We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

Made in England: Three Classics by Powell and Pressburger

Exploring "The Small Back Room", "The Tales of Hoffmann", and "Peeping Tom"—a trio of singular visions by Britain's most imaginative rogues.
Duncan Gray
MUBI is showing Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) in November and December, 2017 in the United States in the series Powell & Pressburger: Together and Apart.
The Tales of Hoffmann
The story goes that when they were casting their first flat-out masterpiece together, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger sent a letter to an actress outlining a manifesto of their production company, called "the Archers." At the time, the Archers was freshly incorporated, with Powell and Pressburger sharing all credit for writing, directing, and producing, and their manifesto had five points. Point one was to ensure that they provided their financial backers with "a profit, not a loss," which may raise eyebrows among those who are used to manifestos burning with anti-capitalist fire—but then, in a system like commercial cinema, profitability buys freedom. The rest was idealism and cheek: a rallying cry for artistic independence, for staying in front of audience expectations ("we must be a year ahead of the times"), and last but certainly not least, for "the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man."
A respect for collaboration was fitting for a creative partnership that combined all the conventional notions of film authorship into one title card and then divided it between two men. It is if to say that the line between who-did-what on a body of work is not only historically murky, but irrelevant in the face of the work itself. (For what it's worth, Powell brought the background as a director, Pressburger as a writer.) But even then, there was also the way that the Archers logo signifies a merry band of rogues. As they hit their peak, where would they have been without the legendary Technicolor camerawork of Jack Cardiff or the familiar faces of their acting troupe, where a supporting player in one film could very well be the lead in the next? Their most famous films are, justifiably, Colonel Blimp, a jolly wartime morale booster that turns unexpectedly towards deep melancholy; A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which an elaborate dream world helps process the trauma of World War II; Black Narcissus (1947), a florid melodrama about nuns in a remote corner of India; and The Red Shoes (1948), a marvel about living and dying for art. You owe it to yourself to see them all, and their peak makes you wonder how long such an enterprise could last. Which would come first? Losing profitability? Falling behind the times? Or the two chief collaborators wanting to go their separate ways? 
Of course, Powell and Pressburger had existed separately before the Archers, and would continue to exist again. (Though not without reunions—Pressburger would contribute the script to Powell's final film in the 1970s.) But as the Archers' collaborative identity solidified, point four of their five point manifesto stands out: 
4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth...
Within a few years of defending truth over escapism, Powell and Pressburger had created some of the most bewitching, luxuriant fantasias ever put to celluloid. Which raises an idea—perhaps the idea—central to their work: are "fantasy" and "escape" the same thing? Is fantasy the opposite of truth, or are the two more closely linked than one might let on? Far more than most, their films keenly understand that "fantasizing" is not always something done voluntarily. And time and time again, their heroes and heroines find themselves, for lack of a better word, overtaken: they are helpless against the way that, say, the mountain air of the Himalayas, or a pair of red ballet shoes, or the very rocks and soil of Great Britain itself could stir something inside you to overwhelm all self-control. Literary analysis might call it "pathetic fallacy"; an audience could just as easily call it magic. And part of the enduring, peculiar tension of their films is that the rapturous magic might be only in your head—and its effect isn't always benevolent. François Truffaut once said that English cinema was inherently doomed to a lack of passion or expression. No filmmakers put the lie to that claim as thoroughly as Powell and Pressburger. Their films, together and apart, overflow with both. The three classics presented here—The Small Back Room (1949), The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), and Peeping Tom (1960), all tragically out of print on U.S. home video at the moment—vary wildly in genre and subject. Yet each, so potently, so intelligently, so defiantly, bristles at the idea of boundaries.
Any great filmmaker, or team of filmmakers, deserves at least one candidate for the status of "shadow classic": a fairly atypical film that has flown below the radar, crowded out by its more famous siblings and direly in need of more attention. For the Archers, I would humbly nominate The Small Back Room. A rare return to black and white during their postwar exploration of Technicolor, The Small Back Room is something of an aberration: the closest they came to a true film noir, where any hope of magic has been pared to the bone and smothered in disillusionment. But then, we are in a version of England at the height of WWII as seen by Sammy Rice (David Farrar). Sammy is a scientist and engineer in the service of Her Majesty's government, evaluating new weapons and called in to assist when the Germans begin dropping booby-trapped explosives over Britain. He is also the most brooding, wounded man in the Archers' canon. Having lost a foot, and dissatisfied with his painkillers, he's slipped into alcoholism, and though his girlfriend Sue (Kathleen Byron, more loving than anyone could ask for) does her best to keep him stable, he is pathologically determined to wear her infinite patience down. Farrar is magnificent, playing Sammy as a figure of both charismatic righteousness and deep self-pity, loathing his own body and the snide institutional indifference that surrounds him. This is a film littered with bombs, and its most palpable danger is that a man might implode.
When it opened in the U.S., the film was retitled Hour of Glory, which is a standard war movie title, a decent noir title, and utterly inappropriate for the film Powell and Pressburger had made. "The Small Back Room" is much more fitting, evocative of claustrophobia, secrecy, anonymity, and being a cog in a large machine. Sue, who works a clerical position, has to fend off condescension with a smile, while Sammy's superiors are a carousel of pigs and dolts. Powell and Pressburger were not new to such critiques, sneaky or (as here) utterly blatant. Colonel Blimp was famously chastised by the Churchill government for carrying messages a good deal more complicated than "keep calm and carry on." A Matter of Life and Death devoted a sequence to cataloging Britain's colonial sins at a time when British colonialism was very much up in the air. Powell and Pressburger's first collaboration, the 1939 espionage thriller The Spy in Black, plays with our sympathies in a startling way for a continent about to burst into flames. 
It is not that any of those films are anti-English—indeed, Colonel Blimp may be the most proudly English movie ever made—but that there is something in their partnership that insists on a critical eye. And so The Small Back Room is not only sharp, not only shadowy, but sneakily contains moments of their impish comedy. (When the camera moves through an international military headquarters, we catch snatches of dialogue in different languages. The line "Fill out all fifteen forms and resubmit in triplicate" is chosen to represent Britain.) It is one of the best scripts the duo ever had, with three threads coiling tightly around each other. The film is a suspense picture—a bomb defusing sequence at the end rivals anything in The Wages of Fear (1953). It is a satire of British bureaucracy. And most of all, like a precursor to Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950), it is a candid portrait of addiction, where the hero—the one we must count on—compulsively lashes out at the people who love him. 
The Small Back Room
"That noble remedy doesn't do me any good," Sammy says, looking at a bottle of liquor. "But at least it leaves me not caring whether it hurts." Which brings us to the film's one outright fantastical moment: when Sammy has a brief, intense dream in which that same bottle looms fifteen feet tall and threatens to crush him. Its explosive surrealism sticks out from the rest of the film, and in truth it could have been left on the cutting room floor without dragging The Small Back Room down in the slightest. And yet the film wouldn't quite be an Archers production without it. The context of their work as a whole shows the desire to visualize mental states in the most extravagant way possible; the context of The Small Back Room provides the stultifying environments that make such bursts of baroque expression not only desirable, but inevitable. It is the silent cinema of German Expressionism adapted to England; even before he outright hallucinates, the cozy patterned wallpaper of Sammy's tiny flat feels as ominous as the world of Caligari.
So how should such a story end? Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1946), which had covered similar territory to great acclaim, ended optimistically, though it felt more like sugar-coated show business than anything else. In a Lonely Place was smart (or cynical) enough to doubt that such people and relationships can be easily healed. But it is in The Small Back Room's coda—its final moments between Farrar and Byron—where a sense of lovely enchantment starts to take hold in this shadowy world. The two of them don't want an hour of glory; they want an hour together, and their final optimism at how to make do feels both tentative and truthful. No matter what other trends the film fits into—war films, noirs, the postwar impulse towards social engagement—it is a film of the Archers, where romanticism, even if small, even if tempered, can and must flower in the unlikeliest of circumstances. 
The Tales of Hoffmann, coming two years later, is practically the reverse of The Small Back Room. If their flirtation with noir had scaled back their extravagance into a tight script, The Tales of Hoffmann is everything extravagant about the Archers distilled, amplified, and sustained for two hours with feverish devotion. Powell spoke of what he called a "composed film," in which vivid imagery was set to music to create an operatic cinema. They had done sequences like that before—the dialogue-free ballet in The Red Shoes, or the climax of Black Narcissus. But suppose you tried it for an entire movie? And so they collaborated with the famed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham to take an opera—the original is by Jacques Offenbach—and adapt it to film. They would toss their camera through the looking glass with the Royal Philharmonic in tow, and Moira Shearer, the classically trained star of The Red Shoes, would return to dance. The picture that resulted may be the most experimental folly that the Archers, for whom "folly" is far from a dirty word, ever dared attempt. 
The story is elemental. While his lady love Stella performs at the ballet, the young Hoffmann (based on the real-life writer E.T.A. Hoffmann) regales his friends at a nearby tavern with outlandish stories of his affairs and adventures with three women. Meanwhile, a mysterious shadowy figure stands in the wings—and appears in each of Hoffmann's three vignettes—forever blocking him from the object of his desire. As the spectacle unfolds, the Archers shift through different spaces: the "real world," in which Hoffmann drinks and spins; the show-within-a-show, where Stella dances; and Hoffmann's incredible tales themselves, each given a different visual scheme. And it's a sign of how well-suited the Archers were to the world of operatic grandeur that these principle spaces—reality, performance, and fantasy—are all utterly indistinguishable from one another. None appears more or less unreal. 
The Tales of Hoffmann
Admittedly, The Tales of Hoffmann is something of an acquired taste these days, and not just because opera is an acquired taste itself. Of all the fantasies they ever made, this is the Archers' darkest and most unrelenting. There is a cold, unsettling, even nightmarish quality to it. While the Technicolor wonderlands of A Matter of Life and DeathBlack Narcissus, and The Red Shoes felt expansive, each lavish set of Hoffmann feels like it's been drained of air. The film's production designer, Hein Heckroth, had come from the world of ballet. He had done the sets for both The Red Shoes and The Small Back Room, and it must be noted with tantalized curiosity that the look of Hoffmann owes as much to the Archers' noir as to their ballet film. These are sets of entrapment, with gnarled, febrile shapes grasping at the characters, who seem uncannily ignorant of the danger in every waking step. To that, you can add the athleticism of the dancers and the thunder of the music itself. If you watch the film with subtitles, the sung dialogue will be more lucid, but you could easily go without it. The story is simple enough to be felt, the voices existing only as shapes. The dedication to theater is relentless: the sets look like stages, and even the opening credits, set to the sound of the orchestra tuning up, feel like flipping through the program before the lights go down at the Royal Albert Hall. 
But the thrilling precision of color and motion is pure cinema, and there is one particular moment that shows how much good film can do for a story like this. At the end, as Hoffmann's three tales come to a close, the heroines of each appear on screen to share a stage. And very delicately, the three fantasy characters merge into his real-life love. It is a simple superimposition, as elemental as the story itself, and a truly transcendent scene in a film so often caught in the moment at the expense of the larger picture. The figure of Hoffmann may have entered this world as a real person and been fictionalized by Offenbach, but he becomes enshrined in cinephilia as the Archers' quintessential tragic hero: he ends the film, as drunk as Sammy Rice, so wrapped in his fantasy that he's destined to never find real satisfaction—a man forever chasing his desire, leaving only art in his wake. And yet the sheer sensation of the film bely any notion that this is a cautionary tale: Powell and Pressburger are clearly in love with the idea of human passion so boundless that even a work as excessive as The Tales of Hoffmann, on stage or on screen, can only unlock what was already there. Like Hoffmann, they have been seduced by possibilities of the unreal. And if, by the finale, the film has gotten under your skin, you have been seduced too. 
Powell's Peeping Tom, released in 1960, flips this seduction on its face, applying it as a critique of the very mechanisms of cinema itself. By then, Powell and Pressburger had ended their partnership, and Peeping Tom can hardly be mentioned without noting the blow the film dealt to Powell's career. It is something of a media theory horror movie, in which a serial killer (Carl Boehm), working odd jobs on the fringe of the film business, quite literally kills women with his camera. (The term "male gaze" was still over a decade away, and film professors forever owe Powell a debt of thanks for a perfectly sordid thriller to assign alongside Laura Mulvey's landmark essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema".) Even in the year of Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom was too perverse for success, and British reviewers by and large reviled it. "We were all hit by the first snuff film we'd ever seen," Alexander Walker, the longtime critic for the Evening Standard, would later recall. Nearly two decades after the Archers' manifesto, it seems Powell had made a film too many years ahead of the times; it's easy to imagine that if Peeping Tom had come out ten years later, next to the likes of Fellini Satyricon (1969) or Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), its shocks would have been more at home, or at least less lonely. But time turned for the film anyway. Today, it is the only of Powell's solo films as critically esteemed as his best collaborations with Pressburger. 
Peeping Tom is a grab-bag of fiendish tricks and rueful jokes, not the least of which is that Boehm's Mark, that camera-wielding predator, happens to work in an industry where so many hungry women are eager to offer themselves up to the lens. Another is that Mark's most blindly enthusiastic victim is played by none other than Moira Shearer, who returns from The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman to dance for Mark's camera—or is it Powell's?—and is essentially directed to death. And then there is the matter that Mark's dead father, the man whose abuse made Mark a psychopath, is played in a cameo by Powell himself. The entire film is dotted with such gamesmanship: cameras filming cameras, scenes within scenes, and fantasy, art, and reality again becoming tangled. When we're introduced to a beautiful, scantily clad model at a photo shoot, the film spies on her figure in a way that's reminiscent of the opening scene, when Mark films a prostitute he plans to kill. It is a cannily upsetting rhyme, and any visual pleasure in the audience is quickly punished when the model—so sexualized in profile—turns to face the camera and reveals that the other side of her face is deformed. In Peeping Tom, the greatest fear and the greatest power is the control over what you see. And if, as an audience member in the dark, your only defense against a horror film is to shut your eyes completely, you hardly have any defense at all.
This idea of cinematic voyeurism was Hitchcock's territory as well. "We've become a race of Peeping Toms," Thelma Ritter so memorably said in Rear Window (1954), and gallons of ink have been spilled on how Vertigo (1958) is the story of a watcher becoming obsessed with an actress. But Peeping Tom doesn't have the crowd-pleasing commercial instincts of Rear Window, and despite its self-reflexive touches, it never strikes me as a confessional work—at least, not the way that Vertigo is so intimately horrified at its own fetishes. Peeping Tom is more a booby-trapped explosive of its own: the work of an agent provocateur, a suggestive firebomb to rattle expectations of what life as a moviegoer means. The director who had brought ballet and opera to the screen rolled the dice on a shrewd exercise in bad taste, and he filmed it with just as much sensuous wit. (The atmosphere, with swathes of red light, is certainly expressive—what would it be like to see Peeping Tom as an opera?)
Peeping Tom
So in case Walker's classification of Peeping Tom as a "snuff film" causes trepidation, know that the film is (perhaps disturbingly) rather mild by today's standards, at least in terms of what's actually shown. While I was growing up, the CSI franchise did worse three times a week on television. But, having had the good fortune to see it in a theater, where at least part of the packed audience clearly had no idea of what they were getting into, I can testify that Peeping Tom still packs a perverse wallop in its natural habitat. Surely, part of this perversity is because Peeping Tom—not a "snuff film," but a thriller that asks where commercial cinema draws that line—has the psychological and philosophical intelligence to meaningfully provoke. A serial killer movie like, say, David Fincher's Seven (1995), while infinitely grislier, is good clean fun by comparison. 
One of its best and most disturbing moments has no blood or killing at all: the scene where Mark shows old home movies to his curious neighbor Helen (Anna Massey). Mark's father, it seems, insisted on recording everything—including Mark's reaction to the death of his mother. Mark is overtaken, guiding Helen intensely through just how much his father filmed: "And this, her funeral! And this, her burial! And this...her successor." Helen becomes increasingly aghast, as it dawns on her just how twisted the compulsion to turn life into film can be. "He wanted a record of a growing child," Mark says, describing his father. "Complete in every detail. If such a thing were possible." It is brain-tickling origin for a horror villain—a Frankenstein monster created by an abomination of cinema, a movie brat paying for the sins of the father. 
Perhaps the filmmakers sensed the change in the air; 1960 also saw, among many other arthouse game-changers, the debut of Jean-Luc Godard, who would spend his career returning to the idea that any person, object, or event could become something more—or something less—once the camera was finished with it. Mark, of course, can't escape the law forever. But he doesn't need to—he just needs to finish his film. And the formal potency of Peeping Tom represents one of Powell's most daring rebukes, even if it took his career down with it. The movie will ask dangerous questions about its own system but refuse to answer them. It will elevate sleazy, sometimes preposterous pulp material to art by dragging respectability towards the gutter. It will recognize that some things are too sacred, too private, or too dangerous to have a camera record them. And then it will record them anyway.
In a way, a fall from grace followed by an elevation to cinematic Valhalla is the most fitting way the story of Powell and Pressburger should end. Even as they became immortalized in the canon, their best work still looks like some of film history's most glorious outliers, and their combination of sensory immediacy and mordant, defiant peculiarity has inspired many a cineaste. The late George A. Romero cited The Tales of Hoffmann as the film that made him want to become a filmmaker, while Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation assisted in Hoffmann's restoration, remains their most high-profile fan among many. Filmmaking can be, to put it mildly, a messy business, as unforgiving as the impresario of The Red Shoes, as bureaucratically entrenched as the offices of The Small Back Room, and as darkly absurd as the soundstage life of Peeping Tom. But the results themselves may be all the folly or enlightenment you need. Aim for truth, aim for provocation, aim with a sharp eye—but never deny passion, wit, or the chance of ecstasy, for as long as you can get away with it. "We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks," the Archers manifesto said in 1943, with their best classics still to come. "But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing."


Michael PowellEmeric PressburgerLong Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.