The Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 was put into effect in the late 1920s in order to promote growth in the British film industry. Beginning in 1928 it imposed a quota on the amount of British films that needed to be exhibited and distributed. While on paper the system was a success, with most distributors and exhibitors easily meeting the imposed quotas, the truth was that the majority of these films were made cheaply and poorly. As the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 did not stipulate any measure of quality in their demands, a large majority of these projects were stilted and unwatchable, they were often referred to as “quota quickies”. It is in this environment that Michael Powell, now regarded as among the very best British filmmakers, emerged.
Powell began his film career in the mid-1920s after abandoning his job at a bank. He began as a stagehand on a project for Rex Ingram who was then shooting a film in Nice, France. Throughout the next five years, Powell would climb the ranks of the British film industry, before he would join up with American Jerry Jackson and start producing “quota quickies”. A large number of Powell’s early films have been lost to the ages. The majority of them were short and medium length films, and were more often than not mysteries written by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon (who also penned early Hitchcock film, Number 17).
Powell’s earliest available film is Rynox, which was released in 1932 (an earlier film, Caste (1930), is archived at the BFI and is rarely screened). Rynox is a medium length film (running at a surprisingly swift 44 minutes) about the murder of business mogul, F.X. Benedict at the hands of a mysterious figure named Boswell Marsh. Marsh does not seem to be from the realm of cinema, his early appearance in the film seeming a poor caricature of a Dickens’ villain: Large, hunched over and bearded and his gruff voice and stiff manners stand out in an otherwise naturalistic film. It almost seems as though he was yanked violently from some poor stage, an antagonistic presence that has never adjusted to the subtleties of the screen.
This early impression is quickly betrayed by the increasing sense that Marsh is meant to feel artificial and out of place, it is a very obvious wink to the audience to pay attention and to suggest things aren’t exactly as they seem. The trick lacks nuance, and spoils an otherwise serviceable film. The exaggeration of Marsh shows a lack of faith in the narrative, the image and the audience. It is a bad symptom of rushed filmmaking and stilted early sound pictures. In some ways, it is representative of a regression in this early part of the decade: filmmakers felt hampered by the new cameras and equipment, and both movement and intimacy were often lost.
In spite of the obvious failures of the Marsh character, much of the rest of the film is quite adventurous and confident. Powell’s work does not entirely fit the stereotype many had of quota quickies, in that they were solely filmed plays. While the narrative is sped through, giving little opportunity for character and mood to emerge through point of view and subjectivity (which would become his greatest talent), there are certainly powerful hints as to his future talents. One early moment in particular stands out, there is a meeting between Benedict with his son in law, mostly a sequence meant to pass on important narrative exposition. However, the scene does not end on the beat of the son in law leaving the scene, rather the camera remains alone in the room with Benedict. Instead of sizing up a close-up, or having him express through dialogue his sense of inner conflict, the camera pulls out from a medium shot to a full shot, pulling back straight through a seemingly closed window. The effect is not just technically impressive considering the limitations, but evokes a sense of isolation in the character that haunts the future scenes.
Moments like this are scattered throughout the film. While the overall impression of the film is not particularly remarkable, it will hold interest for those interested in Powell’s earlier years. The film does not offer much in the form of nuance or breadth, but the style of the camera movements along reveal a filmmaker intimately curious about the possibilities of the medium.
The Powell Files is an ongoing series on the films and career of Michael Powell.