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A River Runs Through It

Richard Combs surveys the cinematic terrain of Michael Powell and draws up a new map

I. Cinema

Where do we stand with Michael Powell—allowing room somewhere inside that question for his partner, and crazy-mirror reflection, Emeric Pressburger? Powell was a defining force in British cinema, between his entering it in the South of France in 1925 as odd-job boy to the Hollywood director Rex Ingram, and leaving it, nearly 50 years later, with two features made in Australia and a featurette for Britain’s Children’s Film Foundation.

But there was never a more unstable definition: Powell’s cinema is shifting, elusive, phantasmagoric, radical but never revolutionary, because what has been called his High Tory value system is not disturbed (it may even be reinforced) by all those strange atmospheres, those spiritual/mystical/historical connections that have delighted and/or disconcerted audiences and critics. For some, the shiftiness, the hiddenness, of Powell’s cinema is what makes it most English; for Powell, probably, it shifts because it is cinema.

As he asserted in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, and in interviews, he is not someone who established a style, a version of himself and his preoccupations, through film, but rather—“I live cinema . . . I am the cinema.” Think of the opening of A Matter of Life and Death (46), with David Niven plunging to earth in his bomber, his crew dead or gone, an inferno raging behind him like the sunset glories of Black Narcissus (47) or Gone to Earth (50), responding to radio requests for his position: “Position nil, repeat nil.”

When he began directing in the Thirties, Powell was more a whirlwind of activity than a force (but then that was par for the particular course), making some 23 films from 1931 to 1936, the earliest of them not even 50 minutes long. These were the “quota quickies,” fostered by an act of Parliament to keep British cinema alive and supplying dirt-cheap supporting features to Hollywood releases. Come the war, and with Pressburger as his screenwriter from The Spy in Black (39), Powell flourished, shucking Thirties genres for the national cause, though with the same speed and puckish dash: combining speeches in which waving flags would be held stiff in a breeze of self-important verbiage with dramatic ambiguity, off-centeredness, and the ultimate pixilation of A Matter of Life and Death.

The man who would be cinema (as advertised in the first volume of A Life in Movies, which is simply divided into three giant chapters: Silent, Sound, Colour) could never be comfortable with a film industry. But what was also English in Powell was an imperial pulse, and there were fervid dreams at the end of the Forties of establishing a base—a solipsistic or national one—to rival Hollywood. These finally vanished as Hebridean and Himalayan mists thickened into a fog of cross-produced compromise. The Fifties saw a narrowing of opportunities for Powell and Pressburger’s Archers company, either the commercial cinema’s wartime retreads or personal (and parlous) experimentation with new combinations of cinema and music, dance or operetta. Then Powell went it alone with Peeping Tom (60), and the resulting furor, so legend has it, just about rang down the sunset on his own career.

Fixing Powell’s position has now become a major critical enterprise, starting slowly in the mid-Sixties and turning into an industry from the Seventies onwards, in which P & P were discovered and discovered again, as if their hiddenness could never be quite overcome. In the process, the extent to which they were the “forgotten men” of British cinema—or had suffered more setbacks than others in a notoriously ungrateful and unforgiving industry—was probably exaggerated. What really explains the effort, what supplied the critical motive force, was the need to disinter British cinema itself, to wrench its history out of the documentary or realist groove and to reassert the tradition of fantasy. The Archers’ quizzical, playful films, both fantastic and self-conscious about their illusionism, could then be asserted as central, and not just a mistaken or eccentric byway.

Does this make it easier to fix our position with regard to, say, A Matter of Life and Death? In an essay in a 1978 BFI publication, Powell, Pressburger and Others, John Ellis describes that opening sequence, which begins with a placid introduction to the cosmos, a track across “thousands of suns, millions of stars,” complete with voiceover guide: “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?” Then we’re plunged into the maelstrom of David Niven’s apparently imminent doom. According to Ellis, this brings about a violent collision of discourses: “Documentary and fictional narrative provide contradictory positions; harmony is posed in one, a harmony from a position of detached observation; frustration and disorder are posed in the other·”

But in fact there’s no contradiction here, no modernist disruption of discourses. A Matter of Life and Death is a richly variegated and humorous fantasy that holds together very well—but holds together from a position that is itself quite startling. The track across the universe, to begin with, is no documentary but is a jokey tour of the star fields, beautifully simulated—P & P’s scenics tended to be, before the advent of special-effects cinema—finally leading to sight of “the earth, our earth, moving around in its place, part of the pattern, part of the universe.” We then drop in for a closer look, at the point of fire of a burning city that had a “thousand-bomber raid an hour ago,” and then fog rolling in across the English Channel: “I hope all our aircraft got home safely.”

There’s the real collision: two uses of the word “our,” a universe apart in their terms of reference. Since the observer spares no thought for the civilians underneath the thousand bombers, we have to assume that his detachment is only apparent, or that P & P see no problem in yoking a cosmic overview to a nationally specific wartime commentary. This Englishman’s home is our universe (“this” Englishman includes the voice of John Longden, who played the hero in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, on which Powell worked). Perhaps the question of where we stand in relation to Powell needs to be turned around, or understood in relation to another: where does Powell stand, on what ground, literally and figuratively?

II. Canterbury

The answer to the first part of that question is provided with loving detail in Powell’s autobiography, where he recounts his birth, in 1905, “in a red-brick farmhouse,” five miles from the cathedral city of Canterbury. His loyalty to place is fierce: “to the narrow streets of Canterbury, to the High Street and cattle markets that are no more, to the Christchurch Gate opposite Kit Marlowe’s statue in the Butter Market . . . to the vast silence of the nave, where a chair dragged across the echoing flagstones made one think of Becket’s body dragged by armoured men, pierced and slashed with swords, to die before the altar in the side chapel. All this I have tried to get into the last 25 minutes of A Canterbury Tale·”

Local detail, scenic detail, spirit of place—Powell incorporated as much of his birthplace as he could in A Canterbury Tale (44), including that free passage back and forth in time that would allow his modern characters to assume—simply, directly, without metaphorical strain—the role of Chaucerian pilgrims. It’s the only one of P & P’s wartime films that doesn’t have too much to do with the war—which is all to its advantage, considering the painfully naïve attempt to intellectualize the issues of why and how we fight, in a century-long context, of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (43).

Is A Canterbury Tale a kind of personal documentary, a semi-documentary? This is a difficult thing to propose, given Powell’s professed hatred of documentaries, his arguments with the Grierson tradition in British cinema, and his face-to-face arguments with Robert Flaherty when they shared editing space at the Gaumont-British Studios in the mid-Thirties. But his subjects often have a lightly, indirectly, or even abstractly dramatized quality that allows them to drift towards documentary.

This may be attributable to the way Pressburger grounds fantasy, but it’s also a quality of Powell’s own Edge of the World (37), a personal project about a dying community on a remote Shetland island—and his ticket out of quota quickie purgatory to Alexander Korda’s Denham Studios. One rationale for the quickies, however, was their potential for immediacy—they might be “torn from yesterday’s headlines”—and Powell has cited The Fire Raisers (34) and Red Ensign (34), a semi-documentary story about beleaguered shipbuilders, as his contribution.

Details of the old Pilgrims’ Way are pointed out in A Canterbury Tale, and something else—the River Stour, which in Powell’s autobiography was “a weedy stream which wanders through lush country, passes through Canterbury, and reaches the sea at Pegwell Bay, near Sandwich on the east coast” (the Powell farm lay by a tributary of the Stour). Powell’s attachment to the land includes an attachment to what isn’t land. “All my life I have loved running water. One of my passions is to follow a river downstream, through pools and rapids, lakes, twists and turnings until it reaches the sea.”

Which is a move out into other territory. “It is strange how islands, and the sea, and even submarines, have turned up again and again at a significant point in my movie career.” Powell has also remarked on how, for all his attachment to the countryside of his birth, and his consequent uppercase pride in being a “Man of Kent,” he has developed a loyalty to those far-flung locations: the Shetlands for Edge of the World, the Orkneys for The Spy in Black, and the Hebrides for I Know Where I’m Going (45). The latter film, he says, was more popular in the U.S. than in England: “Service overseas had opened the eyes of many a G.I. to the strange diversity of the British Isles. An island in America is no more than an island, inhabited or uninhabited. Each island of the British Isles is a world.”

But more than diversity is involved here. The sea is also the distance between these worlds, a gap in the sense of attachment—and gaps can even proliferate in the ground on which one stands. The threatened community of Edge of the World stands on land that—the film keeps constantly in view—drops sheer to the sea (just as dizzying is the painted perspective in Black Narcissus, and characters fall to their death from both). The curse that’s related in I Know Where I’m Going involves two lovers being dropped through a shaft in a castle into the sea, which in Gone to Earth becomes a mineshaft that is foredoomed to swallow Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones). A deeper drop into eternity, perhaps, is the whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going, which Powell connects to one of his favorite stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” There’s even a shot in A Matter of Life and Death, during the conduct of the heavenly court, which steadily draws away from this amphitheater until it resembles nothing so much as a whirlpool in the sea of space.

If the ground on which one stands is not so solid, how does it affect the sense of home? The strange thing is that, for all his declarations of “a deep sense of place . . . the feeling that I was part of a known world,” Powell’s films barely dramatize the sense of home in personal or familial terms. The joke of I Know Where I’m Going is that this home is never reached, and Edge of the World is a film of craggy externals—we never enter the crofts of the people whose uprooting is being mourned. Powell is fond of framing characters in the doorway of a dwelling, but the emotional complexity of the John Ford version in The Searchers is missing. The characters with whom we’re most at home in Powell, the protagonists of The Small Back Room (49) and Peeping Tom, are his two most neurotic.

To return to the question asked about A Matter of Life and Death, it may be that the literal ground on which Powell stands, riven by rivers, surrounded by the sea, liable to drop away in chasms, is the least solid. But figuratively, it holds, it’s the sense of the centrality of place and country that can so unthinkingly conjoin those two senses of “our.” It’s not surprising that in many accounts, including Powell’s own, his wartime output—initiating his partnership with Pressburger and his most productive period—is rated as his most significant. But with the exception of A Canterbury Tale, all the wartime films are marred, to a greater or lesser degree, by the inanities and complacencies of propaganda. That this is not true of all wartime feature filmmaking (the Lean/Coward In Which We Serve, for instance) reveals how artistically important that figurative sense of place was, and what the artistic dangers were of eliding it too brashly with patriotism.

Of course, in its most extended form, the “spirituality” of Powell’s sense of place in A Canterbury Tale has less to do with local attachments than with a larger sense of destiny. And it’s one which easily embraces empire. Powell’s admiration for Alexander Korda—however tempered by later betrayals—is based on this. In his early days at Denham, he felt Korda “had made the British film what it should be: a power in the land, a mirror for England.” The result had been films like Sanders of the River and The Four Feathers, and it might also have been an adventure film that Powell researched—before he was assigned to The Spy in Black—by undertaking the exploration of Burma.

Burma, divided by three rivers, “a country where water is king,” might have been compatible terrain. But most strikingly, the story he was researching involved a high-ranking British colonial officer who had disappeared “up country,” to make himself rajah of his private kingdom. He is pursued by a government representative, perhaps with orders to terminate the renegade with extreme prejudice. It’s Apocalypse Now, via Heart of Darkness, before the fact, except that Powell’s vagrant despot would have been played by Conrad Veidt, his foreignness thus lifting the taint from the Empire. Later, there’s a similar deflection—or underdevelopment—in the part of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), another Conradian figure, an outcast of the Himalayas, in Black Narcissus. One might ask why Powell, who counted Kipling as one of his literary idols, left The Man Who Would Be King to John Huston, and why it was David Lean, not Powell, who tried to take the measure of the Englishman abroad.

III. The Sea

The best of the wartime films may not even be a whole film—it is a sequence or two, the opening of One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (42), the project with which Powell and Pressburger decided to consolidate and protect themselves as The Archers. Much is compressed here, and much of it contradictory yet so confidently intertwined that it is difficult to unpick, producing an effect that is beguiling, magical—but not the deliberate magic for which the pair becomes famous. Semi-documentary material (Powell’s semi-role, despite himself), lists of Dutchmen executed for helping downed Allied airmen, is followed by the return to base of a lone bomber, flying over the darkling sea. But it is a ghost ship, flying on its own, its crew gone—a romantic enough notion, replayed by the dancer who isn’t there in the spotlight for her final performance of the “Red Shoes” ballet.

The plane crashes in a fireball—an end that seems as self-willed as that of the Graf Spee—before the film flashes back to the mission that will lead to this bright doom, a bombing raid on Stuttgart, after which the crew will be forced to bail out over Holland. The sea is crossed again, while the crew discusses their route and their links to the target (“I knew a nurse from Stuttgart”), the river that will lead them there, then a railway line that one of them has traveled. Set apart from the rest, the tail gunner has only the sea for company, and the fact that he is more elderly than the rest has already made him something of an outsider. This mission is a collection of lonelinesses, and the beauty of the sea—which seems to surround them more than the sky—offers the ambiguous reassurance of a collectivity that is also an abnegation.

All rivers lead to the sea, as Powell says, and as he says elsewhere, the sea may therefore be more our common ground than the land. Swimming out “into the grey, limitless ocean” is his metaphor for death. Is there a confluence here, a parallel, a metaphoric jump between the sea and cinema? There is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom, of course, telling one of the models for his under-the-counter “views” to “Look at the sea” (he wants a puzzled expression, he explains). But there’s also the fortuitous circularity of Powell’s whole career, from his being dropped in at age 20 as helper on Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum—a tale of the sea and U-boats but also of a dying embrace with the goddess of the sea—to his last feature, Age of Consent (69), in which a sea nymph (Helen Mirren) inspires beachcomber-artist James Mason (the film’s production company was called Nautilus). And someone else here falls to their death.

So many of these “taken by the sea” deaths are either suicide or akin to suicide—from Conrad Veidt going down with the ship (though not his own) in The Spy in Black, to the paterfamilias who falls from the cliffs while attempting to make a last £5 rather than leave the island in Edge of the World. In other situations, Hazel’s fall into the pit in Gone to Earth is anticipated in her very first scene, where she rushes inside and is immediately seen within the frame of a coffin her father is making. And Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (48): does she jump, does she fall, or is she pushed by those shoes?

In connection with The Tales of Hoffmann (51), Thomas Elsaesser wrote in the Brighton Film Review: “Powell belongs to the modern Romantics, and in his tragic aestheticism he is very like Godard in his early films. . . both are reactionary Romantics, whose protest against the modern world is the acceptance of death, indeed of suicide, as the inevitable price to be paid for remaining an artist, and, therefore, human.” In this light, Powell’s monumental autobiography is a fascinating, divided testimonial: an account of his training in and mastery of his craft, and the welding together on each project of the skills of many craftsmen, and at the same time a Promethean tale, of the urge to transcend and remake what he was doing in the name of art.

When Powell declares, about what he had achieved by 1943, “I had made the British film industry after my own image, and I gloried in it,” it might seem about as far as presumption, vaulting ambition, could go. But what he had always attempted was a wider identification, to incorporate the whole of his art, specifically to become a foreign film artist as well. He might be accused of posing when he declares early on that Luis Buñuel is “the only filmmaker I would defer to,” but it is an allegiance he makes good on with the large close-up of an eye that opens Peeping Tom (there is no slicing razor, but this is an eye that comes equipped with its own slicing tools).

Other foreign elements incorporated might include the little bit of Eisenstein that opens a quota quickie, The Love Test (35), with a dissolve from a laboratory flask to the bulging face of the lab’s pompous director, or the Cocteau livery (Roger Livesey’s motorcycle leathers) and reverse Orpheus plot (poet rescued from heaven by his beloved) of A Matter of Life and Death. And Kathleen Byron’s final appearance in Black Narcissus, with deathly pallor and kohl-rimmed eyes, is closer to the Conrad Veidt we remember as Cesare the sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than the actor in his two films for Powell.

And in this might lie the key to his collaboration with Pressburger. It’s often assumed that as the foreigner, the outsider, Pressburger helped Powell to see England and the English more clearly. But the reverse might be the case: Pressburger helped to bring out the foreignness in the local and the familiar, the edginess and distance, perhaps, that has often been remarked upon in Powell’s leading men. It’s partly why Powell can seem the complacent imperialist: he doesn’t need to see the English abroad, he has already located sufficient strangeness at home. The final strangeness, the culminating alienation, is the art itself: to identify completely with it—“I am the cinema”—is to become one’s own outsider, the kind of artist who can accept death and suicide as the ultimate price to be paid.

Powell and Pressburger might have been making their way, by their own routes, to that apotheosis of the Romantic aesthetic in Peeping Tom. It just required a different dramatist to bring it about, one who approached the heart of the matter less indirectly, less abstractly. But already in A Canterbury Tale, worried things are being said about the relationship of this art form to life: the American sergeant (John Sweet) spends his time at the movies instead of taking in the glories of the countryside, and the English sergeant (Dennis Price) has given up being a church organist for the more profitable career of a cinema organist.

There’s also a revealing sidelight, an amusing notation, in one of the war films, 49th Parallel (41). A U-boat, several of whose crew will shortly be at large in the Canadian wilderness, has just sunk a merchantman and pulled some of the sailors from the water for questioning. One of the Germans starts filming them as well, only to have the camera angrily knocked overboard by a sailor. He’s just been torpedoed and nearly drowned, but to be filmed is clearly the final, unacceptable act of aggression.