Film

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger – Scorsese's tribute to duo who inspired him

New documentary Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, is a two-hour-plus hit of pure Scorsese in enthusiastic educator mode

Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981.

Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, 1981. Pic: Courtesy Altitude.

Were you ever tempted by the once-ubiquitous online ads for Masterclass or BBC Maestro? The gimmick is essentially deluxe YouTube tutorials. Stumping up enough cash gets you access to video courses with celebrity teachers staring right down the lens at you. That means seven hours of Garry Kasparov improving your chess game. Five hours of vegetarian cooking explained by Marco Pierre White. Six hours of one-on-one acting tutelage with Helen Mirren. 

Martin Scorsese recorded a filmmaking seminar for Masterclass in 2018 (comprising 30 bitesize lessons, around four and a half hours in total). With the greatest respect to his fellow instructors like Bill Clinton, Ringo Starr and Mariah Carey, he is clearly a god-level guru: knowledgeable, passionate, eloquent, vastly experienced and – like the best teachers – just a little bit intimidating. 

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In the new documentary Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, you get a two-hour-plus hit of pure Scorsese in enthusiastic educator mode as he pays heartfelt tribute to his formative influences. Because as far back as he can remember he always wanted to be a filmmaker. Here, he persuasively makes the case that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – the English director and Hungarian screenwriter whose overlapping creative alchemy led to a remarkable run of films in the 1940s and 1950s – unlocked that desire in him. 

Made in England, directed by David Hinton but essentially hosted by the 81-year-old Scorsese, is a vigorous work of film scholarship that touches on all aspects of Powell and Pressburger’s careers, from their early UK war-time efforts like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) to their sumptuous imperial-phase masterpieces like Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). It also takes an unvarnished look at their attempts to work with hands-on Hollywood producers, which resulted in the back-to-back 1950 bombs The Elusive Pimpernel and Back to Earth

But the documentary also functions as a Scorsese autobiography. He made his first connection with Powell as an asthmatic indoor kid for whom films offered escapism; he was enthralled by swashbuckling technicolour extravaganza The Thief of Baghdad (1940) co-directed by Powell, even via the suboptimal experience of watching it on the family’s black-and-white TV. 

Scorsese’s own film-making career rapidly achieved lift-off and here he recalls seeking out his hero Powell during a visit to the UK in 1975. The once acclaimed director had fallen on hard times but seemed touched that a young firebrand of the New Hollywood movement was so appreciative of his work. It sparked a new chapter in Powell’s professional and personal life – he relocated to the US and ended up marrying Scorsese’s regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker. 

That close connection adds an extra emotional charge to Made in England, although at times it does resemble a particularly exuberant film studies tutorial. Scorsese takes great care to point out the stylistic flourishes that bled into his own work: how the meticulous build-up to a sabre duel in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is echoed in De Niro’s hunched walkout to the ring in Raging Bull (1980) or how the intense colour shifts amid the Himalayan nun freakouts of Black Narcissus are echoed in the similarly fraught Mean Streets (1973). 

Perhaps inevitably, more of the emphasis falls on Powell – an eccentric and loveable raconteur – than his more circumspect collaborator, although in the vintage interviews showcased here it is often Pressburger who nonchalantly delivers a killer line. It was also Powell alone who made Peeping Tom (1960), the transgressive proto-slasher movie that scandalised UK film critics and sentenced him to a period of unemployment Hollywood now calls “movie jail”, even if its lurid tale of a compulsive
filmmaker-turned-killer clearly still thrills Scorsese. 

Thanks in no small part to Scorsese’s championing, the work of Powell and Pressburger was rediscovered and reassessed in the 1980s, thankfully while they were still alive to enjoy some appreciation from a new generation of audiences. When discussing the ravishing The Red Shoes, Scorsese describes it as a film now “gloriously vindicated by history” but that could be applied to Powell and Pressburger’s legacy as a whole. 

When considering Scorsese’s own obsessions and filmography, you do not immediately think of happy endings. But he worked tirelessly to engineer one for his heroes, and this elegant documentary is the icing on that celebratory cake. 

Kathleen Byron and David Farrar in the Small Back Room
Kathleen Byron and David Farrar in The Small Back Room. Image: PR supplied

Room for more 

Powell and Pressburger followed up the opulent The Red Shoes with a bleak, black-and-white tale of wartime bomb disposal, alcoholism and domestic strife starring David Farrar and Kathleen Byron (reuniting after Black Narcissus). Often overlooked, The Small Back Room (1949) is a Scorsese favourite and will be rereleased soon in a new 4K restoration. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger is in cinemas now. The Small Back Room screens at the BFI, London on 28 May; on Blu-ray and digital from 3 June 

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