It’s one of the stranger partnerships in cinema history – the fiery, motor-mouthed, New York-based Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese and the patrician English director, Michael Powell. When their friendship began in the mid-1970s, Scorsese was at the height of his powers, while Powell was a near-forgotten figure in the UK film industry whose reputation still hadn’t recovered from the critical drubbing he had taken a decade earlier, for his voyeuristic serial killer movie, Peeping Tom (1960).
Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger (whose career together is celebrated next month with a major season at the BFI) had been reduced to making kids’ movies like The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972) and lowbrow skits like the Australian-produced comedy, They’re a Weird Mob (1966). The glory years of their best known pictures The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life And Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) were a very long way behind them. Nonetheless, their young American admirer remained convinced that Powell (1905-1990) and Pressburger (1902-1988) were “the most subversive filmmakers ever to be financed by a major studio”.
The man who brokered the introduction between Scorsese and Powell was the publicist, filmmaker and distributor Mike Kaplan, well known for his work with Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. As Kaplan told me this week, he had been working as an agent for his friend, the actor Malcolm McDowell, when he first encountered Powell.