed to be its master--its dictator? Are grosses to be the only measure of a film's excellence, of a director's visionary power?"
Much of Powell's passion--his nearly fanatical commitment to his art--can be felt in those words, as well as some of his sternness of spirit. He was not a man to suffer fools gladly, and some of the spicier passages of "Million Dollar Movie" are devoted to Powell's blunt appraisals of collaborators who let him down (Mel Ferrer, on the disappointing "Oh . . . Rosalinda!," a miscast Dirk Bogarde in "Ill Met by Moonlight," titled "Night Ambush" in the United States). But his praise for those who shared his enthusiasm--supremely, the Hungarian-born Pressburger, first paired with Powell by Alexander Korda--is boundlessly generous.