At the Edge of the World

By John Ellis

Michael Powell was a European film-maker whose misfortune it was to be British. As the last act of his long and fraught career, he wrote his autobiography. The second volume, Million Dollar Movie, is an entirely un-British confession. At once boastful and self-pitying, it is a last desperate act of remembrance by a much-wronged man. When I first met him, his financial embarrassment was plain to see; yet equally was his stubborn, suspicious pride. Pride invites a humbling, perhaps, but little in Powell’s conduct – even to his wife – would justify the condition in which he found himself in the 70s.

However badly he was treated by the British cinematic establishment – and undoubtedly he was – the abiding paradox of Powell is his deep love of Britain. As a film-maker he may be European, a dramaturg, but as a citizen he was a British patriot, the son of a Kentish farmer. Or is it such a paradox?

Much of Powell’s patriotism seems uncannily like that of Sir Alexander Korda – the patriotism of an outsider trying to get in, rather than of a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman. Powell appreciated Korda (apart from his backstairs business deals), and worked happily in an extraordinary collaboration with another Hungarian who made England his home: Emeric Pressburger. Powell remarks on Pressburger’s eagerness to assimilate every nuance of the English language, to be more English than the English. One look at the pictures of Powell in his autobiography would make you think the same about him.

Powell and Press­burger collaborated closely for so long because they were both trying to make sense of the culture in which they lived, a culture in which they both felt themselves to be outsiders. Powell could make much of his authentic Englishness, of course. But even in his paean to the Kent of his childhood which introduces A Life in the Movies, the first volume of his autobiography, there is an almost resentful sense of being left out. In reality Powell was just as much the son of a Riviera hotelier as he was of a Kentish farmer.

A deep sense of love for Britain and its inhabitants runs through all the Powell/Pressburger films set in Britain. But this love is suffused with a peculiar nervousness. An unease lurks beneath, as though both Pressburger and Powell felt that they were permitted a place in Britain only within certain limits. They could criticise, they could comment, they could even make jokes, but somewhere or other there were boundaries that they could not cross unpunished. During their collaboration, they held each other just within those limits. Then when they drifted apart, Pressburger stepped too far back into whimsy, and Powell overstepped with Peeping Tom.

What was it that made these two super-patriots make such fundamentally un-British films? For as well as hanging around with European artists, ‘ballet types’ and other bohemians, they shared a full-blooded, rather middle-brow, romantic taste, which marks them out from the mainstream of British opinion.

However, all these features are shared by Gainsborough melodramas – British popular cinema at its best. Powell and Pressburger’s films added further ingredients. They dealt with serious issues. They presented intellectually challenging material in popular cinematic forms. They did not pretend to be genre pieces made for the popular audience. This was not the result of any particular snobbery; rather it was a cinephile’s blindness to external cultural values being imposed upon the cinema of popular entertainment. Powell’s shock at the critical reception of Peeping Tom was the shock of finding that critics detested horror films, and thought that he had made a particularly meretricious one.

All of these factors mark out Powell and Pressburger’s films from British cinema culture. But crucially, their films had a particularly European feel to them. Three factors give rise to this. The films have a very un-British attitude to artifice. They use mise-en-scène rather than dialogue to convey complex emotions. They are at home with the questions of sexuality with which British cinema was habitually uncomfortable.

The question of artifice has often been identified as a key aspect of Powell and Pressburger’s films, in that critics remark on the ‘theatricality’ of some of Powell’s films. But this is imprecise. He has little regard for the habits of theatre when they are carried over to the screen. He lays into poor Margaret Leighton because ‘she was stage through and through. Many actors and actresses don’t understand the difference between the audience watching you act and the camera watching you think... Words! Words! Actors get drunk on words; and so do directors, to their shame.’ (He then launches into a delicious denunciation of The Draughtsman’s Contract for its obsession with words.)

What Powell sought from his actors was not theatricality but an awareness of artifice. Theatricality is easy to find on the British cinema screen; awareness of artifice is outstandingly rare. It belongs to European cinema, the cinema of Max Ophuls or Les Enfants du Paradis; of Caligari and La Strada; of Le Crime de M. Lange and Haxan.

Powell found actors who could handle this sense of artifice: Wendy Hiller in I Know Where I’m Going; David Niven, as he gratefully acknowledges; Max Ophuls’ favourite actor, Anton Walbrook. In La Ronde and Lola Montés, Walbrook’s sense of artifice is effortlessly bound up into games of pretence and revelation. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp it plays against the solid directness of another favourite Powell performer, Roger Livesey. Livesey’s importance to Powell was, of course, his ability to project secret doubts and prevarications behind every instance of bluff Englishness.

Other directors are capable of coming up with the occasional flash of this elusive European sensibility. Even Anthony Asquith, the quintessentially deferential director of Englishness, could achieve it occasionally. After all, he had studied the German cinema of the 20s every bit as closely as Powell. But for Asquith it remains something that he occasionally took a risk to create. For Powell, it was a defining principle. The distance between the two cinemas can be seen in the crucial sequence of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Amidst all the artifice, Powell and Pressburger turn the film over with a moment of direct sincerity. Any one else would have used Livesey the phlegmatic for this effect; in Powell and Pressburger sincerity has to come from Walbrook the mercurial.

Walbrook plays Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, like both Pressburger and Walbrook, a refugee from Nazism. He delivers a weary but impassioned speech to the British immigration officer who questions his good faith, a speech which revolves around the question of truth. But does a precise, literally correct answer to the officer’s question really tell the truth? Theo had answered correctly, but his correct answer had left out all that was important: his emotions. The speech is filmed in a respectful mid-shot, with the absolute minimum of cuts and cutaways. There are no tricks, no bravura camera moves like the spectacular dive through the roof that opens the film. Everything is down to the performance of this weary old man.

On the surface this sequence belongs to the great British tradition of cinematic refusal, of effective understatement. It would not look out of place in Crichton’s superb The Divided Heart; it is still the style used by the Tony Garnett of Prostitute. It is an enduring British style, achieving great emotional intensity precisely by the refusal of sophisticated cinema. It is something that many film-makers have forgotten, to their cost. But what is it doing in the middle of a Powell and Pressburger film?

The sequence provides a sudden glimpse behind the appearances and acceptable forms of behaviour. Powell shot this speech so simply to make it the deliberate antithesis of the style of the rest of the film – the ambitious historical structure, the three roles for Deborah Kerr (with whom Powell was having an affair, as he tells us once every 50 pages or so). It stands out from the whole of the rest of Powell’s work, indeed.

This exceptional sequence underlines the sudden emotional nakedness as Theo speaks of this English wife; how he never returned to England with her; how their children – Nazis – did not even attend her funeral. This is emotional nakedness of a very extreme kind for the cinema of its era. It calls for sympathy for a most problematic fragment of the inhabitants of Britain at that time: German refugees, most of whom had been interned.

Played off against the artifice that structures their work, this sequence reveals and emphasises the role of conventions at the heart of British society. Powell and Pressburger clearly see conventions as the necessary artifice of social interaction. Yet as film-makers, they are uncomfortable in British culture because they are too acutely aware of the turbulent sea of emotions beneath the surface, a sea whose geography can be revealed only through the foregrounding of artifice rather than its refusal in the name of some kind of ‘naturalism’.

It was a risk for a war-time film like Blimp to engage sympathies so clearly for an ‘enemy alien’. Pressburger himself was just such an alien. The Chief Constable of Kent refused him permission to visit the shoot of A Canterbury Tale for this reason. Powell could tell this as a good story when the film was eventually screened in its uncut version in Canterbury in 1980; for Pressburger, the event still hurt.

The Chief Constable’s actions seem ironic at first sight. A Canterbury Tale is a film which, explicitly, is constructed as a hymn to the English countryside. But, after all, it is the hymn of a couple of enemy aliens. Quite apart from its gloriously sticky plot premise, it refuses the British cinema habit of characters telling you how they feel. ‘Proper’ British film-makers, of the sort that Powell and Pressburger’s clearly aspired to be, distrusted the use of mise-en-scène to communicate emotions. That was for the despised melodramas. The disadvantage of the great tradition of cinematic understatement and refusal was the overstatement of dialogue. From off the theatrical stage come those vast speeches, those elaborate forms of words in which characters tell us how they feel.

None of this for Powell and Pressburger. In A Canterbury Tale, the difficult emotions of the film arise from the mise-en-scène: from the fog-bound opening sequence, through the glowing location photography of a blitzed Canterbury, to the final narrative synthesis in the studio-constructed cathedral. The encounters between characters matter less than the staging of them: the final train journey into Canterbury, the discovery of the abandoned caravan. The dialogue exchanges between a series of sharply defined social types are the least of the matter.

Compare the climactic moments of revelation for the various characters. Each character finds what they have lost. For three of the characters, it is their moral equilibrium. For the American soldier, it is simply his lost love. The characteristic British movie would have handled these moments of realisation of truth as dialogue-based scenes, scenes of confession. But not Powell and Pressburger.

This is how each of the central characters finds ‘their truth’: the American soldier comes across a long-lost companion-in-arms (through the viewfinder of his camera, naturally) who hands him a package of letters from his beloved that have followed him around the world. The mise-en-scène is at a minimum... it takes place in the tea-room at the Cathedral gates (nowadays Pizzaland); our American hayseed has no spiritual revelation to come. Already we have seen how morally and personally balanced he is; he understands the ways of the country.

Three other characters are far more troubled. The emotional mise-en-scène is reserved for them. Culpepper, the glueman, is forced to realise his errors during a train journey that passes through a totally fictional set of tunnels, throwing shadow, darkness and light across a tense exchange of words, coinciding with Culpepper’s own turbulent emotions. At the end of the scene, he slips away; there is no confession from him. During this scene, we hear his words, but through the mise-en-scène we experience his emotions.

The tank commander Peter Gibbs is finally forced to forego his world-weary cynicism by playing the cathedral organ in a sequence imbued with all the spirituality that Powell could wrest from Junge’s sets of Canterbury cathedral.

And Alison Smith finds her lover and is reconciled with her family in an emotional roller-coaster of a sequence in which she first discovers the decaying caravan in which she spent a brief period of love; and then clearing it out, literally letting in light, she learns the good news. The idea might be a cliché; but the execution, the emotion, is intense, however often you see the film.

This emphasis on the concrete, upon mise-en-scène, extends even to their definition of nationalism. In the end, the Powell conception of nation – which some find problematic – is a matter of the concrete rather than the ideological. It is one of place and sounds rather than of people and characteristics; a sense of space, of shape and graphic qualities, of direct sound and empty silence (remember Chesil Bank in The Small Back Room); these are the defining characteristics of the Britain of Powell and Pressburger’s films. Such is the presence around which the characters orient themselves. The exceedingly odd people in I Know Where I’m Going are sure of one thing – that the landscape of Scotland provides their sense of being alive. The British countryside is Kretschmar-Schuldorff’s reason for returning to Britain; it animates Gone to Earth; it is offered as the solution to the ills of urban Britain (Red Ensign, A Canterbury Tale). Pressburger was able to elaborate a series of paradoxical essays about the culture of the British into which he desires integration (at the same time as fearing absorption). Powell was able to indulge his taste for complex games of deception and artifice, together with a taste for melodrama that was also at once profoundly cinematic and hardly proper in the British sense.

Behind all of this lies a third vital ingredient: the nature of the strong collaboration that existed between Powell and Pressburger. Powell without Pressburger is a rather different character – more likely to get lost following a digression. Only with Leo Marks, the scriptwriter of Peeping Tom, did he find the same intensity of creative collaboration. The motivating force of each collaboration seems to have been an extraordinary male bonding, perhaps a latent homosexuality. The nature of this relationship often becomes the secret subject of the films themselves, providing their structuring principle.

Both A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp have the same basic structure: two men compete for the love of one woman, but the intensity of the relationship between the two men is such that there is no jealousy between them. Instead, the films produce a magical solution. In Blimp, it is three women of identical appearance, a wife for each and an ideal companion for their old age. In A Matter of Life and Death the doctor dies in a car accident so that his friend can marry the woman. But in the logic of the ‘other world’ he dies only so that he can save his friend. The magic is present to make the reality absent, and the magic is plausible only because the central dilemma is so convincing.

Powell and Pressburger’s sensitivity to the deep undercurrents of strong male bonding mark them out from most of their cinematic (or even artistic) contemporaries on the British scene. Such honesty – for this is what it is – means that they have no problems in portraying real passion, real sexuality. Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes or Gone to Earth show how easily they could carry off a kind of film-making that eluded many of their contemporaries. Seen in this way, many of the strands of Powell and Pressburger’s work fall into place. Powell has a romantic insistence of ‘I am Cinema’. They share a romantic nationalism; they oscillate between defiance and conformity. Pressburger loves paradox; Powell loves extravagance. Emotion in their films is provided through cinema itself: it comes from looking, from hearing, from being caught up in the spectacle that you are watching.

What tended to elude Powell and Pressburger were tragedy, deprivation, domesticity: the largely unsung strengths of British cinema in general. The Small Back Room has too much verve, too much style, to convince us of the real tragedy of Sammy (David Farrar). He seems altogether too big for the cinema of Kenneth More, John Gregson and Jack Hawkins.

From Hawkins, of course, Powell was able to find two surprisingly effective and untypical performances – as a smooth bureaucratic operator in The Small Back Room, and a deliciously camp Prince Regent in The Elusive Pimpernel. Neither were aspects of his personality that Hawkins cared to explore again once he gained a large degree of control over how he was cast. Again, Powell was pushing at the limits of another icon of Britishness, the Hawkins who incarnated the commander in The Cruel Sea.

Powell and Pressburger have always existed at the edge of the world of British sensibility. The particular nature of their edginess has been difficult to comprehend as it has come with what seems at first sight to be an aggressive, even romantic, assertion of British patriotism. Yet theirs is the clamour of the outsider wanting to be let in, knowing that any real acceptance would be a defeat for both sides. They were European film-makers whose misfortune it was to be interested in being British.

John Ellis has run Large Door, an independent production company specialising in programmes about cinema, since 1982. His many publications include Visible Fictions (Routledge, revised edition, 1992) and a detailed analysis of A Matter of Life and Death in Ian Christie’s Powell, Pressburger and Others (London, BFI, 1978).