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  • Charles Drazin

Powell or Pressburger?

“THE ENTIRE PRODUCTION, Written, Produced and Directed by . . .”

But who really did what?

When asked about  the division of roles, Powell commented, “As far as possible, we tried to share everything. Of course, directing on the floor – that was entirely my job. But as far as we could, we shared every decision.” Pressburger concurred:  “On the whole, as a simple answer, I would say that Michael directed on his own, and I was more the writer.” 

But because he was more the writer, Pressburger was inevitably undervalued in an age that preferred to think of the director as the “auteur”.

In his recent appreciation of their films, Made in England, Martin Scorsese generally respects the sentiment of that official twin credit, attributing the achievements of the films to both partners without distinguishing between their separate roles. But he lapses into auteur-speak when he describes the duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

“Just as the duel begins,” he tells us,  “Michael has the audacity to start pulling the camera back and up. It’s an act of terrific bravado, after all this preparation, to retreat from showing the actual fight. Only a very bold film director would make that choice. But for Michael, the fight itself is irrelevant. What matters is the meaning between the two men, and the relationship that comes out of it.

But who was really responsible for such audacity? Was it Michael? Or was it Michael and Emeric? Or was it just Emeric?

A striking aspect of Emeric Pressburger’s screenplay for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is how detailed it is in its visual directions. Below is its description of the duel:

The fight starts. They are both strong swordsmen.

The CAMERA BEGINS TO MOVE AWAY, further and further, higher and higher.

We see Clive’s two Seconds. They stand with the points of their two sabres towards the floor, ready to intervene and strike up the fighters’ blades if necessary.

The clash of steel and the stamp and quick movements of the fighters’ feet goes steadily on.

Then we see the German Seconds, also standing motionless and watchful, with downward pointing swords.

The movement of the CAMERA quickens. It sweeps away from the figures and high above them. They and their Seconds are small figures in the middle of the vast brightly-lit hall. The clash of steel becomes fainter.

Above the hissing gas-chandeliers the cross-trees of the roof are in semi-darkness.

Then – without a break – the CAMERA slips through the huge windows and we are out in the street.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the screenplay suggests that it is Pressburger who “has the audacity to start pulling the camera back and up. But in spite of the relish with which he drew on the Imperial German Army’s precise, detailed etiquette for duelling (according to Powell, taken from a little book in German that Emeric found in the British Museum library), he was much too modest and civilized to want to duel for credit against his friend and partner.

The sequence must also surely have owed something to the famous El Rancho crane shot that passes through a skylight to introduce Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane. By a coincidence Kane opened in London in October 1941 on the same day as Powell and Pressburger’s The 49th Parallel.

I think Pressburger must have been delighted to find in Powell a director who respected his visual imagination, had the boldness and skill to realize that imagination on the screen, and could bring to the joint pot of creation plenty of original ideas of his own. And we know how Powell felt about Pressburger because he told us in his autobiography. He recalled their first collaboration on The Spy in Black (1939):  “I listened, spellbound,” he wrote. “Since talkies took over the movies, I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this. In the silent days, the top screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists. They knew that things had to move and they moved them.” Powell marvelled at Pressburger’s command of visual language, which he had developed working on silent pictures at UFA in Berlin during the 1920s.

A successful collaboration is as precious as it is rare. It’s one reason why the Powell and Pressburger partnership was so extraordinary – and why attributing primary authorship to the man who stood behind the camera, in preference to the one who spent most of his time at a desk, travesties how these remarkable films were actually put together. Nor, of course, were Powell and Pressburger the only two people who aimed at the target. Pressburger certainly dreamt up the stairway to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, but it was the great German art director Alfred Junge who built it. And there were other Archers who occasionally scored bullseyes too.

2 comentários

02 de jul.

There is no travesty here, only a collaboration that works well. In the duel scene, the writer creates the scenario and the director and cameraman delivers it to the screen using their talent and vision to realise how well this would work. There was likely to be tweaking and retakes but the finished product was clever, imaginative and a bit surprising in that it left the viewer to finish the fight in their heads. I thought ‘Made in England’ was excellent and an overdue revisitation to the works of Powell and Pressburger through the eyes of a world-class director who appreciated their work from a young age and, like others, was influenced by it. They too wanted to make films…

Charles Drazin
Charles Drazin
02 de jul.
Respondendo a

My point is that, in this particular instance of the duel, Scorsese's comments suggest that Michael Powell was doing much more than delivering a visual idea that Pressburger had already formulated, but was actually coming up with the idea as if it was his own, when it wasn't. Scorsese is so perceptive about the films that I like to think that he would, on reflection, concede that Pressburger deserved a little bit more credit on this occasion than he was given.

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