A celluloid visionary

On the centenary of his birth, the director Michael Powell is finally being given his due
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It is a turnaround from the years following 1960's psychodrama Peeping Tom, for which Powell was vilified by critics, and which killed his career in the UK. But in his 1982 autobiography, he said: "We [he and Emeric Pressburger] have been privileged to live to see films which, 40 years ago, we hoped, modestly, would be considered good, hailed as masterpieces." Through his years in the wilderness, Powell never lost faith in his vision.

In the 1920s, Powell was working at his father's hotel in the south of France when he landed a job with the silent-movie director Rex Ingram. When Ingram's star fell, Powell came back to England, to try his luck at Elstree. Through his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock, he got a chance to co-direct a now forgotten comedy of manners, Caste, and soon after was directing "quota quickies", which cinemas had to show with every American film. Most were farces or cheap thrillers. Powell knew he could do better. In 1936, he did.

He had fallen in love with the story of the evacuation of St Kilda, an island in the Hebrides. He begged for, and got, a budget of £1,000 for The Edge of the World, to tell the story of the death of an island as its inhabitants leave for the mainland. Powell hand-picked every extra, insisted on filming on location and risked himself, his cast and his crew to capture the right shot - during the film's mountain-climbing race, the terror on the faces of his actors was real. "It was not a thirst for glory," he said, "but the love of the art which I served." Two years later, he was to meet a man who shared this love.

Powell met Pressburger while both were under contract to Alexander Korda's London Films. They were put to work adapting J Storer Clouston's novel The Spy in Black. Pressburger quickly transformed the plot into a taut thriller with a German hero - in 1938, in the run-up to war. Powell took a film crew to the Orkneys to shoot the waters of Scapa Flow. He later said: "I had always dreamt of this phenomenon: a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist, who would have wonderful ideas, which I would turn into even more wonderful images."

After the success of their next two collaborations - another spy thriller called Contraband, and a propaganda piece about Nazis loose in Canada, 49th Parallel - Powell and Pressburger formed their own production company. They called it The Archers, and used a target as their trademark, with an arrow thudding into the golden bull's-eye (or near it, depending on how successful they felt they'd been).

Then came the glory years. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp followed a soldier and the three women he loves from the Boer War to the Second World War. Winston Churchill objected to the film's message that, in 1943, honour had become a debased currency. "This is not a gentleman's war," says one character. He was right, and the audiences knew it.

Next up was A Matter of Life and Death, in which David Niven fights for his life and love in a monochrome heaven, bleeding into a Technicolor world down below. After the war came Black Narcissus, a claustrophobic, erotic film about a community of nuns in the Himalayas destroyed by the burgeoning sexuality of one of their wards. This time, Powell decided that the mountains would be recreated in the studio: the furthest afield the crew went was West Sussex.

He took the artificiality one step further in 1948, with his reworking of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes. The story of an ambitious ballet dancer, Vicky, is woven into the fairy tale; Powell commissioned an original 17-minute ballet, so that both on and off the stage Vicky's red shoes could dance her to death.

The run of bull's-eyes - which included A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, Gone to Earth and The Small Back Room - came to an end in 1951, with The Tales of Hoffman. A film adaptation of Offenbach's intricate opera is something only Powell would have attempted; vitally to him, the film was "composed" - a fusion of music, movement and art. It was the culmination of his ambition, and it proved too visionary. It was sumptuous, rich, gorgeous - and misunderstood.

"I fell in love in 1921 when my celluloid mistress was the most beautiful, fascinating, irresistible object in the world," wrote Powell. It was a tempestuous relationship, but it has enriched the world.

The Michael Powell season runs at the NFT, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) throughout August; The Edinburgh International Film Festival (0131-623 8030) runs from 17-28 August

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