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Overview for Michael Powell
Michael Powell

Michael Powell


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Also Known As: Michael Latham Powell Died: February 19, 1990
Born: September 30, 1905 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: Kent, England, GB Profession: Director ... director producer screenwriter cameraman author assistant director editor bank clerk


Michael Powell's introduction to the film business came at 20, when, with the assistance of his father, he secured a job with Rex Ingram's film unit based in Nice, France. In the late 1920s, Powell worked at Elstree Studios for Harry Lachman and Alfred Hitchcock. During the early 30s, Powell cut his directorial teeth on a number of forgettable, low-budget "quota quickies" for independent production companies in England.

In 1938, after making "The Edge of the World" (1937), a personal exploration of man's battle with nature on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland, Powell was brought together with German scriptwriter Emric Pressburger to develop "The Spy in Black" (1939) as a vehicle for Conrad Veidt. Powell made two more films without Pressburger, including co-directing "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940), a remarkable fantasy film, before forming a partnership with Pressburger in their own production company, the Archers.

Some of the most notable Powell-Pressburger achievements include "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1944), a satiric view of the British military that incurred the wrath of Winston Churchill, "A Canterbury Tale" (1944) and "I Know Where I'm Going" (1945), lyrical, often romantic, but sharp films which were, according to Powell, "a crusade against materialism"; "A Matter of Life and Death" (1945, known as "Stairway to Heaven" in the US), an epic but thoughtful fantasy film; "Black Narcissus" (1947), one of the most gorgeous films ever shot in color; and the lush "The Red Shoes" (1948), Archers' most prestigious effort and still cited as the best ballet story ever made.

Preoccupied with technique, Powell strove to achieve what he called "the unity of art." The essence of Powell's visual style and his attitude toward art and life, are best displayed in "Black Narcissus" (1947) and "The Tales of Hoffmann" (1951). "Black Narcissus" chronicles the failure of a group of Anglican nuns to establish a mission in the Himalayan mountains. Powell shot virtually all of the film in a studio to maintain complete control over color, setting and atmosphere in service to the film's complex character's and theme. With its constant undercurrent of repressed sexuality and the mystical power of nature, the film also reveals Powell's paganistic philosophy. Finally, for the film's dramatic climax, Powell first used what he called "composed film": Brian Easdale wrote the music for the scene before the dramatic action was plotted out and measured with a stop watch; the sequence was then shot and edited to mirror the rhythms of the music. "The Tales of Hoffmann," an eccentric, astonishingly expressionistic ballet-opera version of Jacques Offenbach's last work, stands as Powell's most magnificent attempt to fuse the arts into film form. Perhaps its only rival in this context is Disney's worthy but uneven and often overrated "Fantasia."

After Powell and Pressburger dissolved their partnership in 1956, Powell's most notorious work was the controversial "Peeping Tom" (1960). This brilliant, endlessly self-reflexive film is the story of a killer who stalks his female victims with a spear-and-mirror-equipped camera, to film them as they watch themselves die. Critical attacks on "Peeping Tom" were so vicious and extreme that they virtually terminated Powell's career. This uniquely unsettling film has since been revived and praised by Martin Scorsese, among others, as one of the great movies about the psychology of filmmaking and film viewing.

Although he is now acknowledged as one of England's foremost filmmakers, Michael Powell paid an enormous price for cultivating his personal vision within the context of a national cinema almost totally at odds with his artistic concerns. His emphasis on the bold uses of imagery and color has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers, including Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, John Boorman and Derek Jarman.

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