Powell & Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces

Andrew Moor,
Powell & Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces.
London & New York, I.B Tauris, 2005.
ISBN: 1 8504 3947 8
£25.00 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by I.B Tauris)

In his discussion of A Canterbury Tale (UK, 1944), Andrew Moor locates the film’s “magical” sensibility within the tradition of the English pastoral drama. A Canterbury Tale, much like the Shakespearean comedy or the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, depends upon a ludic, rural space (the English countryside, an enchanted forest, Prospero’s island) to dramatise private, subjective encounters with a strange, sexually charged or exotic world. Moor later goes on to draw comparisons between A Canterbury Tale and Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (USA, 1938), an analogy that he, sadly, lets go of all too quickly in his study of the cinematic partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (who dubbed themselves the Archers, after their production company). For Moor, “magic spaces” are at the heart of all the Archers’ filmic endeavours. And once again, in his analysis of The Red Shoes (UK, 1948), he calls upon The Wizard of Oz to draw parallels between Dorothy and Vicky, the tragic ballerina, whose “iconic footwear [mark] a girl’s entry into a strange Technicolour world but, ambivalently, also the means of her return home” (216). Dorothy’s ruby-slippered search for “home” is more than just an apt metaphor here: her negotiation of two distinct spaces or realms – the colour-drenched spectacle of Oz and the black-and-white comfort of Kansas – hints at Moor’s own attempt to reconcile the Archers’ work within dominant models of British cinema. As Moor asks, “Highly wrought they may be, yet despite their outright rejection of realism, what are Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes if not British?” (25) In examining “home” in relation to the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, Moor charts how British national identity figures in their work, at the same time as he seeks to disturb monolithic conceptions of national cinema through the recurring motif of “magic spaces”.

Discussions of Powell and Pressburger’s films usually focus upon their aesthetically idiosyncratic nature, as a specific point of comparison to the so-called “social realism” or docudrama models of 40s and 50s British cinema. Such accounts tend to position the Archers as Britain’s cinematic rebels, exceptions to the rules of national cinema because of their European or Romantic inclinations (Powell’s most famous claim that “all art is one” points to a Romantic fetishisation of the cinema as a total work of art). As Moor points out, the style of the Archers’ work varies considerably from travelogue footage to expressionism or black-and-white “noir” to artificial studio settings and heightened, stylistic experiments in cinematic excess; in a similar manner, it is often difficult to locate their films within a specific, generic framework because of their hybridised nature. A Canterbury Tale, for instance, fuses elements of the pastoral and the melodrama with realist and documentary techniques. The Archers’ generic narratives range from wartime battles to female melodramas and opera and ballet films. Yet, like any good auteurist (and there can be little doubt that Moor is very much entrenched auteurist analysis, tracing the historical progression from the Archers’ first collaboration, The Spy in Black (UK, 1939) through to The Tales of Hoffman (UK, 1951) then matching those films with Powell’s deep affection for Britain and his concurrent fascination with European traditions as well as the exilic inflections that Pressburger lent their productions in his adopted homeland), Moor finds a conceptual link across their films in the presentation of alternative areas, entrance points into different or “magical” spaces. Imaginative geographies, border-crossings, highly subjective states of memory, desire and fantasy (which account for the prevalence of noir, expressionism and melodrama in their works, as intense externalisations of the internal) and a revelry in performative excess; the gorgeous spectacle of films like The Red Shoes or The Tales of Hoffman render the cinema itself a magical space for the spectator.

Moor’s attempt to reconcile the “magic” of Powell and Pressburger outside of more traditional accounts of British cinema prompt valuable questions regarding just what constitutes national identity, as well as issues of aesthetic demarcation (in terms of genre, style and cinematic modes of narration). To that end, I’m reminded of Rick Altman’s wonderful attempt to pose the question, “How classical was classical narrative?”[1] Pointing to the melodramatic logic that subtends classical Hollywood narration – unmotivated events, heightened moments of spectacle, episodic or parallel as opposed to linear narration – Altman suggests that critics have paid too little attention to the melodramatic flair that exists even within the classical paradigm. In Altman’s terms, then, classical Hollywood narrative is never just classical but “a dynamic, multilevel system in which co-existing contradictory forces must regularly clash”.[2] To this extent, any filmic anomaly or indeed genre that doesn’t adhere to the acknowledged conventions of classical Hollywood narration (melodrama, musicals, noir) have often been dismissed as limited instances of “play” within a larger, textual order. Yet, such either/or models fail to give us a much-needed and more nuanced understanding of classical narration – or as in Moor’s attempt to link the Archers’ European eccentricities to a recognisably British framework – national cinema. Drawing upon Homi K. Bhaba, Moor argues that national cinema allows for difference, engages with international concerns and promotes hybridity, while still remaining nationally-specific as in the case of the Archers.

Interestingly, Moor also devotes a chapter to the melodrama of Powell and Pressburger in his discussion of Black Narcissus (UK, 1947), suggesting that the Archers’ brand of melodrama hints at the “excessive visceral impact” of their films. Unfortunately, for me, Moor never really captures the overtly sensuous quality of the Archers’ films that his idea of “magic spaces” seems to imply. Far too often, Moor rushes through the materiality of their images, their seductive and affective impact. Given that there have already been so many historical (and auteurist) studies on the Powell and Pressburger relationship, a more sustained attempt to articulate the “magic” of their films in terms of their emotional or kinetic charge would indeed have made an important addition to the study of their work. Once again, I’d like to return to Altman (and in a way back to Dorothy and Oz as well) when he writes that classical narration evokes all the “unstable equilibrium of a ballet dancer on point, straining her muscles to the utmost in order to appear motionless and calm”.[3] I suppose that’s what I find missing from Moor’s book: it is high time someone captured the elegant strains of Vicky’s ruby-slippered dance and the Archers’ films in all their glorious physicality. Now that would be magical.

Saige Walton
The University of Melbourne, Australia.


[1] Rick Altman, “Dickens, Griffith and Film Theory Today”, South Atlantic Quarterly 88:2, Spring, 1989, p.326.
[2] Altman, p.339.
[3] Altman, p.328.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 March 2006 | Last Updated: 7-Mar-06

About the Author

Saige Walton

About the Author

Saige Walton

Saige Walton is a Senior Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, Australia. She is the author of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Her articles on film-philosophy, film-phenomenology and the embodiment of film/media aesthetics appear in journals such as Culture, Theory and Critique, Cinéma & Cie, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Senses of Cinema, the New Review of Film and Television Studies and Screening the Past. Her current book deals with the embodiment and ethics of a contemporary cinema of poetry and is forthcoming from Wallflower/Columbia University Press.View all posts by Saige Walton →