Michael Powell once said of his films, “They are, for the most part, fairy tales.” Certainly during the mid-to-late-’40s high tide of his collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, many of Powell’s movies took the form of fables, tracking wide-eyed wanderers through strange and bewitching forests: gold-digging city gal Wendy Hiller marooned in a Scottish Highlands soaked with superstition and biblical bad weather in I Know Where I’m Going! (1945); airman David Niven on the stairway to the monochrome hereafter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946); the band of nuns bewildered and aroused by the heat, wind, and high altitude of their Himalayan palace convent in Black Narcissus (1947). Fittingly, it was a Hans Christian Andersen tale, ripe with luxuriant tragedy, that allowed the Englishman to perfect his brand of ecstatic formalism: The Red Shoes (1948) achieved an orgiastic fusion of folklore, music, dance, design, costumery, painting, and photography, a Total Art of cinema pirouetting brazenly through the cooling wreckage of Total War. Like most visionaries, Powell (1905-1990) was regarded with some degree of scorn and suspicion at home during his productive years. It took an appreciative horde of vulgar Americans to invite a reassessment, which flowered with the 1979 restoration of Powell’s virtual career-ender, Peeping Tom (1960)—a project partly financed by the director’s greatest champion, Martin Scorsese, whose longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker married Powell in 1984—and continues with the Walter Reade’s comprehensive centenary tribute.
After fortuitous early encounters with Rex Ingram and Alfred Hitchcock (Powell had a screenwriting hand in the latter’s Blackmail), he began his directing career in the ’30s with “quota quickies,” so named because they were made and screened by parliamentary decree as a safe haven for homemade British filmmaking under the advance of the post-sound Hollywood juggernaut. Powell signaled his graduation from the B-movie workshop with The Edge of the World (1937): Shooting in Scotland’s northern Shetland Islands under punishing conditions, Powell animated his stunning location footage with double exposures, time-lapse flourishes, and ghosts, and hinted at the Gothic inflections that would add frisson to much of his later work. The Edge of the World caught the eye of Alexander Korda, who played matchmaker between his fellow Hungarian émigré Emeric Pressburger and Powell; their first film together, The Spy in Black (1939), appeared the week that World War II was declared and hatched one of the most prodigious partnerships in cinema history.
Their wartime films—made under the aegis of the Ministry of Information, the propaganda arm of Britain’s WW II-era War Office—were never merely patriotic tracts. Contraband (1940) conjured a roaming underground party atmosphere in blackout London; The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Powell and Pressburger’s first Technicolor production, angered Churchill with its satire of a fuddy-duddy career soldier, played by Roger Livesey of the inimitable hoarse vibrato. Startlingly, several of these films featured sympathetic, rounded German characters, as well as a stylistic embrace of German expressionism (not to mention Conrad Veidt, the wraithlike killer Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as a leading man). In Colonel Blimp, it’s a German character, Theo (Anton Walbrook), who delivers both the hushed paean to England and the exhortation to victory against the Nazis by any means necessary.
Powell’s stated ideal was the “composed film,” a symphonic current of sound and image sought most overtly in The Red Shoes and his other, unjustly neglected ballet film, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). A revisitation of Powell’s oeuvre reveals many delightful motifs and refrains. A particularly Gothic ability to render the familiar strange: The faintly profane fragrance of Black Narcissus‘s title, after all, is a scent available in an army-navy store in London, and sister superior Deborah Kerr is seduced only by her own memories. A remarkable attunement to the animal world, from the non sequitur of a falcon disemboweling a rabbit in I Know Where I’m Going! to the fox hunt that sets the tone of feverish flight and pursuit in Gone to Earth (1950). And a certain type of Powell woman: serious, loyal, fiercely focused, a little out of breath. Kerr plays her in triplicate in Colonel Blimp, and in 50 years ages not a day; Kathleen Byron, so terrifyingly hysterical as Kerr’s in-heat nemesis in Black Narcissus, plays her in The Small Back Room (1949), a spare, acerbic study of an alcoholic, self-loathing bomb-disposal expert. A black-and-white breather after the carnival of The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room captures both a damaged individual psyche and a troubled national mood; it’s an often overlooked gem amid Powell’s bigger and brighter sparklers, and named by the director himself as one of his favorites.