Posted in: Essays

Powell and Hitchcock

[This was written on May 15, 2001, for the Northwest Film Forum newsletter.]

Michael Powell worked uncredited as a set designer and title writer on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 movie Blackmail. Which is neither here nor there, but does serve to mark the accidental convergence of England‘s two most exciting directorial talents.

"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas [still from the Internet Encyclodedia of Cinematographers]
"Black Narcissus" - from the stage to the Himalayas

I was dreaming about movies the other night (it happens), and imagining a symposium in which key films would be set forth as teaching examples for a combination film series and class. An early Powell film came to mind, a personal favorite, one whose images and moods often claim me in idle moments. My wife (several of us were planning this series) objected that, while the film is enchanting, it really wasn’t appropriate as a specimen from which to draw lessons. I immediately recognized that she was right. Later—awake now, lying in bed—I recalled the dream and found myself musing on the idea of teaching from Powell’s films. And I realized that, apart from a course on Powell himself—or Powell–Pressburger, to ring in his august writing partner and co-creator of such irreplaceable classics as I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes, Emeric Pressburger—Powell movies would be inapt choices for a course on classical film style.

Not so for Hitchcock, of course. Perhaps no filmmaker is so encyclopedically appropriate to the study of cinema in the abstract—or in the specific, for that matter. Claude Chabrol once spoke of using Hitchcock as a virtual lexicon of cinema; anytime he, Chabrol, found himself stymied how to solve a problem scene, he just thought about Hitchcock’s body of work till he came upon the scene where The Master had accomplished thus-and-so, and the Frenchman would adjust his own scene accordingly.

Now, Powell left not only an extraordinary body of film but also two volumes of memoirs, the happiest record of “a life in movies” any film buff could ask for. Reading those books, one finds marvelous instances of ingenious invention and inspired collegiality—filmmaking on the ground floor, as it were, whether the ground floor is that of a soundstage with “Papa” Alfred Junge re-creating the Himalayas for Black Narcissus, or a London side street where Powell nabbed a shot for a quota quickie, or the field near Denham Studios where Powell photographed the landlocked ship of the wizard Jaffar for The Thief of Bagdad and made it seem to surge with wind and tide. Those are “lessons” in filmmaking, surely.

But for the bedrock cinematic reality of shot and edit, camera movement merging seamlessly with metaphysical imperative, we go to Hitchcock. Hitchcock is cinema-as-universal, perhaps cinema-as-universe. Whereas Powell’s cinema is a gloriously unruly dialogue with the multifariousness of existence, a dialogue with the world. But Hitchcock’s crystalline abstractions lead us to resee the world, while Powell’s wondrous, gregarious cinema leads us … back to Powell, mostly.

So which is the greater artist? Don’t even think about answering that. We’re immeasurably richer for having both, and being able to reenter their distinctive worlds again and again.

Oh, what was the early Powell movie I dreamed about, and knew while dreaming that I carried in my heart? It’s not a film Powell ever made. It doesn’t exist. But I’ll know it when I see it.

© 2001 Richard T. Jameson