American auteur Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the greatest living filmmakers, responsible for the creation of timeless masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among several others. He has contributed to the world of cinema in numerous ways, not just through his works but his active efforts in pursuit of spreading visual literacy and the preservation of essential classics.
Scorsese discovered his boundless love for cinema at a very young age, and among those early influences were the works of English filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Most of their technicolour films were heavily edited and screened in black-and-white for American television sets, which prompted Scorsese to come to the conclusion that something was lacking in the voyeuristic experience.
As a teenager, he was one of two people who regularly rented a very rare copy of Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann from a local video store. If you’re wondering about the identity of the second person, it was none other than George Romero. Growing up, Scorsese often wondered why Powell and Pressburger were relatively obscure despite the fact that they made such brilliant masterpieces. He was also struck by their ability to write, produce and direct their own projects, which seemed like an enormous achievement at the time.
Scorsese recalled: “Back when I just finished shooting Taxi Driver, I went to the Edinburgh Film Festival [and] wound up in London. When I was in England, I said ‘hello’ to a man named Michael Kaplan [who] was working with Stanley Kubrick at the time… I kept saying, ‘Who’s this Michael Powell?’ and [he replied] – ‘I know him very well.’ It all sort of came together.”
One film that always stayed with Scorsese was Powell and Pressburger’s mesmerising 1946 fantasy film A Matter of Life and Death. A masterful lesson in filmmaking and special effects, it follows the surreal adventures of a World War II pilot who ends up venturing into the Other World instead of crashing down to Earth. The combination of Jack Cardiff’s technical skills and the ambitious vision of Powell and Pressburger is simply magical, evident in their other collaborations like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.
Scorsese stated: “You have the sense that everything about movies excited him. He was really generous in his citations of his collaborators, for instance. He was highly appreciative of Jack Cardiff’s special genius as a Technicolor cameraman.”
Adding: “On the other hand, when you look at the movies, you realise how tough he must have been. He didn’t believe in compromise, had a firm belief in his own abilities and judgement [which] shows in his movies… I don’t think any great director will ever have the legend [that] he was easy to work with engraved on his tombstone.”
According to Thelma Schoonmaker, the award-winning editor who has frequently collaborated with Scorsese over the course of their careers, the filmmaker is largely responsible for the rediscovery of Powell and Pressburger’s works among American audiences.
Watch Scorsese explain why A Matter of Life and Death is such an indispensable part of his cinematic journey below.