Cinema: A genius without a job

Michael Powell, who would have been 90 yesterday, was England's most remarkable film-maker. But he was down on his luck when he first wrote to David Thomson
IT WOULD have been some time in the autumn of 1979 that I got Michael's letter. He had sent it - five pages in his spanking, vigorous fountain-pen hand - on 20 August from the Savile Club. But my London publisher had fumbled the pass somewhat and so the letter took months to reach me in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I was teaching film at Dartmouth College. The letter amazed me, but its date was horrifying, for here was Michael Powell, a man I had never met but whose work I revered, and he was writing to thank me for what I had said about him in a book. But months ago! He must think I didn't care. Whereas, not only did I reckon Powell to be the most remarkable film-maker England had produced. I also guessed that he had had hard times in the 1960s and 70s in all those years that followed the disgraceful treatment given to Peeping Tom by what passed as film criticism in his home country.

So I wrote back fast, and as I did so an idea occurred to me. The arts centre at Dartmouth, led by another Englishman, Peter Smith, had a couple of places a year for visiting artists-in-residence. Peter was sympathetic: he had grown up on those films Michael made with his partner Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s. The academic budget found a little money and so I wrote to Michael wondering if there was any chance that he could come and be with us for a term.

Of course, he said. I never knew then how much this genius was waiting to be asked to do almost anything. There were two terms when we could accommodate him - winter or spring of 1980. I described the options: the spring which went from snow to mud to glorious early summer, and the winter when the snows could be so deep you couldn't get out of your house. That had happened to my wife, Lucy, and me the winter before. "Oh, the winter," Michael wrote back - it was the first sign that, even at the age of 74, he preferred extremes, risk and nature at its most savage. Michael was never polite to old age.

I can still see his Cox's-orange-pippin cheeks against the snow, along with a pink tie and tweed suits that employed colours more regularly found in Matisse's Nice period. Michael came that winter term of 1980 and led a group of our best students through the task of scripting, designing and shooting a fragment of film based on events in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy. Michael had the rights on that book and he was hoping this piece of film would set up a professional production.

He found a schoolgirl dancer in the town to play the lead - I wonder if she ever recovered. He co-opted the Drama department's skilled scene designer, Bernie Vyzga, and in a matter of weeks they fashioned something in the style of The Thief of Baghdad. It wasn't what the students expected: they were raised on 1970s movies, on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, Rivette and so on. Their own films looked like New Wave pictures, and here was Michael creating a world of colour, light, decor and Gothic romance, and all in a studio.

But no one doubted him - or did so more than once. Even at 74, and a distinguished visitor, Michael could be stingingly sarcastic and aloof. He assumed his students were there to be his slaves: how else were films ever made? Didn't they want to learn the real thing? They did, and soon enough they respected his arrogant brilliance, the speed with which he saw things, the daring with which his imagination trounced drab reality. He cooked meals for them, too, and he might flirt - there was a talented red-headed woman in the class, and I had alerted her that Michael was famously crazy for red hair.

When I'd invited him, I'd wondered cautiously whether his wife would come with him. I knew there was a wife somewhere - Frankie. Years later, I discovered that she was actually the second wife, not the first. "Shouldn't think so," Michael had answered dreamily. And that was that. He could close the door when he wanted to. At the time, I had no notion that he had nursed and been with Pamela Brown in recent years. She died in September 1975, and was buried in the churchyard next to Michael's cottage in Gloucestershire. They had been ... lovers, I suppose, though familiars seems closer to it. And she had been his Celtic spirit in I Know Where I'm Going. He had wanted her, he told me, for the mother in Peeping Tom, the role Maxine Audley had played. He had wanted Brown's red hair.

Michael was not restful or retired in New Hampshire. We played a lot of his films that term, and he loved talking to the audience. He also began to write his autobiography, A Life in Movies. I saw the first pages in that terrific penmanship, and I offered Michael my library if he wanted to check facts. "No, I don't think so," he said. "I'll write it as I remember it." That's how the book is so emotional, and why he nearly got sued.

There were also rumours that Michael had a busy social life in Hanover. He was invited out a lot. He took malt whisky with him, and turned a few hearts, I believe. He met Lillian Gish. She came up that term, to be honoured, and we all went down to the banks of the frozen White River where she and DW Griffith had shot the ice-floe sequence for Way Down East in 1919. Michael was 10 years younger than Gish, and she was extra virgin still in the way that olive oil claims to be. But to see them together was like seeing Prospero and Miranda decades after The Tempest.

And Michael telephoned New York. A few years earlier, his greatest admirer, Martin Scorsese, had found Michael in England. They had become friends, and Marty that winter was editing Raging Bull in New York. As Michael telephoned the cutting room, late at night, he began to get into conversations with Thelma Schoonmaker, Marty's editor, a mere 40 years Michael's junior. Something developed. Michael went down to New York, met Thelma, and they fell for each other. Four years later, after Frankie's death, Michael and Thelma were married.

Our term ended at Dartmouth: it was only 10 weeks. But Michael never quite went back to England as a resident. He lingered and made attachments. Somehow or other, he met Francis Coppola, and by the end of the year, Michael was Director Emeritus for the Zoetrope company, living as best he could without a car in Los Angeles, trying to make sense of Wim Wenders' Hammett and exerting a general influence on the very theatrical One From the Heart.

At any event, in the late summer of 1981, I left Dartmouth. Lucy and I moved to San Francisco. We soon made friends there with Peter Scarlet, who was on the point of becoming the artistic director of the San Francisco Film Festival. Peter was then living across the bay nearly on the doorstep of San Quentin prison, in a cottage he was sub-letting from an old friend from New York and the making of Woodstock, a woman named Thelma Schoonmaker.

It was not long before Michael and Thelma took up residence in that cottage. Zoetrope could no longer afford anything, let alone an emeritus figure: One from the Heart had wiped the company out. But Michael was pursuing his autobiography, and Thelma was typing it up. So we were together again, dining on both sides of the bay, and rejoicing in the evident happiness of Michael and Thelma. Not that Michael was ever easy. In the 1980s, it happened that I also met two people who had worked with Michael in the 1940s - the cameraman Jack Cardiff and the actress Kim Hunter, who had been in A Matter of Life and Death. They were both still wary of Michael, of his temper and even his cruelty as a director. Even happy, there was a fire in Michael that could leap out at anyone - at Thelma even. It let one see how easily Michael must have made enemies, and I think that some day a biographer will need to realise this in explaining how Michael faltered after Peeping Tom. He was too good, too strong, to be beaten, But he could be so prickly it put him beyond help.

The first volume of Michael's great book was published in 1986. By then, he was doing all he could to finish the second. But his health was failing, and his sight was affected. I recall a day in New York, when Michael and Thelma were living in the cameraman Michael Ballhaus's apartment in the Village. I think Thelma was then assembling footage from The Last Temptation of Christ which was being shot in north Africa. I went to see them for brunch. Michael had warned me the place was hard to find. He would be standing on the street in one of his tweed suits, like a beacon.

I saw him far off and waved. He was looking at me without a flicker of response. We were in each other's arms before I realised he was nearly blind. So Thelma was not only editing Marty's films - and Marty would not be what he is without believing that every hour is meant for work - but transcribing a book that Michael was compelled to dictate on tape. His handwriting was now no more than a couple of spidery lines on a postcard. In addition, his concern for hard facts was drifting further. So the task of editing the book was that much harder.

He had always planned to die in Gloucestershire, in the cottage. He and Thelma had been married there, and they had had their best holidays there. In the end, Marty paid for Michael's last flight back in 1990 when he was very sick. And then Thelma guided volume two of A Life in Movies towards its eventual publication in England in 1992.

I never actually met Michael in England - though we took mock pride in both being old Alleynians, pupils of Dulwich College. He was the most commanding man I've ever met, breathtakingly sure of his vision and indifferent to anything else. He could be difficult, yes. But there was great warmth in him, too. And humour. I recall one night, when I was writing the life of David O Selznick, when we teased each other. I was trying to find out what had happened on Gone to Earth, the film he had made with Mrs Selznick, Jennifer Jones, while he wondered about all the letters I had seen - some from him - in the Selznick archive. For we each had our book to protect.

He would have been 90 this September - that is our excuse. Happily, he is better known now than at any time since the 1940s. Just as some women were the generation of The Red Shoes, would-be ballerinas inspired by that intoxicating romance about making Art, so now there are people driven to make films because of Powell. And Pressburger, of course. Last year's book by Pressburger's grandson, Kevin Macdonald, helps us see how much Michael needed the writing and the calm of Pressburger. They were together the Archers, a company that shot an arrow in the air with every film and rarely missed the target. The books say that Michael is dead. It's not true, only fact: he is in heaven, of course, where he has been introducing Technicolor. If only he could bring it back here, too. !