U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cinematic Reputation

Alfred Hitchcock’s Self-Portrait
(from the opening title sequence of
Alfred Hitchcock Presents)

[This post kicks off the USIH Blog’s participation in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III.  This year’s blogathon, which began yesterday, May 13, and runs through Friday, May 18, focuses on Alfred Hitchcock.  Money is being raised for the National Film Preservation Foundation’s The White Shadow Project, which will record Michael Mortilla’s score to this 1924 silent that Hitchcock wrote and on which he worked as an Assistant Director, and will make the movie available for free streaming online.  Those interested in donating can click this link or the thumbnail announcing the blogathon over in the right margin.  For the Love of Film III is being cohosted by Farran Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and Rod Heath of This Island Rod.]


In his two-volume autobiography, the magnificent A Life in Movies (1986) and the messier but still fascinating Million-Dollar Movie (1992), Michael Powell writes extensively about his fellow English-born director, Alfred Hitchcock.  Seven years his junior, Powell evinces great admiration for Hitchcock, calling him, along with Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin, one of “three great artists [who] have saved the film business from going completely off the rails in my time” (ALIM, 183).  But despite his repeated praise for Hitchcock, Powell’s feelings about him appear to be more complicated than he is willing to explicitly admit.

In ALIM, Powell reports a story from the time in the late 1920s when he  was working as the head of the stills department of British International Pictures, where Hitchcock had established himself as a director. Hitchcock took a shine to Powell and insisted that he personally take stills for his movies.  According to Powell, while completing The Manxman (1929), Hitchcock asked him to help improve the final act of the screenplay for Blackmail (1929), which would become Hitchcock’s first sound movie:

When we came to the chase through the streets, I broached an idea that I had been maturing for a while. 

“Hitch! Don’t let’s do an ordinary chase through the streets like you did in The Lodger. Let’s take it into some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.” 

“What do you mean? What do you think Michael means, Alma?”  Alma [Hitchcock’s wife and screenwriting collaborator] looked encouragingly at me. 

I had been thinking of my visits to the British Museum Reading Room to see my grandfather, and the impression that had been made upon me by his bent figure, at his desk, dwarfed by the height of the shelves and topped by the glass dome over the whole vast room, and I went on: “Let’s have him slip into the British Museum at night and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.” 

Hitch, being a Londoner, had never been near the British Museum Reading Room, but he saw the possibilities of the idea, and so I think I can make a modest claim to being the inventor of the Hitchcock Climax, unveiled to the world through the chase in Blackmail, and which led us all on many a delightful dance from Tower Bridge to Mount Rushmore, from the Statue of Liberty to you name it. (ALIM, 193)

Powell says no more about this and immediately moves on to other matters (he would, in a sense, try his own hand at a Hitchcock Climax in his second collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, Contraband(1940)).  But this little anecdote is, I think, very telling.

 Not only does Powell claim to have invented the Hitchcock Climax (apparently after much careful thought), but, at least initially, Hitchcock doesn’t even understand the idea before Powell spells it out to him in great detail.  And Powell at least implicitly relates Hitchcock’s lack of understanding to the defective nature of the latter’s Englishness.  Powell writes, just before relating the above anecdote about Blackmail, that Hitchcock, as a Cockney from the East End, had a great way with lower-middle class characters and actors, and possessed a “knowledge of London [that] was peculiar and delightful, east of Temple Bar.”  But his knowledge of the West End, according to Powell, was limited and entirely conventional.  And “beyond city streets,” “Hitch was not enthralled by local colour” (ALIM 193, 191).

Contrast this with Powell, the self-described “Man of Kent,” who opens A Life in Movies with a long and poetic invocation of the Kentish countryside in which he grew up, and whose films, more often than not, are positively obsessed with local color, from Canada to Uruguay, Monte Carlo to London, Scotland to Shropshire, the Himalayas to the Netherlands, Heaven itself to Kent.  Powell, it should be added, never draws this contrast with Hitchcock explicitly. But it is as clear as day to any reader of his autobiography.

Instead, Powell largely discusses Hitchcock as a parallel figure to himself.  And the most significant parallel he draws, by the time we get to volume two of the autobiography, Million-Dollar Movie, involves one of the great themes of Powell’s books: the quest for artistic independence within a motion-picture industry that seems structurally designed to destroy it.  Powell correctly sees Hitchcock, like himself, as a seeker of such independence. The one great difference between the two directors’ quests–and here Powell is explicit in drawing the contrast–is that Powell and his partner in movie-making Emeric Pressburger sought their independence by keeping their distance from Hollywood while, fairly early in his career, Hitchcock moved to California and tried to find independence in the belly of the beast.

This, in turn, becomes the theme of another Powell anecdote about Hitchcock, this one appearing in Million-Dollar Movie.  In March, 1952, Powell travelled to the U.S. in a small plane largely, he reports, for the experience of flying over the Greenland icecap.  But once in the U.S., Powell meets in New York with a wide array of past and potential artistic collaborators and financiers, including his old friend Raymond Massey, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Arthur Loew, and David O. Selznick.  All want to work with Powell and are willing to shower him with money. But Powell, untempted, dislikes and rejects the proposals and repeatedly insists on his artistic independence. (MDM, 182-194)

Flying on to Hollywood, Powell arranges meetings with a number of figures who have maintained their artistic integrity: tea with Igor Stravinsky and dinner with Alma and Alfred Hitchcock.  Hollywood, Powell judges, had been very hard on Hitchcock, precisely because he had successfully asserted his artistic independence:

Hitch was off-balance–neuritis.  He’d had it for nearly half a year, and it was souring his life.  He had won too much independence for himself, too much responsibility for his choice of paths through the Hollywood jungle.  They were narrow and dangerous trails, and one never knew where they led; sometimes nowhere, sometimes to the open country, where he was a master among masters, and all the time invisible. But near, he could hear the crashing of great beasts, their sudden roar as they charged, and their snarls as they fought and tore over the quivering flesh of their victim. 

For make no mistake, these Hollywood monsters didn’t want Hitch to succeed. They don’t want any artist to succeed on his own.  They fear the creative talent. Possessing none, they claim the power of money. Possessing the money, they claim the credit, too. It was in this twilight world that Hitch was preparing and making his films.  He had thought he could play the Hollywood game as well as these beasts.  Later he would put stars like Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren under contract to him personally, and this would make his enemies fear him, and envy him, even more.  Mostly they tried to seduce him and buy him back by offering enormous sums of money at a time when he was struggling to finance his own productions and knew only too well how underfinanced he was. It was a heroic struggle, conducted mostly in secrecy except to his agent, and it went on for years. 

The strain on Hitch was enormous. Only Alma, and a few devoted friends, knew how great it was.  I think that I love Hitchcock more than all his films, for the struggle that he put up to keep the independence of the filmmaker in Hollywood. And in the end, it was a true Hitchcock picture, Psycho–no stars, just know-how–that saved him from going to the wall . . . (MDM, 198)

With the major difference of Hitchcock’s decision to pursue his career in Hollywood, Powell emphasizes the similarities between his career aspirations and Hitchcock’s and his great admiration for his fellow director. And he returns to these similarities–and their mutual admiration–as he summarizes his long relationship with Hitchcock and concludes his discussion of his 1952 dinner with Alma and Alfred…though he concludes with an ambiguous contrast:

I had known and loved Hitch, as a friend and fellow craftsman, for forty years. At first glance, each recognized in the other the same confidence, the same mastery of the medium.  For a year or more Hitch held out his hand to me in what had become for me a strange land, England.  Abroad, in Europe [at the beginning of their careers], Hitch with UFA and I with MGM and Rex Ingram in France had once and for all caught a glimpse of the grail.  That glimpse was enough for us for the rest of our lives and careers.  Hitch’s way was to impose himself upon the world, to exploit that marvelous personality and quick wit; mine–well, we shall see what mine was, when we come to the end of this very long book. (MDM, 199-200)

But Powell fails to mention another significant similarity between himself and Hitchcock. And he declines to discuss, at least directly, what appears to me (and I suspect to Powell as well) to be the most significant difference between their careers.


Both Powell and Hitchcock were unusual not only in their quests for artistic independence but in their desire to create a kind of cinematic brand identity for themselves. And both, for a time, succeeded magnificently.

Like few other directors of his generation, Hitchcock put his mark on his films.  Hitchcock movies practically became a genre unto themselves. His famous cameos ensured that the public recognized not only Hitchcock movies, but Hitchcock himself…indeed part of the fun of going to a Hitchcock film was finding how the director would manage to get himself on screen.  By the early 1940s, Hitchcock’s name was appearing prominently above the title on publicity materials for his films (see this site for a great survey of Hitchcock posters from around the world).

The great success of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, which began in 1955, expanded to become the Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962, and finally went off the air in 1965, helped cement Hitchcock’s brand identity.  To this day, what’s best remembered about the long-running series is its iconic opening, which featured a nine-line self-portrait, the director himself in silhouette, and a mordantly witty introduction by Hitchcock:

By the time Psycho came out in 1960, Hitchcock was front-and-center in much of the publicity around his film:

Powell’s branding of his films was more collaborative, but just as distinct. Starting with One of our Aircraft if Missing (1942), their fourth film together, Powell shared with his screenwriter and producing partner Emeric Pressburger the unusual title card: “Written, Produced, and Directed by…”And the two became collectively “The Archers,” a name that was soon accompanied by a distinctive image at the start of their films:

During the time of their greatest fame–and among cinephiles to this day–that arrow hitting the bullseye held as much promise as Hitchcock’s name above the title.  Martin Scorsese, who fell in love with Powell’s films as a child and became very close to Powell late in his life, has said that “every time I saw The Archers logo, I knew I was in for something special.”

But even as both Powell and Hitchcock began to reach the greatest heights of their fame, and had carved out a good measure of artistic independence for themselves, in the late 1940s, when Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) became a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and Hitchcock was in the midst of a long series of cinematic masterpieces including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious! (1946), and Rope (1948), their careers were in certain ways beginning to diverge.

Hitchcock’s great popular success and critical reputation would only grow through the ’50s and into the ’60s.

In contrast, in the 1950s, Powells career stumbled and his collaboration with Pressburger came to an end. Their final three movies together–Oh….Rosalinda! (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957)–were not up to the standard of most of their earlier work (though The Battle of the River Plate was a big box-office hit, at least in the UK).  And while Hitchcock’s critical reputation continued to soar, the Archers’ reputation, always mixed, fell, as even their greatest films often came to be regarded as over-the-top fantasies, especially as British filmmakers began to produce the grittier, kitchen sink movies of the late 1950s and 1960s.

But the body-blow to Powell’s career came with the release of his second film after the break-up of his collaboration with Pressburger, Peeping Tom (1960).  Extravagantly denounced by British film critics (“it’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much”–Caroline Lejeune, The Observer; “the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing”– Isobel Quigley, The Spectator; “alternately dull and repellent”–Derek Hill, Tribune; “I was shocked to the core to find a director of his standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense”–Nina Hibbin, The Daily Worker; an “exercise in the lower reaches of the psychopathic”–Dilys Powell, Sunday Times), the film effectively ended Powell’s career as a director in his home country; during the final three decades of his life, he would direct a few films in Australia as well as a British television production.  His independence and his brand were in tatters.

In Million-Dollar Movie, Powell describes Peeping Tom‘s reception in some detail (those quoted reviews are taken form pp. 293-295).  But in his discussion of what was in many ways the greatest disaster of his career, Powell doesn’t draw attention to an oft-noted contrast: the very different reception that Hitchcock’s similarly boundary-crossing Psycho received that very same year.  This is the unstated poignancy of Powell’s comment, nearly a hundred pages earlier in his autobiography, about the positive role that Psycho played in Hitchcock’s career:  “And in the end, it was a true Hitchcock picture, Psycho–no stars, just know-how–that saved him from going to the wall.”  Psycho saved Hitchcock; Peeping Tom doomed Powell.

We are now in the fourth decade of an ongoing Michael Powell revival.  Long esteemed by the generation of American filmmakers who created the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and early 1970s,  Powell spent much of the final decade of his life hanging out with Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In the early 1980s, he was Senior Director in Residence at Coppola’s short-lived Zoetrope Studios. In 1984, he married Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.  By the late 1970s, critics and cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic began to return to the great films of the Archers…and to Powell’s once despised Peeping Tom.  Powell, who passed away in 1990, lived to see the full recovery of his critical reputation; Million Dollar Movie‘s discussion of Peeping Tom is framed by the fact that Powell’s movie had already been vindicated in the eyes of critics.  The critical reverence for Powell has only grown since his death.  Most of the Archers’ films, as well as The Edge of the World (1937), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and Peeping Tom, are widely available on DVD and BluRay.  Many of these films have been lavishly restored.
But the great acclaim that Powell has received since the late 1970s does not hold a candle to Hitchcock’s reputation among the general public. Perhaps it never can.  Hitchcock is today one of the few filmmakers of his generation who remains a household name. Even those who’ve never seen any of his films associate him with suspense and have some sense of the basis of his fame.  The opening title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock Presents remains one of the most parodied thirty-seconds of television.
In comparison, Michael Powell, at least in this country, is a relatively obscure figure. Cinephiles know him well; everyone else draws a blank when you mention his name. 
All of which brings us back to Powell’s “modest claim” that he invented the Hitchcock Climax. Though the story is told almost as a throw-away in the midst of one of Powell’s many discussions of Hitchcock as a fellow craftsman with whom he shared deep mutual respect, I can’t help but think that there’s a significant amount of pain lurking in the background of this tale. I have no reason to doubt that, as Powell reports, he and Hitchcock saw each other as fellow artistic geniuses.  But among all but the most cinematically knowledgable, Hitchcock’s fame is far, far greater. And Powell knew this well. 


19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I forgot to add that those interested can find links to yesterday’s and today’s blogathon posts over on Ferdy on Films.

    Those particularly interested in the Powell / Hitchcock connection should make a point of checking out Lee Price’s blogathon posts over on 21 Essays. He’s devoting the entire week to considering the relationship between the films of Powell and Hitchcock. The first two posts in the series can be found here and here.

  2. Great essay, Ben. It is sad that the artistry of Powell is more rarified than the “Cockney” instincts of Hitchcock. One was bound to be more popular than the other, but what does that matter in the long run. The desire to be popular seems almost like a disease to me. The very reason Peeping Tom failed where Psycho succeeded is that it violated the taste level Powell had set in his films. He should not have been ashamed of being tasteful, nor of his attempt to stretch himself.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marilyn! Obviously there’s no shame in either of these careers. But one of the fascinating things about many great cinematic artists–certainly Hitchcock and Powell, but also Orson Welles–is the tension between their deep senses of artistic integrity and quests for independence, on the one hand, and their desires to be popular entertainers, on the other. (One of the things I liked about Scorsese’s Hugo is that it captured this tension in its portrait of Méliès.) It’s surely possible to create great cinematic art without much caring about reaching a vast public, but the films of Hitchcock and Powell (and Welles and a number of other filmmakers who are similar in this way) are unimaginable without both these aspirations. These filmmakers were, among other things, populists and their films show it; the desire to be popular may be a disease, but without it you don’t get these careers IMO. Perhaps Hollywood took a terrible personal toll on Hitchcock, but he was largely able to achieve both these aspirations over the broad course of his career. Powell and Welles…not so much.

    • It is possible to create great cinematic art without caring about reaching a vast public. But it’s hard to do it twice. If you get the funding for your first artistic film and don’t make a profit, it’s harder to get the funding for another one.

      What Powell & Pressburger managed was to make intelligent, artistic films, that also appealed to the public. They were well aware that film-making is primarily a commercial venture. The critics might not have understood them and the films might not have been what the critics wanted to see, but the public liked them all well enough. All of their feature films from 49th Parallel (1941) to The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), that’s 11 major feature films in 11 years, made a profit.

      Martin Scorsese once described Powell & Pressburger as “experimental film-makers working inside a totally commercial system”.

      Hitchcock, Welles and many others went for the backing of the big American studios. They benefited from that with the resources to make their films and the publicity & distribution. But they had to accept the restrictions placed on them for most of the films they made under that system.

      P&P resisted the urge and remained independent. They accepted the funding and the facilities offered by organisations like Rank’s. But their backers had no say in the subject and absolutely no control over the content of their films. See The Archers Manifesto (http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Manifesto.html)


    • I’d just add to Steve’s excellent comment:

      Except early in his career, Welles (unlike Hitchcock) largely worked outside the Hollywood studio system. But he had a harder time finding ways of doing so than P&P were able to, in part because he didn’t have access to the facilities and finance provided by the mid-20C British film industry, such as it was. Welles’ had to scrape together resources to make films like CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and OTHELLO in ways that P&P never did.

  3. The run Hitch had with Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), might be the the greatest three-year run by any director in history. Other directors have had great runs, but I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who had one like this, of three all-time masterpieces back-to-back-to-back.

    You mention Contraband as a Hitchcockian film by Powell and Pressburger. I haven’t seen that, but I have seen 49th Parallel, which I think has some Hithcockian parallels.

    What always stands out to me for P&P is their use of color. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, and Black Narcissus are all outstanding examples of color cinematography. And back then that meant something, since they made those movies at a time when Hitchcock was still shooting mostly in black-and-white.

    As for Hitchcock’s reputation, I think it’s deserved. Two advantages he has are longevity and output. He made a lot of movies for a long time. Directors nowadays might go years between films; back then they cranked ’em out one or two a year. And in his case, they were such great movies. Just look at that filmography. Most folks would kill to have just a couple of those titles on their list; Hitch has them all.

    • I agree about all of this, regarding both P&P and Hitchcock, Varad.

      Your mention of Vertigo touches on an aspect of my original conception of this post that ended up on the cutting-room floor (the Michael Powell stuff was initially an opening anecdote to what was going to be a post on Hitchcock’s reputation…and the anecdote just grew into the post itself). Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, The Trouble With Harry and (the later version of) The Man Who Knew Too Much were all withdrawn from circulation for decades before being rereleased in the mid-1980s. For these films, Michael Wood could write in the New York Review of Books as late as 1984, “we had only our memories to rely on since their author had taken them out of circulation.” The reappearance of these films in theaters–especially Vertigo, Rear Window, and Rope–had a profound impact on people’s perception of the Hitchcock canon. Rear Window and Rope, in particular, grew in esteem from their earlier reputations.

    • Another great three-year, three-film run: Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), and The Godfather, Part II (1974)

    • Ben, I was going to mention Coppola as an example of another director with a similar run. Chaplin, too. His wasn’t three years, but he had a streak as great as any in history from Gold Rush to Modern Times (one can add A Woman of Paris and The Great Dictator at either end depending on how one feels about those movies). But they wound up on the cutting-room floor since my post was getting a bit long.

      I think you make an important point when you note how Hitchcock’s reputation did undergo a reappraisal when his movies reappeared. Keeping with this, I think it’s important not to overlook the role played by the Cahiers du cinéma folks in establishing and re-inventing Hitchcock’s reputation. He was a favorite of theirs and one of the main figures used to give concrete substance to what became the auteur theory. This elevated him above being a mere director of thrillers and popular entertainments. There can be few more influential works of film criticism/analysis than Truffaut’s book on Hitchcock. So while it’s true Hitchcock’s always been popular, his reputation today depends in part on his having champions (inside and outside the industry) who saw in him more than someone who made popular Hollywood flicks.

    • I’d put the three-year Powell/Pressburger run of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) on a par with the late 50’s Hitchcock sweep. This isn’t meant to denigrate Hitchcock at all–I just think the Archers’ achievement with each of these films is remarkable. And the three films that followed for the Archers (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes) could be added to constitute a jaw-dropping six-film, six-year run.

      Thank you for the very kind plug for 21 Essays, Mr. Alpers!

    • Totally agree, Lee, especially when you extend the run through The Red Shoes.

      And one might even add to that run the underrated The Small Back Room (1949), which immediately followed The Red Shoes and which is, while perhaps not quite so wonderful as the six films that preceded it, still absolutely stunning.

    • It wasn’t just a 3 year run, or even a 6 year run. They made 11 feature films together from 49th Parallel (1941) to The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Each of them is still regarded as a major work and most are available on DVD, Blu-ray etc and are still often screened in theatres around the world. That’s not a bad record 60+ years after the films were made, especially as there was a world war going on. But that wasn’t all they did. They also made various short films, wrote a few books, produced a few plays and did various other things. Most of those films were from original stories by Pressburger and was then, in the words of the famous credit, “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”.

      They had a regular team of people they worked with under the banner of The Archers, people were queuing up to work with them and they could pick the best of the bunch. Powell did his own casting having seen almost every film made and every stage play he knew what each actor was capable of.

      They worked as an artistic co-operative. Everyone contributed to the best of their ability and if anyone, cast or crew, had a suggestion, it was discussed and if the idea was accepted, Emeric was always on hand to fit the idea seamlessly into the film. You can check the “final shooting script” for a lot of their films and they vary quite a lot from what we see on screen.

      Many of their films are major works of art that still influence film-makers and other artists and still often appear in people’s lists of favourite films. But as a total body of work, it’s hard to find anyopne who came close to it.


  4. I confess complete and total ignorance of Michael Powell’s work prior to this post. I’m always pleased and depressed when a USIH reveals my lack of culture. Sigh.

    Thinking back, my only chance to have heard Powell’s name in relation to Hitchcock would have come several years ago when I conducted a close reading of Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius (Da Capo, 1999; reprinted from 1983, Little Brown). When I checked my notes on the book, the only references to the name Powell are for Paul and William—Paul being a silent film director (p. 55), and William an actor (pp. 177, 216). Strange, given what Ben writes.

    So, thanks Ben, for teaching me something new today! – TL

    • I haven’t read the Spoto book, but according to (Michael) Powell, he and Hitchcock got to know each other early in Hitchcock’s career when Powell was a stills director. So it’s perhaps not surprising that he doesn’t get a mention in a bio of Hitchcock. By the time Powell’s career took off in the late 1930s, Hitch was in Hollywood. Powell stayed in England until very late in his career when he worked for awhile in Australia.

      And, yes, Tim, you’re in for a treat…or really over a dozen treats! In addition to the great Powell and Pressburger movies–49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann–there are some very good P&P flix (The Small Back Room, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and Gone to Earth) and at least three great solo Michael Powell efforts (The Edge of the World, The Thief of Baghdad (the Technicolor 1940 version which he co-directed), and Peeping Tom), as well as some just slightly less good P&P films that are certainly worth seeing if they happen to cross your path (Blackmail, Contraband, and The Battle of the River Plate). I’d start with Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going (a great date film), or The Red Shoes and progress from there. These are not only great films, they are, at least IMO, just extraordinarily fun to watch. About the only one that’s “difficult” is Tales of Hoffmann. Time to revise your Netflix queue!

  5. Interesting in looking at Powell and Hitchcock as artists struggling for independence in what is, by its nature, a collaborative medium; and particularly with Hitchcock, as he chose to work within the Hollywood studio system. Yet Hitchcock’s films seem to manage to straddle film experimentation on one side and commercial, audience-appealing product on the other. His success seems to come from this ability to make movies that had major stars and an ‘accessible,’ commercial story and ‘look,’ while yet being imbued with a personal style. When Hitchcock’s more cinematic experiments, like Rope, Under Capricorn, or Vertigo, did not do well at the box office, he always seemed to follow up such films with a more ‘commercial-friendly’ product (eg, following Vertigo with North by Northwest).

    Powell’s films are different, at least as I see them; his movies like Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes or Tales of Hoffman seem self-contained, outside the Hollywood style, and made as distinct expressions of Powell’s artistic sensibility, with commercial consideration distinctly secondary. There’s something more ‘dream-like’ about the experience of watching a Powell film, something that seems to push the boundaries of how one watches a movie. If you compare what is supposed to be a subjective dream sequence from Spellbound with the subjective POV sequence of the ballet in the Red Shoes, there’s quite a difference – Hitchcock explicitly isolates the dream AS an explained dream (and uses the rather kitschy, commercial surrealism of Dali to design it). Powell’s dance doesn’t ‘explain’ itself as a projection of the heroine’s psyche; we’re meant to experience it as she does. The closest I think Hitchcock got to something like this was the dream sequence in Vertigo (when Stewart has his nervous breakdown); but he didn’t attempt something like this again (probably because the film was not a success).

    • Nicely put, GOM!

      The only thing I’d add is that Powell, much more than Hitchcock, accentuated in his career and his autobiography the collaborative nature of cinema even as he presented himself as an independent artist. His account of his first experience with filmmaking — doing odd jobs for Rex Ingram’s MGM silent unit in the South of France–emphasizes the collaborative aspect of the endeavor. And his relationship with Pressburger was, of course, one of the most famous collaborations in film history. Powell also stresses that The Archers included a much larger team of cinematographers, art directors, etc. Jack Cardiff was as much an Archer as Michael Powell. Of course this dual sense of the importance of the individual artist and the centrality of collaboration (and the tensions between them) is also a major theme of The Red Shoes.

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