Michael Powell

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Michael Powell
BornMichael Latham Powell
(1905-09-30)30 September 1905
Bekesbourne, Kent, England
Died19 February 1990(1990-02-19) (aged 84)
Avening, Gloucestershire, England
Occupationfilm director
Spouse(s)Gloria Mary Rouger (1927–1927)
Frankie Reidy (1943–1983)
Thelma Schoonmaker (1984–1990)
  (Redirected from Michael Powell (director))
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For other people named Michael Powell, see Michael Powell (disambiguation).
Michael Powell
BornMichael Latham Powell
(1905-09-30)30 September 1905
Bekesbourne, Kent, England
Died19 February 1990(1990-02-19) (aged 84)
Avening, Gloucestershire, England
Occupationfilm director
Spouse(s)Gloria Mary Rouger (1927–1927)
Frankie Reidy (1943–1983)
Thelma Schoonmaker (1984–1990)
8 Melbury Road plaque
English Heritage Blue Plaque
Dorset House, Gloucester Place, NW1 5AG

Michael Latham Powell (30 September 1905 – 19 February 1990) was a renowned English film director, celebrated for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger. Through their production company "The Archers", they together wrote, produced and directed a series of classic British films, notably 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946, also called Stairway to Heaven), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). His later controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom, however, was so vilified that his career was seriously damaged.

Early life[edit]

Powell was the second son and youngest child of Thomas William Powell, a hop farmer, and Mabel, daughter of Frederick Corbett, of Worcester, England. Powell was born in Bekesbourne, Kent, and educated at The King's School, Canterbury and then at Dulwich College. He started work at the National Provincial Bank in 1922 but quickly realised he was not cut out to be a banker.

Film career[edit]

Powell entered the film industry in 1925 through working with director Rex Ingram working at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France (the contact with Ingram was made through Powell's father, who owned a hotel in Nice). He first started out as a general studio hand, the proverbial "gofer": sweeping the floor, making coffee, fetching and carrying. Soon he progressed to other work such as stills photography, writing titles (for the silent films) and many other jobs including a few acting roles, usually as comic characters. Powell made his film début as a "comic English tourist" in The Magician (1926).

Returning to England in 1928, Powell worked at a diverse series of jobs for various filmmakers including as a stills photographer on Alfred Hitchcock's silent film Champagne (1928). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (1929). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was the first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films.[1] Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.[N 1]

After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 1931 to make "quota quickies", Powell began to direct hour-long films needed to satisfy a legal requirement that British cinemas screen a certain quota of British films. During this period, he developed his directing skills, sometimes making up to seven films a year.[2]

Although he had taken on some directing responsibilities in other films, Powell had his first screen credit as a director on Two Crowded Hours (1931). This thriller was considered a modest success at the box office despite its limited budget.[2] From 1931 to 1936, Powell was the director of 23 films, including the critically received Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935).[2]

In 1937 Powell completed his first truly personal project, The Edge of the World. Powell gathered together a cast and crew who were willing to take part in an expedition to what, before the air service that now exists, was a very isolated part of the UK. They had to stay there for quite a few months and finished up with a film which not only told the story he wanted but also captured the raw natural beauty of the location.

By 1939, Powell had been hired as a contract director by Alexander Korda on the strength of The Edge of the World. Korda set him to work on some projects such as Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled.[1] Nonetheless, Powell was brought in to save a film that was being made as a vehicle for two of Korda's star players, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. The film was The Spy in Black, where Powell first met Emeric Pressburger.

Meeting Emeric Pressburger[edit]

The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too verbose and did not have a good role for either Veidt or Hobson. Korda called a meeting where he introduced a diminutive man, saying, "Well now, I have asked Emeric to read the script, and he has things to say to us."[1]

Powell then went on to record (in A Life in Movies) how:

"Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting. I listened spellbound. 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 [American] screenwriters were technicians rather than dramatists[, but]... the European cinema remained highly literate and each country, conscious of its separate culture and literature, strove to outdo the other[s]. All this was changed by the talkies. America, with its enormous wealth and enthusiasm and it technical resources, waved the big stick. ... The European film no longer existed[,]... [except for]...the great German film business ... and Dr. Goebbels soon put a stop to that in 1933. But the day that Emeric walked out of his flat, leaving the key in the door to save the stormtroopers the trouble of breaking it down, was the worst day's work that the clever doctor ever did for his country's reputation, as he was soon to find out. As I said, I listened spellbound to this small Hungarian wizard, as Emeric unfolded his notes, until they were at least six inches long. He had stood Storer Clouston's plot on its head and completely restructured the film."[1]

They both soon recognised that although they were total opposites in background and personality, they had a common attitude to film-making and that they could work very well together. After making two more films together (Contraband (1940) and 49th Parallel) with separate credits, the pair decided to form a partnership and to sign their films jointly as "Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger."[1]

The Archers[edit]

Working together as co-producers, writers and directors in a partnership they dubbed "The Archers", they made 19 feature films, many of which received critical and commercial success. Their best films are still regarded as classics of 20th century British cinema. The BFI 100 list of "the favourite British films of the 20th century" contains five of Powell's films, four with Pressburger.[3]

Although admirers would argue that Powell ought to rank alongside fellow British directors Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, his career suffered a severe reversal after the release of the controversial psychological thriller film Peeping Tom, made in 1960 as a solo effort.[4] The film was excoriated by British critics, who were offended by its sexual and violent images; Powell was ostracized by the film industry and found it almost impossible to work thereafter. However, his reputation was restored over the years, and by the time of his death, he and Pressburger were recognised as one of the foremost film partnerships of all time – and cited as a key influence by many noted filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.[4]

Personal life[edit]

In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. During the 1940s, Powell had love affairs with actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron.[1] From 1 July 1943 until her death on 5 July 1983, Powell was married to Frances "Frankie" May Reidy, the daughter of medical practitioner Jerome Reidy; they had two sons: Kevin Michael Powell (b. 1945) and Columba Jerome Reidy Powell (b. 1951). He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.

Subsequently, Powell was married to film editor Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire.[4]


For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger

Early films[edit]

Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies". Not all of them were really quota films, and the ones that were are often of a much higher standard than most other quota films. Some of his early films are now missing and are believed lost. But those that have survived often show some very sophisticated techniques and early versions of ideas that were reused, done better, in his later films. Those marked with a * are "Missing, believed lost".

YearTitleProduction CompanyOther notes
1928Riviera RevelsG. Ventimigla and Marcel LucienA series of comedy shorts. Powell co-directed with Harry Lachman
1930Caste *Harry Rowson (Ideal)Uncredited as director, main director was Campbell Gullan
1931Two Crowded Hours *Film Engineering
1932My Friend the King *Film Engineering
RynoxFilm Engineering
The Rasp *Film Engineering
The Star Reporter *Film Engineering
Hotel SplendideFilm Engineering.
A Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd
C.O.D. *Westminster Films
His LordshipWestminster Films
1933Born Lucky *Westminster Films
1934The Fire RaisersGaumont-British
Red EnsignGaumont-BritishUS title: Strike!
Something Always HappensWarner Brothers.
First National Productions Ltd
1935The Girl in the Crowd *First National
LazybonesA Real Art Production
The Love TestFox British
The Night of the PartyGaumont-British Picture CorporationUS title: The Murder Party
The Phantom LightA Gainsborough Picture
The Price of a Song *Fox British
Someday *Warner Britishaka Young Nowheres
1936Her Last AffaireNew Ideal Productions Ltd
The Brown Wallet *Warner Brothers.
First National
Crown v. StevensWarner Brothers. First National Productions Ltdaka Third Time Unlucky
The Man Behind the MaskJoe Rock Studiosreissued as Behind the Mask

Major films[edit]

Aside from some short films, Powell wrote, produced and directed all of his films from 1942 to 1957 with Emeric Pressburger

YearTitleProduction CompanyOther notes
1937The Edge of the WorldJoe Rock Production
1939The Spy in BlackHarefieldUS title: U Boat 29
SmithD&P Productions.
Embankment Fellowship Co.
10 minute short-film
The Lion Has WingsLondon Film ProductionsRAF documentary footage with some fictional intercuts
1940ContrabandBritish NationalUS title: Blackout
The Thief of BagdadAlexander Korda Films Inc.co-director
1941An Airman's Letter to His Mothera 5-minute short
49th ParallelOrtus Films
(and Ministry of Information (United Kingdom))
US title: The Invaders
1942One of Our Aircraft Is MissingThe Archers.
British National
1943The Life and Death of Colonel BlimpThe Archers/
Independent Producers
The VolunteerThe Archers.
Ministry of Information (United Kingdom)
a short propaganda film
1944A Canterbury TaleThe Archers
1945I Know Where I'm Going!The Archers
1946A Matter of Life and DeathThe ArchersUS title: Stairway To Heaven
1947Black NarcissusThe Archers
for Independent Producers Ltd.
1948The Red ShoesThe Archers
1949The Small Back RoomThe Archers.
London Films
1950Gone to EarthThe Archers.
London Films
US title: The Wild Heart (1952) – substantially re-edited version additional scenes directed by Rouben Mamoulian
The Elusive PimpernelLondon Film Productions
(and The Archers)
US title: The Fighting Pimpernel
1951The Tales of HoffmannBritish Lion Film Corporation
(with Vega Productions and The Archers)
1955Oh... Rosalinda!!Associated British Picture Corporation.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
1956The Sorcerer's Apprentice20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/
Norddeutscher Rundfunk
a short ballet
The Battle of the River PlateArcturus Productions.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
US title: The Pursuit of the Graf Spee
1957Ill Met by MoonlightMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
for Rank Organisation Film Productions (and Vega Productions)
US title: Night Ambush
1959Luna de MielMIchael Powell Production
for Suevia Films-Cesario Gonsalez (Spain)/Everdene (GB)
aka Honeymoon
1960Peeping TomMichael Powell Production
1961The Queen's GuardsImperial.
Michael Powell Production
1963Herzog Blaubarts BurgSüddeutscher Rundfunk. Norman Foster Produktionaka Bluebeard's Castle
1966They're a Weird MobWilliamson (Australia)/
Michael Powell Production
Pressburger wrote the script as Richard Imrie
1969Age of ConsentNautilus Productions
1972The Boy Who Turned YellowRoger Cherrill Ltd
for the Children's Film Foundation
Script by Pressburger
1978Return to the Edge of the WorldPoseidon Films/
BBC Television
For British TV, framing of the original 1937 film

Television work[edit]

Powell also directed episodes of the TV series The Defenders, Espionage and The Nurses.

YearTitleProduction CompanyOther notes
1963Never Turn Your Back on a FriendHerbert Brodkin Ltd.Episode for the Espionage series
1964The Frantick RebelHerbert Brodkin Ltd.Episode for the Espionage series
1964A Free AgentHerbert Brodkin Ltd.Episode for the Espionage series
1965The Sworn TwelveEpisode for the The Defenders series
1965A 39846Episode for the The Nurses series

Non-directorial work[edit]

Powell was also involved in the following films in a non-directorial role:

Other works[edit]

Books by Michael Powell[edit]

Many of these titles were also published in other countries or republished. The list above deals with initial publications except where the name was changed in a subsequent edition or printing.


Awards, nominations and honours[edit]



  1. ^ It was Hitchcock who suggested using Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death.
  1. ^ a b c d e f Powell 1986
  2. ^ a b c Duguid, Mark. "Early Michael Powell." Screenonline. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  3. ^ "Features: The BFI 100." BFI, 19 February 2008. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d Robson, Leo (May 9, 2014). "Thelma Schoonmaker: the queen of the cutting room". FT Magazine. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  5. ^ "1st Berlin International Film Festival: Prize Winners." berlinale.de. Retrieved: 21 December 2009.
  6. ^ Crook, Steve. "Famous Fans of Powell & Pressburger." Powell-pressburger.org. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.
  7. ^ Rose, Steve. "Scorsese: my friendship with Michael Powell." guardian.co.uk, 14 May 2009. Retrieved: 1 September 2010.
  8. ^ "Awards History." edfilmfest.org.uk. Retrieved: 28 September 2009.

External links[edit]