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A Life in Movies
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 4 March 2002
There is only room for about 8 books in my bedside cabinet which is an uncomfortably small niche for nearly 3 decades of literary adventure. I had relegated Michael Powell's "A Life in Movies" to the shelf on the other side of the room but it' s becoming uncomfortably clear that reinstatement is a necessity in order to prevent cold feet from too many early morning trips across the floor.
I read it first when I was 21, now I'm 32 and every time I think of just a short dip into it again, I find myself dipping long enough to end up with prune-like, wrinkled fingers. This book is a joy. Michael Powell was by all accounts not an easy man to get on with but his writing has real joi de vivre, drawing you into a world of movies that sadly no longer exists. He is a cocky, confidant narrator with a gift for dialogue and in some cases, unnervingly, dispassionate observation. For those who love his films, it's a hugely rewarding experience to revisit the creation of some of the most evocative images in world cinema. The story of "I Know Where I'm Going" and his affectionate portraits of its stars, is as satisfying a piece of travel writing as autobiography or film history. His discussions with partner and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger are detailed with the same skilled storytelling instinct that the Archers films excelled in: he asks Pressburger why the girl in the story wants to go to the island of Kiloran and Pressburger replies with 'one of his mysterious smiles..."Let's make the film and find out"'.
Powell's honest description of his tangled love life (as he struggles to decide whether to marry the actress Deborah Kerr, or the woman who became his wife, Frankie) is disarmingly frank and unrepentant but it's a measure of the charm of his writing that you don't judge him for it, full as it is with loving praise for both women. It's this enthusiasm for people, places and communication through cinema that suffuses this book. It's a happy experience to be in the company of a generous raconteur who wants to share his passions with the world. When he talks of making Roger Livesey's "lovely, husky voice beloved all over the world" or of Frankie christening "I Know Where I'm Going" by singing the title song on a London bus and then disappearing, it's enough to make anyone feel that film making is the ultimate creative pleasure.
But here's an irony - no pictures in my paperback copy!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2011
For those interested in British cinema, Michael Powell needs no introduction as one-half of the filmmaking team of "The Archers", with the emigre Hungarian Emeric Pressburger as the other half. This book, the first part of Powell's autobiography, goes up through the initial release of "The Red Shoes", makes for an entertaining journey through the early years of British cinema, from his apprenticeship with Alfred Hitchcock through his "quota quickie" years of honing his craft on British B-films. Powell knows how to tell a story well in rather amazing detail, as he claimed to have total recall.

However, on at least one detail, at the risk of sounding trivial, his memory didn't quite match. Example: about "The Red Shoes", he gives the full name of the conductor Livy (played by Esmond Knight) as "Sir Edmund Livingstone", whereas in one shot of the film, Livy's full name is actually "Mr. Livingstone Montague". On other points, one has to keep in mind his selective memory. For example, he chooses not to mention the name of his first wife from his very short-lived first marriage, basically saying that "Her name was - well, what does it matter?" and that they were young and foolish. (For the record, Powell's first wife was Gloria Mary Rouger.) Likewise, during the filming of "Black Narcissus", Powell didn't mention the name of the actress with whom he was having an affair, simply saying that "my two mistresses, one ex and one current, were both working for me in the same picture". The "ex" was Deborah Kerr, of course, while the "current" was Kathleen Byron, whom Powell more explicitly mentioned in volume two of his autobiography.

More seriously, at the risk of stating the obvious, but necessarily precisely because the book is so well written, one has to keep in mind that this is Powell's own selective point of view, and not the "whole truth". One case is in Powell's tale of working with Albert Bassermann on "The Red Shoes". Powell expresses nothing but admiration for Bassermann, but paints a portrait of Bassermann's wife as a bit of a pill on the movie set. Powell obliquely tells of taking Bassermann's wife down a peg once, which caused Bassermann himself some distress, and for which Bassermann demanded of Powell an apology. If one reads Kevin Brownlow's biography of Emeric Pressburger, the tale is told rather differently, where apparently Powell was rather harsher towards Bassermann and his wife, to the point that Anton Walbrook was repelled by Powell's behavior and broke off working with Powell for a number of years.

Once one keeps in mind the need for several grains of salt in reading the book and checking the facts, however, the book is most definitely a rollicking good read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 25 March 2002
This is the first, and best, part of Michael Powell's two-part autobiography. It's a fascinating account not only of his early life (with tangibly nostaligic descriptions of between-the-wars England, especially his beloved Kent) but also of the early days of British cinema, including a run in with a young Alfred Hitchock. Powell's writing is as professional, compelling and as entertaining as his movie direction. My favourite quote (approximate): "There must be an American film that deals seriously with life and art, but I can't name one - and I have total recall."
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 December 2011
Michael Powell's account of his life in movies (predominantly as a film director) covering the period through to 1949 (when he was 44 years old) is my favourite book about cinema, providing a plethora of insights into film-making, and the associated industry, over this period. (The second part of Powell's life is covered in his book Million Dollar Movie). Powell was, of course, one half of the celebrated Archers film-making team, along with Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who together (over the period in question) made some of the most innovative films in the history of the cinema, including the Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.

In the book Powell details his early experiences attempting to break into the film business, including his initial encounters with the maverick Irish-born film director Rex Ingram, who directed Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) and Ramon Novarro in Scaramouche (1923). It is easy to see why someone such as Ingram would appeal to Powell, who was also, of course, very resistant to the Hollywood money-making machine. Also during this early stage of Powell's career he charts his developing relationship, and work as a stills photographer, with Alfred Hitchcock - a relationship that was rekindled when Powell met up with Hitch again in Hollywood in 1945, during the latter's difficult spell working with David O. Selznick.

Following some initial low-key directorial experience, Powell then charts his signing by Hungarian film impressario Alexander Korda (founder of London Films), and his subsequent introduction to Pressburger, who initially worked on the screenplay of the film The Spy in Black. The rest, as they say, is history. Powell's account of his war-time experiences in the production of the aforementioned cinematic masterpieces is entirely engrossing, detailing as it does his working relationships with some of the most innovative cinema technicians ever to grace the industry - such as cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art directors Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth, and film composers Allan Gray and Brian Easdale. Also fascinating are the political battles that Powell witnessed between cinematic giants Alex Korda, Arthur Rank and their Hollywood counterparts.

Powell has been criticised in a number of quarters for embellishing the truth, and telling the story from his own, perhaps rather one-track, perspective. Indeed, Powell does not come across as a character brimming with humility, but I suspect, given the business he was in, he may have had little choice in order to achieve any degree of success. His treatment of, and references to, women are also those of a man from a bygone era as he details somewhat vainly his marriages to Gloria Rouger (an American dancer with whom his marriage lasted three weeks) and his long-term spouse Francis 'Frankie' Reidy, and his various affairs with his leading actresses, including Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron.

These aspects aside, however, A Life in Movies charts the career of one of the most important and influential film-making talents in the history of cinema, a fact supported by the citing of Powell's influence by numerous current film-makers. including Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola.
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on 4 June 2015
It's interesting to get the background info on some of those great British productions of the 40s and 50s.

Powell was a patriot and a sentimental one too. His account of his childhood during the First World War in Kent is moving especially when we realise his parents' marriage was not too strong and his father went off. The film A Canterbury Tale is all the more powerful given the personal history.

He's not averse to chasing his leading ladies. Fair enough - it takes two to tango although he never quite manged to hang on to Deborah Kerr, the love of his life. Colonel Blimp reminds us of that too.

He must have been a genius. To be able to remember verbatim conversations with friends and colleagues decades after the event is quite some talent!
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on 7 March 2014
Whether you are interested in The Archers or not, this is a book I would recommend to anyone. A fascinating insight into one man's determination to be a film maker. Determination is the thing that stands out most, for me. Other's might call it ruthlessness. You don't have to look very deep to see that Powell spare's nothing and no-one. Not even himself.
A very well written book. Easy and enjoyable to read.
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on 22 January 2015
Americans are so grateful to MArtin Scorsese for bringing this genius to our attention and helping restore and preserve his films
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on 18 April 2014
This was a gift, but I know is being greatly enjoyed by the recipient - unputdownable! She laughs out loud when reading it.
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on 17 October 2014
very good
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