Fear and desire: Moira Shearer in “The Red Shoes” (1948). Image: Collection Christophel / Alamy

Powell & Pressburger are the greatest

The filmmaking duo are lauded but still underrated. We talk to Powell’s widow—Scorsese’s editor—Thelma Schoonmaker about their true worth
November 1, 2023

“You’re absolutely right! No one can agree with you more than Marty and me!”

Those are the words of multi-Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker, speaking to me in mid-October in an odd bricked-and-draped space in the centre of the British Film Institute complex on London’s South Bank. Since multi-Oscar winners don’t often agree with me, I hope you don’t mind me commemorating the fact here. Schoonmaker has been the editor, the person who makes one shot move into another, for most of Martin Scorsese’s—that is, Marty’s—films since Raging Bull (1980). She’s agreeing with me because we’re talking about the filmmaking duo of Powell and Pressburger.

Or, specifically, we’re talking about how Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are strangely underrated. This is despite the fact that together they made some of the most luminous films of all time—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and more—in an extraordinary run across the 1940s and 1950s. Which isn’t to say they’re not rated at all. Schoonmaker is here to help launch a three-month BFI season devoted to the pair, with screenings and new books and video releases. She’s even taken time off from promoting her latest film with Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon

It’s more that, for devotees of Powell and Pressburger, the adulation isn’t—perhaps could never be—enough. In 2022, The Red Shoes finished 67th in Sight & Sound magazine’s prestigious critics poll of the “greatest films of all time”; their A Matter of Life and Death (1946) finished 78th. But whenever these films don’t come near the top, whenever Powell’s and Pressburger’s names aren’t mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujirō Ozu and, latterly, Chantal Akerman, it is hard to suppress one’s frustration. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be noted around the world as some of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived,” continues Schoonmaker. “But we’re not quite there yet.”

This is a personal campaign for her as well as an artistic one. She was married to Powell, having been introduced to him by Scorsese, from 1984 until his death in 1990. There was a 35-year age gap between them—which Schoonmaker, now 83, brings up herself—but clearly no gap in sympathy. “I was just knocked flat by him,” she says of their first meeting. “He was phenomenal—because he loved every second of every day. He asked me to put ‘Film director and optimist’ on his grave, which I did.”

But Schoonmaker’s appreciation for Powell’s (and Pressburger’s) artistry shouldn’t be downplayed. She was introduced to their films first—again, by Scorsese—and regarded them as masterpieces. Her favourite (and mine) is Colonel Blimp, which may be the archetypal Powell and Pressburger film. It’s a Technicolor fairy tale rooted in the real world of war and disappointment, with glorious turns from P&P regulars Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook and Roger Livesey (whom Schoonmaker calls Powell’s “alter-ego”). 

But what is it that makes Powell and Pressburger so great? Part of it is the very themness of them. Powell and Pressburger. Just roll the words around your mouth—they sound as though they were meant to go together, which is much how it went in real life.

For devotees of Powell and Pressburger, the adulation isn’t—perhaps could never be—enough

There is a telling story in Powell’s autobiography about how he first met Pressburger. He was directing his umpteenth movie in the British film industry, an adaptation called The Spy in Black (1939), when the studio boss brought in a diminutive Hungarian who had fled the Nazis and had some notes on the script. Those notes “completely restructured” the story, much to the consternation of the screenwriters—“Nobody,” writes Powell, “had ever told them that when you buy the rights to a famous book which turns out to be useless for a screenwriter’s purpose, you keep the title and throw away the book.” As for Powell, “I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard.”

Thus began an especially healthy working relationship between the Brit, Powell, and the Hungarian, Pressburger. They set up their own production company, The Archers, then divvied up the work of making movies, with Pressburger sticking to the more writerly tasks and Powell the more directorly (though Schoonmaker emphasises that “they wrote together much more than anyone realises”). And they shared the credit—literally. The title cards for their films read, “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.”

As for the films, it is hard to discuss them without sounding hyperbolic to the point of meaninglessness. What’s great about Colonel Blimp or A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes is, well, everything: the writing, the acting, the music, the colour, the humour, the sadness, the complexity. But that, in a way, is the point: Powell and Pressburger do indeed offer everything. They were both steeped in literature, dance, opera, as well as in the great convulsions of their time—and it shows.

Powell and Pressburger do indeed offer everything

Though, because of the difficulty of grappling with everything, Schoonmaker and I talk instead about individual sequences and shots, which Powell and Pressburger served up with greater skill than practically anyone else ever has. There’s the ecstatic moment in their Scottish romance I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) when Wendy Hiller’s Joan demands of Livesey’s MacNeil, “I want you to kiss me!” The shot of Kathleen Byron’s face in Black Narcissus, when her Sister Ruth gives into fever and lust. Kim Hunter stepping on to the heavenly escalator in A Matter of Life and Death… 

Schoonmaker alights on Colonel Blimp’s send-off to his best friend Theo and Theo’s new fiancée, Edith. “There’s a look on her face that is incredible. You realise that she’s in love with [Blimp]. And he suddenly realises that he’s in love with her. So unexpected, so powerful, all with no dialogue. That’s what makes them great.”

Which brings us to another question: why don’t Powell and Pressburger have the recognition that they deserve? Schoonmaker blames fashions at the time—and since. “What a change it was after the Second World War,” she says, “when a new kind of filmmaking began being made about the social woes of Britain; the kitchen sink school, as it’s called. They went through a period of being considered old-fashioned, not right for our time, but that was absolutely wrong.”

Then there was Peeping Tom, the dark and delirious serial killer film that Powell made in 1960, during an amicable suspension of the pair’s union. It was castigated by critics, who regarded it as little more than smut. “Michael suffered terribly,” says Schoonmaker. 

There is, however, hope. Thanks in large part to Schoonmaker and Scorsese, Peeping Tom has a new restoration, which premiered at the recent London Film Festival—though it has been highly regarded by cinephiles, as a forerunner to such films as Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), for years now. One of the pledges in Powell and Pressburger’s “manifesto” for The Archers was that “when we start on work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times.” Peeping Tom wasn’t a year ahead—but decades.

“Younger generations are beginning to discover them,” says Schoonmaker, as if to underline the point. “Even [Barbie director] Greta Gerwig has said that she was influenced by the audaciousness of A Matter of Life and Death.” So it’s possible you won’t get funny looks the next time you opine that the greatest filmmaker of all time isn’t one person. It’s two.

The BFI’s The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger continues nationwide until 31st December