Michael Powell never quite got the breaks he deserved. While the films he directed in the 1940s (most in tandem with codirector Emeric Pressburger) were successful both in his native England and in America, 1960’s extremely twisted horror film Peeping Tom destroyed his standing with mainstream reviewers and audiences. Auteurist critics raised Alfred Hitchcock to the pantheon while dismissing Powell’s creations as baroque fantasies. Nor has home video served the filmmaker well; a movie like 1947’s Black Narcissus uses unbearably rich colors to provide a psychological backdrop for its characters (the cinematography won an Oscar), but on VHS all you saw was a paint box that had been left out in the rain.
Watch Black Narcissus on DVD. I mean that: Buy it, rent it, watch it, and hear yourself gasp when you first see that convent in the Himalayas. The film’s about British nuns struggling with their sexuality—in 1947!—in a place high in exoticism and low on oxygen, and the hyperreal imagery is crucial to understanding their dilemma. But hyperrealism is a constant in Powell’s work: the feeling that the world is a place of sheer sensual overload that can wreck creative souls like the ballerina of The Red Shoes (1948) even as it shakes sense into the arrogant heroine of I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). In a way, Powell was the anti-Hitchcock: He saw the dangerous beauty in life, whereas Hitch just saw the booby traps.
Most of Powell and Pressburger’s 1940s films are on tape—there isn’t one that’s not worth seeing—but to date only the above four are on DVD, from Criterion. They have all the trimmings you could want, but the movies are all you need, from the wild Scottish romance of I Know Where I’m Going! (she doesn’t, as it turns out), through the Technicolor fever dreams of art (The Red Shoes) and ardor (Black Narcissus), to the frightening psycho-voyeurism of Peeping Tom. Michael Powell’s gift was that he saw things with terrible clarity. Perhaps his films have been waiting for DVD all along.