Michael Powell (director)

Michael Powell (director)
Michael Powell
Born Michael Latham Powell
30 September 1905(1905-09-30)
Bekesbourne, Kent, England
Died 19 February 1990(1990-02-19) (aged 84)
Avening, Gloucestershire, England
Spouse Gloria Mary Rouger (1927-1927)
Frankie Reidy (1943-1983)
Thelma Schoonmaker (1984-1990)

Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 – 19 February 1990) was a renowned English film director, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. They worked together under the name of "The Archers" and produced a series of classic British films, notably 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, also called Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, however, was so vilified that his career was seriously damaged.


Early life

Powell was the second son and youngest child of Thomas William Powell, a hop farmer, and Mabel, daughter of Frederick Corbett, of Worcester, England. Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker.

Film career

Powell entered the film industry in 1925 through working with director Rex Ingram working at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France (the contact with Ingram was made through Powell's father, who owned a hotel in Nice). He first started out as a general studio hand, the proverbial "gofer": sweeping the floor, making coffee, fetching and carrying. Soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles, usually as comic characters. Powell made his film debut as a "comic English tourist" in Mare Nostrum (1926).

Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was the first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films.[1] Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.[N 1]

After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make "quota quickies", Powell began to direct hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that British cinemas screen a certain quota of British films. During this period, he developed his directing skills, sometimes making up to seven films a year.[2]

Although he had taken on some directing responsibilities in other films, Powell had his first screen credit as a director on Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest success at the box office despite its limited budget.[2] From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).[2]

By 1939, Powell had been hired as a contract director by Alexander Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World. Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled.[1] Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.

Meeting Emeric Pressburger

The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too verbose and did not have a good role for either Veidt or Hobson. Korda called a meeting where he introduced a diminutive man, saying, "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."[1]

Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:

"Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound. Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top [American] screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists[, but]... the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other[s]. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. ... The European film no longer existed[,]... [except for]...the great German film business ... and Dr. Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the stormtroopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film."[1]

They both soon recognised that although they were total opposites in background and personality, they had a common attitude to film-making and that they could work very well together. After making two more films together (Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel) with separate credits, the pair decided to form a partnership and to sign their films jointly as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."[1]

The Archers

Working together as co-producers, writers and directors in a partnership they dubbed "The Archers", they made 19 feature films, many of which received critical and commercial success. Their best films are still regarded as classics of 20th century British cinema. The BFI 100 list of "the favourite British films of the 20th century" contains five of Powell's films, four with Pressburger.[3]

Although admirers would argue that Powell ought to rank alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his career suffered a severe reversal after the release of the controversial psychological thriller film Peeping Tom, made in 1960 as a solo effort. The film was excoriated by British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to work thereafter. However, his reputation was restored over the years, and by the time of his death, he and Pressburger were recognised as one of the foremost film partnerships of all time - and cited as a key influence by many noted filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Personal life

In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron.[1] From 1 July 1943 until her death on 5 July 1983, Powell was married to Frances "Frankie" May Reidy, the daughter of medical practitioner Jerome Reidy; they had two sons: Kevin Michael Powell (b. 1945) and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell (b. 1951). He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.

Subsequently, Powell was married to editor Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire.


For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger and Powell and Pressburger films

Early films

Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies". Not all of them were really quota films, and the ones that were are often of a much higher standard than most other quota films. Some of his early films are now missing and are believed lost. But those that have survived often show some very sophisticated techniques and early versions of ideas that were reused, done better, in his later films. Those marked with a * are "Missing, believed lost".

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1928 Riviera Revels G. Ventimigla and Marcel Lucien A series of comedy shorts. Powell co-directed with Harry Lachman
1930 Caste * Harry Rowson (Ideal) Uncredited as director, main director was Campbell Gullan
1931 Two Crowded Hours * Film Engineering
1932 My Friend the King * Film Engineering
Rynox Film Engineering
The Rasp * Film Engineering
The Star Reporter * Film Engineering
Hotel Splendide Film Engineering.
A Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd
C.O.D. * Westminster Films
His Lordship Westminster Films
1933 Born Lucky * Westminster Films
1934 The Fire Raisers Gaumont-British
Red Ensign Gaumont-British US title: Strike!
Something Always Happens Warner Brothers.
First National Productions Ltd
1935 The Girl in the Crowd * First National
Lazybones A Real Art Production
The Love Test Fox British
The Night of the Party Gaumont-British Picture Corporation US title: The Murder Party
The Phantom Light A Gainsborough Picture
The Price of a Song * Fox British
Someday * Warner British aka Young Nowheres
1936 Her Last Affaire New Ideal Productions Ltd
The Brown Wallet * Warner Brothers.
First National
Crown v. Stevens Warner Brothers. First National Productions Ltd aka Third Time Unlucky
The Man Behind the Mask Joe Rock Studios reissued as Behind the Mask

Major films

Aside from some short films, Powell wrote, produced and directed all of his films from 1942 to 1957 with Emeric Pressburger

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1937 The Edge of the World Joe Rock Production
1939 The Spy in Black Harefield US title: U Boat 29
Smith D&P Productions.
Embankment Fellowship Co.
10 minute short-film
The Lion Has Wings London Film Productions RAF documentary footage with some fictional intercuts
1940 Contraband British National US title: Blackout
The Thief of Bagdad Alexander Korda Films Inc. co-director
1941 An Airman's Letter to His Mother a 5-minute short
49th Parallel Ortus Films
(and Ministry of Information (United Kingdom))
US title: The Invaders
1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing The Archers.
British National
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp The Archers/
Independent Producers
The Volunteer The Archers.
Ministry of Information (United Kingdom)
a short propaganda film
1944 A Canterbury Tale The Archers
1945 I Know Where I'm Going! The Archers
1946 A Matter of Life and Death The Archers US title: Stairway To Heaven
1947 Black Narcissus The Archers
for Independent Producers Ltd.
1948 The Red Shoes The Archers
1949 The Small Back Room The Archers.
London Films
1950 Gone to Earth The Archers.
London Films
US title: The Wild Heart (1952) - substantially re-edited version additional scenes directed by Rouben Mamoulian
The Elusive Pimpernel London Film Productions
(and The Archers)
US title: The Fighting Pimpernel
1951 The Tales of Hoffmann British Lion Film Corporation
(with Vega Productions and The Archers)
1955 Oh... Rosalinda!! Associated British Picture Corporation.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
1956 The Sorcerer's Apprentice 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/
Norddeutscher Rundfunk
a short ballet
The Battle of the River Plate Arcturus Productions.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
US title: The Pursuit of the Graf Spee
1957 Ill Met by Moonlight Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
for Rank Organisation Film Productions (and Vega Productions)
US title: Night Ambush
1959 Luna de Miel MIchael Powell Production
for Suevia Films-Cesario Gonsalez (Spain)/Everdene (GB)
aka Honeymoon
1960 Peeping Tom Michael Powell Production
1961 The Queen's Guards Imperial.
Michael Powell Production
1963 Herzog Blaubarts Burg Süddeutscher Rundfunk. Norman Foster Produktion aka Bluebeard's Castle
1966 They're a Weird Mob Williamson (Australia)/
Michael Powell Production
Pressburger wrote the script as Richard Imrie
1969 Age of Consent Nautilus Productions
1972 The Boy Who Turned Yellow Roger Cherrill Ltd
for the Children's Film Foundation
Script by Pressburger
1978 Return to the Edge of the World Poseidon Films/
BBC Television
For British TV, framing of the original 1937 film

Television work

Powell also directed episodes of the TV series The Defenders, Espionage and The Nurses.

Year Title Production Company Other notes
1963 Never Turn Your Back on a Friend Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1964 The Frantick Rebel Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1964 A Free Agent Herbert Brodkin Ltd. Episode for the Espionage series
1965 The Sworn Twelve Episode for the The Defenders series
1965 A 39846 Episode for the The Nurses series

Non-directorial work

Powell was also involved in the following films in a non-directorial role:

Other works

Books by Michael Powell

  • 1938: 200,000 Feet on Foula. London: Faber & Faber. (The story of the making of The Edge of the World was also reprinted as 200,000 Feet - The Edge of the World in the United States.)
  • 1956: Graf Spee. London: Hodder & Stoughton. (This book contains much information that Powell and Pressburger could not include in their film The Battle of the River Plate.)
  • 1957: Death in the South Atlantic: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. New York: Rinehart. (American edition of Graf Spee)
  • 1975: A Waiting Game. London: Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-1368-3.
  • 1976: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. London: White Lion Publishers. ISBN 0-7274-0256-0. (Second British edition of Graf Spee)
  • 1978: (with Emeric Pressburger) The Red Shoes. London: Avon Books. ISBN 0-8044-2687-2.
  • 1986: A Life In Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • 1990: Edge of the World. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-15306-2. (This book is a paperback edition of 200,000 feet on Foula.)
  • 1992: Million Dollar Movie London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59947-6. (This is the second part of Powell's autobiography.)
  • 1994: (with Emeric Pressburger and Ian Christie) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14355-5. (This book includes memos from Churchill and notes showing how the script developed.)

Many of these titles were also published in other countries or republished. The list above deals with initial publications except where the name was changed in a subsequent edition or printing.


Awards, nominations and honours



  1. ^ It was Hitchcock who suggested using Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death.
  1. ^ a b c d e f Powell 1986
  2. ^ a b c Duguid, Mark. "Early Michael Powell." Screenonline. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  3. ^ "Features: The BFI 100." BFI, 19 February 2008. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  4. ^ "1st Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners." berlinale.de. Retrieved: 21 December 2009.
  5. ^ Crook, Steve. "Famous Fans of Powell & Pressburger." Powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  6. ^ Rose, Steve. "Scorsese: my friendship with Michael Powell." guardian.co.uk, 14 May 2009. Retrieved: 1 September 2010.
  7. ^ "Awards History." edfilmfest.org.uk. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.

External links

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