Michael Powell (director)

Michael Latham Powell (30 September 190519 February 1990) was a British film director, renowned for his partnership with Emeric Pressburger which produced a series of classic British films under the aegis of "The Archers."

Early life

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

Film career

Powell entered the film industry in through working with director Rex Ingram working at the Victorine Studios in 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 debut as a "comic English tourist" in Mare Nostrum ().

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 (). He also signed on in a similar role on Hitchcock's first "talkie", Blackmail (). In his autobiography, Powell claims he suggested the ending in the British Museum which was that first of Hitchcock's "monumental" climaxes to his films. Powell and Hitchcock remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock's life.

After scriptwriting on two productions, Powell entered into a partnership with American producer Jerry Jackson in 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 movies. During this period, he developed his directing skills sometimes making up to seven films a year.

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

By , 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 like Burmese Silver that were subsequently cancelled. 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

The original script of The Spy in Black followed the book quite closely, but was too wordy and didn't have a very good part 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."

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."

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 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."

The Archers

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.

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 as a solo effort. 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.

Family life

In 1927 Powell married Gloria Mary Rouger, an American dancer; they were married in France and stayed together for only three weeks. 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).

Subsequently, Powell was married to Thelma Schoonmaker from 19 May 1984 until his own death from cancer at his home in Avening, Gloucestershire. He also lived with actress Pamela Brown for many years until her death from cancer in 1975.


For his films with Emeric Pressburger, see Powell and Pressburger and Films by Powell and Pressburger

Early work

Many of his early films are disparagingly referred to as "quota quickies." Not all of them were, 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.

  • : Riviera Revels (co-director)
  • : Caste (uncredited) *
  • : Two Crowded Hours *
  • : His Lordship *
  • 1932: C.O.D. *
  • 1932: Hotel Splendide
  • 1932: The Star Reporter *
  • 1932: Rynox
  • 1932: The Rasp *
  • 1932: My Friend the King *
  • : Born Lucky *
  • : Something Always Happens
  • 1934: Red Ensign (US title: Strike!)
  • 1934: The Fire Raisers
  • : Some Day (aka Young Nowheres) *
  • 1935: The Price of a Song *
  • 1935: The Phantom Light
  • 1935: The Night of the Party (US title: The Murder Party)
  • 1935: The Love Test
  • 1935: Lazybones
  • 1935: The Girl in the Crowd *
  • : The Man Behind the Mask (reissued as Behind the Mask)
  • 1936: Crown Vs. Stevens (aka Third Time Unlucky)
  • 1936: The Brown Wallet *
  • 1936: Her Last Affaire

Those marked with a * are "Missing, believed lost"

Other films

From late 1930s onwards, most of Powell's films were in collaboration with Pressburger; his solo films were:

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


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

Other works

Books by Michael Powell

  • 1938: 200,000 Feet on Foula. London: Faber & Faber. (The story of the making of The Edge of the World was also reprinted as 200,000 Feet - The Edge of the World in the United States.)
  • 1956: Graf Spee. London: Hodder & Stoughton. (This book contains much information that Powell and Pressburger could not include in their film The Battle of the River Plate.)
  • 1957: Death in the South Atlantic: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. New York: Rinehart. (American edition of Graf Spee)
  • 1975: A Waiting Game. London: Joseph. ISBN 0-718-11368-3.
  • 1976: The Last Voyage of the Graf Spee. London: White Lion Publishers. ISBN 0-727-40256-0. (Second British edition of Graf Spee)
  • 1978: (with Emeric Pressburger) The Red Shoes. London: Avon Books. ISBN 0-804-42687-2.
  • 1986: A Life In Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • 1990: Edge of the World. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-15306-2. (This book is a paperback edition of 200,000 feet on Foula.)
  • 1992: Million Dollar Movie London: Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-59947-6. (This is the second part of Powell's autobiography.)
  • 1994: (with Emeric Pressburger and Ian Christie) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-571-14355-5. (This book includes memos from Churchill and notes showing how the script developed.)

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





  • Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Waterstone, 1985. ISBN 0-947752-13-7 , later edition, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16271-1.
  • Christie, Ian. Powell, Pressburger and Others. London: British Film Institute, 1978. ISBN 0-85170-086-1.
  • Christie, Ian and Andrew Moor, eds. The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Filmmaker. London: BFI, 2005. ISBN 1-84457-093-2.
  • Esteve, Llorenç, Michael Powell y Emeric Pressburger. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Catedra, 2002. ISBN 978-843-76195-07.
  • Howard, James. Michael Powell. London: BT Batsford Ltd, 1996. ISBN 0-7134-7482-3.
  • Lazar, David, ed. Michael Powell: Interviews. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. ISBN 1-57806-498-8.
  • Macdonald, Kevin. The Life and Death of a Screenwriter. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. ISBN 0-571-16853-1
  • Moor, Andrew. Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. ISBN 1-85043-947-8.
  • Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann, 1986. ISBN 0-434-59945-X.
  • Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. London: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN 0-434-59947-6.

External links

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