IN THE last 30 years, Michael Powell has gone from ostracism to apotheosis, from rejection as a pornographer (the first critical consensus on his 1960
masterpiece Peeping Tom) to celebration as patron saint of cinematic daring, whimsy and high camp. This month offers an opportunity for reassessment with a season of 14 of Powell's finest films, all from his collaboration with the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, at the Barbican, and the re-release of Peeping Tom, the film he blamed for ending his career - he directed one other in 1961, and then nothing before his death, aged 84, in 1990.
The centrepiece of the season is A Matter of Life and Death, Powell's 1946 tale of an English airman (David Niven) falling in love (with Kim Hunter, by wireless) and out of the skies at the same time. The film has rarely been seen since the 1980s, when an American studio optioned a re-make with John Travolta. The mind boggles: this is not the sort of film Hollywood goes in for these days. It has two settings: Heaven (pearly monochrome), where they are waiting for Niven, and Earth (gorgeous Technicolor), where a celestial Conductor seeks to persuade Niven to follow him to his fate. The Conductor scenes happen in space but not time, so when Niven talks to him the action freezes - a table-tennis match is suspended in mid-point. The climax is a battle in the court of Heaven for Niven's soul.
The trial turns into a debate on national differences and a timely plea for conciliation. This forensic tour de force reminds us of the key contribution of Pressburger to the Archers' cinema (their films open with arrows thudding into a target). He provided solid structures and metaphysical wit. And if the Archers understood England better than any other film-makers, it may be because they looked at it through Emeric's sceptical- amused Hungarian eyes. …