On my review of the Criterion DVD of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room, a commenter asked where he should start investigating their work. Noel offered some suggestions, and I facetiously opined that the A.V. Club should offer a primer on the subject. Since that's not likely to happen, I thought I'd provide an abbreviated one here.
Powell & Pressburger 101
One of the British duo's most accessible films is I Know Where I'm Going! (1945; Noel's review), a witty romance with Wendy Hiller's strong-willed, modern young lady falling under the spell of Roger Livesay's self-assured Scottish laird. In black and white and with far fewer of the artistic touches for which the pair is best known, the film provides one of the most charming and emotionally rich entry points into their work.
49th Parallel (1941) is a taut piece of action-adventure that is enhanced by its unusual Canadian setting. Many of the pair's favorite themes are here, but in a more conventional package than their later Technicolor extravaganzas
Of their most widely acclaimed films, I think Black Narcissus (1947; Noel's review) is the one to see first. Its color palette is more muted and natural, and despite its melodramatic plotline, the interactions tend to be equally contained and controlled. A viewer who falls in love with its colonial vistas and nationalist/religious critique is ready for the red meat of the catalogue.
The Red Shoes (1948) is without a doubt the Archers film that has been most widely seen. Yet its vision of the intersection of art and life is highly complex, rewarding multiple viewings. The melodrama is heightened, the colors are bright, the characters are theatrical. But the staging is so delicate and precise that nothing about it seems overbearing.
The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943; Keith Phipp's review) is probably my single favorite Archers film, thanks to the effortless magnetism of the magnificent Roger Livesay. This intimate epic portrays two world wars and several love affairs with versions of the same woman, and yet retains a wit and lightness that Powell and Pressburger never seem to lose, no matter how massive their stage.
Powell didn't direct all of The Thief Of Bagdad (1940; Scott Tobias' review), but his work stands out so sharply that the movie serves as a showcase for his style. The delight that he palpably receives from making magic with the camera is something that he never lost throughout his career. As he chases more and more transcendent artistic effects over the years, he retains a kind of stage performer's intimacy, a sense that we are going through an experience together that requires us both to keep our eyes open.
A Canterbury Tale (1944; Noel's review) is such an odd mix of village folklore and military drama that it's likely to throw all our attempts at characterization for a loop. But like so many of the lesser-known Archers films, it's so chock-a-block with inventive effects and down-to-earth energy that it's inimitable and well-nigh irresistible.
The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951; my review) represents the pinnacle of artistry in the Powell and Pressburger filmography, an elaborate filmed opera brimming with color, spectacle, and cinematic prowess. Yet even here, at the height of their attempt to blend high culture with film culture, Powell communicates with impressive clarity. He conveys his own enthusiasm and adventurousness in such an inviting way that we do not in the slightest feel condescended to. Hoffmann somehow manages to be thoroughly audacious without coming off as pretentious.
A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), known as Stairway To Heaven in the U.S. and not available on DVD, is a delightful fantasy with a barb hidden at the center, an extended philosophical meditation on the impact of war on unfinished lives. Its fantasy, like nearly every film on this list, comes with a small wry smile that conveys the essential groundedness of the story and themes.