At 81, Michael Powell has cheeks like polished apples from his native Kent, a countryman’s brisk energy and a memory that is dauntingly long. He is about 100,000 words into his second volume of memoirs; the first, “Michael Powell: A Life in Movies,” came out last fall in London and will be published in the United States in March by Knopf. It is 670 pages long and ends in 1947 with “The Red Shoes.”
Before becoming a director in 1931, Powell was a gofer, a stills photographer, grip, focus puller and an extra for the great silent film director Rex Ingram, who kept Hollywood studio heads briefly at bay by founding the Victorine Studios in Nice in the 1920s and who so detested Louis B. Mayer that he only permitted the logo “Metro Goldwyn” to appear on his work. Powell’s last film job was to develop scripts at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios.
“I am a craftsman, and a craftsman I shall remain until I die. I know only one craft, the craft of making films. The art of telling a story to the largest audience that ever said ‘Tell me a story,’ ” Powell writes in his memoirs. He thinks that such directors as Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas admire him because, like him, they are crazy about film.
“I think my appeal to them is a consciousness that there is more on the screen than you can see or hear,” he says.
After working with Ingram and then for Rank in England, Powell hit the big time with his partner, screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made such cult films as “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes.” Powell’s films are quirky, baroque; the word he uses about them, and it is a good one, is composed . His first major film, “The Edge of the World” (1937), was inspired by a news story about sheep-biting dogs that tended them on a Scottish isle; the film that he claims got him blacklisted in England was a sympathetic study of perversion called “Peeping Tom.”
“All the critics banded together and vilified it. They hated it; they didn’t understand being compassionate to a murderer. It was a horrifying subject, of course, but done with great taste.”
By 1960, when “Peeping Tom” was made, British cinema had in any case moved in a new direction with more intimate and realistic works, the “Free Cinema” of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz. For Powell, as for the silent film directors, the image was all.
“In silent films,” he says, “we were very conscious that you had to see faces, if they made gestures mean. You had as few titles as possible, to the point where an Ibsen play was once filmed with no titles at all. Then the Soviets came in and had to make films for a huge illiterate population and again film changed--the hammer blow of images! Image was everything and it was great, wasn’t it? I was so lucky to have known it and I tried to carry it on.”
To Powell, the high point in British film making came during World War II. “Until then, it looked to me as if the English film business would always be a minor American one. Then the war came and gave us our big chance. The heart of my book is about creating a real British film business for the first time, because they no longer had the opposition from America.”
Powell and Pressburger thrived by making lightly veiled propaganda films, ending in 1946 with the spectacular “A Matter of Life and Death” (“Stairway to Heaven” in the United States) with the recently demobbed David Niven. “The Ministry of Information said to Emeric and me, ‘This is going to be your last propaganda film, can’t you make one to make the Americans love us?’ ” Powell says. They succeeded so well that the British press was in an uproar when the film was chosen for the first Royal Command Performance. (“There will be widespread indignation at the choice for the first Royal Performance last night of a picture which might have been made specially to appeal to Isolationist and anti-British sentiment in the United States,” steamed the Daily Graphic.)
Because his first three years in film were spent in France with Rex Ingram and because silent films were the most international of arts, Powell has always considered himself more European than British. British critics see him as an arch romantic.
“That’s all balls,” he says. “What’s arch romantic about me? I’m very realistic. My films aren’t romantic, they’re mystic. And quite often in my films there’s something going on that is not explicit.”
Many British critics were grounded by the sheer weight of his memoirs. “It’s not another film book,” he says, “it is social history. I’m 81 now; it’s not likely I’ll live much longer. Most of my friends are dead and those that are alive aren’t capable of writing such a history.” His aim is to explore the extraordinary art that is film and for that he goes back to Canterbury in Kent, where he lived as a boy and where there was only one theater occasionally used by touring companies but usually dark. “Then, with the invention of film, the whole art of the world is there in your little town. That’s what hit me, at just the right time. It really hit me between the eyes.”
His break came when his father bought, with unexpected winnings at a Monte Carlo casino, a small hotel called the Hotel du Parc. With the help of Paris Singer, Isadora Duncan’s lover, and a solitary landscape painter named Winston Churchill, a new name was found: the Voile d’Or, today the most charming hotel on the Cote d’Azur.
At the time, Rex Ingram was just settling into the Victorine Studios in nearby Nice and young Powell began as a gofer on Mare Nostrum. Ingram was young, brilliant and exotic, accompanied by dwarfs and by his beautiful wife and star, Alice Terry. People came from all over to watch him work.
“Ingram loved picaresque horror and at the same time he loved spectacle and could handle it. Not everybody can. He didn’t fling it at you the way Griffith did, he composed it. He had this wonderful flair for making big theater out of this flat screen.”
Powell tried on his own sets to recreate Ingram’s ambiance of devout enthusiasm. “It was really like being in church except it was more fun,” Powell says.
While he is too realistic to imagine he will ever make another film, he will think film to the end of his days. Writing his autobiography and the history of cinema as he lived it isn’t difficult. “But,” he adds, “I should be making a film about it instead.”