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How Michael Powell’s Advice Saved ‘Goodfellas’ and Prevented ‘Raging Bull’ in Color

How Michael Powell’s Advice Saved ‘Goodfellas’ and Prevented ‘Raging Bull’ in Color

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In David Hinton’s new documentary, “Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger,” Martin Scorsese delves into the profound impact the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had on him.

As a young, asthmatic child, Scorsese spent most of his time indoors. During this period, American films were not licensed to television, so he immersed himself in the duo’s great British films like “The Red Shoes” and “Tales of Hoffmann.” Co-written and narrated by Scorsese, “Made in England” draws direct connections between Powell and Pressburger films such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” and Scorsese’s own films like “The Age of Innocence” and “Raging Bull.” One notable sequence crosscuts between Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” and Boris Lermontov from “The Red Shoes,” highlighting how both characters are on the edge, observing others and teetering on the brink of explosion.

According to Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was married to Powell, the influence went beyond film study. After Scorsese invited Powell to the U.S. in the 1970s, the British filmmaker became a constant presence on Scorsese’s sets and in the editing room. On the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Schoonmaker shared specific advice from Powell that influenced movies like “Raging Bull,” “After Hours,” and “Goodfellas.”

Powell was a tremendous fan of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” When visiting New York, he asked Scorsese to show him the various locations where the crime drama had been filmed. Robert De Niro, “Mean Streets” co-star and fellow Powell admirer, joined the tour of the old neighborhood.

“When they stopped to see where Bob was training to become Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro portrays in ‘Raging Bull’), and fight as a middleweight, Michael was observing Marty studying videos of Bob’s training,” Schoonmaker recounted. “Michael noticed something off about the red gloves. Marty agreed and decided to shoot ‘Raging Bull’ in black and white, recalling how he used to watch black and white fight kinescopes with his father. This decision was a major gift from Michael.”

Powell and Schoonmaker became romantically involved after she went to Los Angeles for the 1981 Academy Awards, winning the Best Editing Oscar for “Raging Bull.” By the time Scorsese was preparing “After Hours” (1985), Powell had moved to New York and became a key advisor.

“One of Michael’s most important suggestions was the ending for ‘After Hours,’” Schoonmaker recalled. “Initially, the ending, which involved Cheech and Chong stealing Griffin Dunne encased in a plaster sculpture, wasn’t strong enough. Some suggested a balloon flight escape. Michael insisted the character must return to the hell he began in, training someone to use a computer despite his desire to write the great American novel. That’s the scene Marty shot.”

Powell passed away in February 1990, before “Goodfellas” premiered in September. However, his belief in the project was instrumental.

“Marty struggled to sell ‘Goodfellas’ because studios insisted he remove the drugs, which was central to the story. He was very depressed,” Schoonmaker said. “Michael was concerned about Marty’s artistic rights, shaped by his own battles with producers like Alexander Korda, covered in ‘Made in England.’”

“Michael asked to hear the script and declared, ‘Marty, this is the best script I’ve read in 20 years. You have to make this movie.’ With renewed confidence, Marty pushed one last time, and the movie was made. Sadly, Michael didn’t live to see it, but he was crucial in its realization and recognized its artistic brilliance.”

“Made in England: The Films of Powell & Pressburger” opens at the Quad Cinema on July 12 in New York and Landmark’s Nuart in Los Angeles on July 26. A retrospective of Powell & Pressburger’s films is playing at MoMA in New York through July 31 and will come to the Academy Museum in Los Angeles from July 18 through August 19.

Source: IndieWire