Exploring the lesser known films of Powell and Pressburger

Jennifer Jones in Gone To Earth, directed by Powell and Pressburger.
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Ahead of a BFI season dedicated to their work, we explore some of the lesser known films of directors Powell and Pressburger.

When you think of the magic of mid-20th century cinema, there are usually two names that come to mind: Powell and Pressburger.

Throughout their lengthy career in filmmaking the British duo gifted us with outstanding cinema. From a deadly dance in The Red Shoes (1948), to a grapple with the afterlife in A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), to an exploration of vicious desire in Black Narcissus (1947), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have enchanted us, moved us, and compelled us with each of their terrific movies.

In celebration of their achievement, the BFI is putting on an incredible season dedicated to the pair called Cinema Unbound. Whilst, yes, it is going to be outstanding to see The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943) on the big screen again (indeed, any film with Anton Walbrook needs to be projected on the biggest screen possible,) I thought I’d take this opportunity to look at some lesser-known films from the Powell and Pressburger catalogue – films that will also be showing as part of the BFI season!

The Elusive Pimpernel (1950)

The French Revolution is at the centre of this vivid and colourful historical film.

Featuring a Powell and Pressburger favourite – David Niven – as the famous literary rogue, this is a delightful adaptation of Baroness Emmukska Orczy’s novel. The story revolves around the titular hero who, by day, plays the wealthy fop, but by night, risks his life to save French aristocrats from the guillotine. However, his two identities collide, and he finds his life is soon on the line.

Powell and Niven were reluctant to make the film, but were contractually obliged to do so. Sadly, we were denied this being a musical as Powell had originally intended, however, there are some incredibly striking shots and costuming.

The Battle Of River Plate (1956)

Shot in stunning Technicolor and VistaVision, Powell and Pressburger tackle the real life, titular war effort.

Starring Anthony Quayle and Peter Finch, The Battle Of River Plate revolves around the British naval ship which chased German battleship the Graf Spee to Uruguay. In attempt to cinch the victory, the captain risks losing his ship.

British war films often have an air of gung-ho camaraderie about them, but this engaging movie has gripping, intense battle sequences that will leave you breathless. It’s an exciting venture into a lesser-known World War II plot, and told with the vibrant visuals that this filmmaking team is famed for.

The lobby card for I Know Where I'm Going, directed by Powell and Pressburger.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

If there’s one thing that Powell and Pressburger know how to do, it’s a romance movie. Whether it is of unrequited love, a love that transcends the earthly plane, or obsessive love, their moving style of filmmaking is perfect for it.

I Know Where I’m Going! is a prime example of this. Starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, I Know Where I’m Going! revolves around Joan, a young woman who is sent to the Scottish Hebrides to marry a wealthy industrialist. However, stuck by the bad weather and charmed by the local islanders, she finds herself attracted to a mysterious naval officer.

Filmed on the Isle of Mull with cinematographer Erwin Hillier (the last of his collaborations with the directors), the film does an amazing job of capturing the wild weather of island life – where the wind and the rain belt down so strikingly that whilst watching you are fully immersed. Sumptuously filmed, this undeniably moving masterpiece is brimming with snappy dialogue and fully fleshed out characters. This is an effective piece on humanity and grappling with love.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Going from the last film Powell and Pressburger worked on with Erwin Hillier to the first, A Canterbury Tale is an incredibly stirring yet utterly strange World War II epic.

Making his way to Canterbury, an American soldier gets off at the wrong stop – Chillingbourne. There he encounters Alison Smith, as well as a serial criminal putting glue in women’s hair.

The directors and Hillier blended their styles together to create a moving, neo-romantic feel. The combative visuals of German Expressionism against British Realism collide in this poetic film that has little to no plot. Bizarre and mystifying, yet no less powerful, this is a celebration of the English countryside and lyrically so.

Gone To Earth (1950) and The Wild Heart (1952)

I’m placing these two films together because they are, essentially, the same film. The Wild Heart is a re-edited version of Gone To Earth that was made following a legal dispute between the directors and the producer.

Based on a novel by Mary Webb, the films revolve around Hazel, a woman in Victorian Shropshire who prefers animals to people and consults her mother’s book of spells often. Caught between a squire and a Baptist minister, a battle for her heart and soul ensues. It’s a terrific look at power and influence in religion.

The film was also produced by Hollywood’s David O. Selznick, who hated Powell and Pressburger’s finished version of Gone To Earth. So, he brought in prominent director Rouben Mamoulian to reshoot some of the sequences and add more exposition-heavy scenes – resulting in The Wild Heart. The original version of Gone To Earth was restored in 1985 by the BFI.

During the season, you’ll be able to compare the two movies and see exactly which one you prefer.

Cinema Unbound is playing at BFI Southbank and across UK cinemas from 16th October.

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