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  • Charles Drazin

Powell but why not Pressburger?

A new documentary on Michael Powell has just been released on BFI Player:

Visions, Dreams and Magic: The Unmade Films of Michael Powell (2024), directed by Nic Wassell, offers a forty-minute tour of some of the unrealised projects that Powell worked on from the late 1950s. It is a good film to support Martin Scorsese’s recent film-essay on Powell and Pressburger, Made in England (2024). But although its interviews with Thelma Schoonmaker, Ian Christie and James Bell offer considerable insight into Powell – homing in on his individual artist’s sensibility – it is  yet another example of the tendency to overlook Pressburger. I have wittered on about this over the past week because I believe that Pressburger’s contribution to one of the greatest partnerships of the British cinema has been persistently undervalued and – from, I suppose, some sort of out-of-date, Blimpish sense of fair play  – I would like to encourage an adjustment in the balance of appreciation.

It is the natural state of even the most successful film-makers to have a far bigger portfolio of unrealised projects than realised ones. But if we are going to rummage through the waste-paper baskets, wouldn’t the best place to start be with some of the unrealised projects of Powell and Pressburger?

I’d like to linger for a while on one of them. Victorious Defeat was the treatment that Pressburger was working on in 1940 during the “phoney” war – a strange, in-between time when people in Britain had not completely come to terms with the fact that the way the world was had gone for ever. The project had started out as an adaptation of a 1936 novel Rings on Her Fingers, by Laurence Kirk, about a young woman who lures rich men into making offers of marriage and then sues them for breach of promise. Her plans go badly wrong when she makes the mistake of falling in love with one of her intended victims. The backdrop for the story was the frivolous social world of privileged London. In early drafts, the war was absent, but as the international news in 1940 turned increasingly grim, the war inevitably muscled its way into the story.

Pressburger wrote the following preface to a version of the treatment that was dated December 1940: “I have long searched for words to make it clear how I imagine the background of this picture. I wanted to show the first months of the war in connection with a certain class of society for whom the war had changed nothing. The time we all called the “phoney” war. And then the switch-over to another period which started with the bombardment of London and transformed the whole country into one fighting unit: rich and poor, old and young, men and women. Then I suddenly remembered a drawing by Low on the first anniversary of the war. I have pasted it on the next page. It shows exactly what I am aiming at.”

Why wasn’t Victorious Defeat made? The answer lies in the emergency of a time when the priority for Britain – now facing the very real possibility of an inglorious defeat – was to persuade the United States to abandon its neutrality and to join the war. So Powell and Pressburger, with finance from the British government, shifted their efforts into making The 49th Parallel (1941). But the inspiration of the cartoonist David Low would surface again in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), while traces of Victorious Defeat can be found in I Know Where I’m Going (1945), another tale of a gold-digger who finds herself suddenly ambushed by love.

Although Visions, Dreams and Magic mentions Pressburger very little, its exclusive focus on Powell does serve to throw Pressburger into relief even in his absence, so that we can develop our ideas of the different qualities that Powell and Pressburger brought to their partnership. Ian Christie observes that, as Powell grew older, he became increasingly insistent that what mattered to him most was cinema as a medium for fantasy. It was this that led him to collaborate in the early 1980s with the novelist Ursula Le Guin on an unrealised adaptation of her Earthsea Trilogy of fantasy novels.

The comment made me wonder whether one of Pressburger’s great contributions to the partnership wasn’t actually tethering Powell to reality. It is often said that the Powell and Pressburger films flout the social-realist tradition of British cinema, but actually what is so striking about their wartime work is its respect for reality. If you want to know what it really felt like to fly a bomber over Occupied Europe in 1941, watch One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). It reconstructs the details of the night-time mission of a Wellington bomber with documentary precision. This instinct to do things real is a persistent feature of the Powell and Pressburger films. Even the most breathtaking fantasy of them all, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in imagining a badly concussed airman’s visions of  another world, pays rigorous respect to the casebook studies of how such hallucinations might occur.

Where Powell and Pressburger both badly lost their way was in struggling to engage with the changing reality of post-war Britain. You only have to listen to the opening riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to appreciate that both of them were going to find it hard to get any satisfaction in the brash, iconoclastic decade of the 1960s, when anyone over 30 was considered to be middle-aged or, even worse – to use a 3-letter word – “old”.

But did it matter so much? They – as well as we – were incredibly lucky that they were able to make the movies that they already had. There’s a touching letter that Powell wrote to Pressburger shortly before shooting A Matter of Life and Death. He was in Devon scouting possible locations for the film when he sent it: “This is almost the first time that I have been able to pause and consider our friendship. How lucky we have been! What struggles we have shared and what happiness it has been to struggle and succeed together at just the time when we can do our best work. Funny how the war can open your eyes to a lot of things.”


Jul 03

Victorious Defeat sounds wonderful - it reminds me of what happens to Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Charles Drazin
Charles Drazin
Jul 03
Replying to

It's a good, ironic typically Pressburger title. It really seemed to be taking good shape. If only France hadn't fallen!

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