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Legendary Directors: Michael Powell



Peeping Tom

Although his films may not have been fully appreciated when they were made, Michael Powell has now come to be recognised as one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic and remarkable film-makers. Indeed, the colourful and powerfully emotional charged works of the British director have become firm favourites for many big name Hollywood directors of today.

The Spy in Black
The Spy in Black (1939)

Born in 30 September 1905 in the English county of Kent, Powell was brought up partly in England and France. He worked for a bank initially, but, as a movie addict, he joined Rex Ingram’s film unit in 1925, taking on a variety of odd jobs. He soon moved his way up through the studio system, starting off as a stills cameraman for Alfred Hitchcock.

Powell made his directorial debut with Two Crowded Hours (1931) and began directing quota-quickies. These low budget productions helped provide a show case for the director’s talent.

It was The Edge of the World (1937) that brought Powell to the attention of the critics, largely because it was shot on location in Scotland and had was distinctive for its gritty realism. However, it was his next film The Spy in Black (1939) which would prove to be significant since it was on this that he first worked with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, an emigree Hungarian Jew.

Between them, under the banner of ‘The Archers’ they shared joint credits for an important series of films through the 1940’s & 1950’s.

Black Narcissus (1947), which stars Deborah Kerr, tells the story of an order of missionary nuns who live high on a windswept bluff in the Himalayas in a building once used for a harem. A combination of altitude, isolation, and clash of cultures leads to emotional release.

David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US).

Stairway to Heaven (1946), titled A Matter of Life and Death in the UK, stars David Niven as a British wartime aviator who cheats death and must argue for his life before a celestial court.

Probably The Archers’ best known and best loved movie is The Red Shoes (1948), which tells the backstage story of a young dancer who earns the scorn of the authorative impressario figure who oversees her when she falls for the composer of a ballet she is performing.


When his collaboration with Pressburger came to an end in the fifties, Powell went on to make the controversial Peeping Tom (1960) on his own. The film, which told the tale of a voyeuristic serial killer, was attacked for its ‘bad taste’ and ‘sadism’. It shocked audiences when it was released. Today it is recognised as a powerful study in the dark side of voyeurism.

Peeping Tom
Peeping Tom (1960)

Having received such criticism, Powell’s career took a low turn in later life. He did not direct again after Return to The Edge of the World (1978).

He did, however, live to see his often underrated work finally given its due by a younger generation of critics and filmmakers. US director Martin Scorsese was a particular fan of the British director.

Retrospectives of the films helped make The Archers respectable to the critics. Powell ended his days as adviser in Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios, and married Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, (who is Scorsese’s editor of choice). Powell died of cancer in England in 1990.



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