Martin Scorsese's Editor Recalls Rift That Nearly Ended Husband's Career

Courtesy of Rialto Pictures


Thelma Schoonmaker helped restore Michael Powell's 'The Tales of Hoffmann,' which begins playing Friday.

Early in his career, Martin Scorsese was attending the Edinburgh Film Festival, where he was to be honored with a retrospective. When asked whom he would like to introduce him, he answered, Michael Powell. Their response was "Who?" With a career spanning 40 years co-directing classics such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann with partner Emeric Pressburger, two of Britain's all-time greatest filmmakers had become an afterthought by 1975.

Well, Scorsese was having none of that. In the years that followed, he and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker began restoring Powell's reputation as well as his work. Opening March 13 at L.A.'s Cinefamily and New York's Film Forum through March 19, is the 4K restoration of the classic The Tales of Hoffmann, a visually inventive take on the opera by Jacques Offenbach incorporating ballet, singing and inventive effects. Cited by filmmakers like Scorsese, George Romero and Cecil B. DeMille as influences, various edits of the 1951 Technicolor masterpiece have turned up over the years, though none is as complete as the new restoration, which adds six minutes as well as an end credit placing the actors alongside the opera singers who voiced their roles.

"Everybody was moaning and groaning since very early on that there was something missing, but I didn't know what it was, and my husband never told me what it was," Schoonmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter from the set of Scorsese's current movie, Silence, shooting in Taiwan. It so happens she married Powell in 1984 and they remained together until his death six years later. Working with the Film Foundation and Studiocanal, the BFI discovered the new materials while gathering elements for the restoration from their vaults.

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Without the use of dialogue, The Tales of Hoffmann follows a fictionalized version of real-life German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann as he recalls three failed accounts of his pursuit of true love. Tenor Robert Rounseville sings the lead with an assist by his nemesis, three variations on a devilish character out to thwart him played by dancing legend Robert Helpmann (sung by baritone Bruce Dargavel).

While the first two sections incorporate outlandish sets and imagery combined with fantasy and dance, the last act known as the Antonia sequence is tame by comparison. It was deemed problematic by Alexander Korda, who was funding the movie through London Films. He fought with Powell at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where they won a Special Award for transposing music to film. Nominated for the Grand Prize, Korda felt certain they would walk away winners if Powell would only agree to cut the entire third act.

In the sequence, Hoffmann falls in love with Antonia, a soprano played and sung by Ann Ayars. Stricken with consumption, she has been warned by her doctor that her next song could be her last. The added six minutes are during Hoffmann's arrival when Antonia's father, fearing she will sing for joy, contrives to keep them apart. It was cut as a compromise with Korda, who parted company with Powell and Pressburger after they failed to win the Grand Prize at the festival.

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"The thing was Korda, who wanted them to cut the entire third act of the movie, threatened Michael with ruin if he didn't do it," says Schoonmaker about the conflict. "I think it really seriously undercut the third act."

The filmmakers struggled to find funding in the years that followed, and for Powell a transition into sporadic TV work in the 1960s was just a prelude to poverty. "The terrible savaging of his career after Peeping Tom, which I'm sure Korda helped facilitate as Michael refused to cut the third act," says Schoonmaker with a frown. "It was a devastating time."

By the 1970s, Powell was broke. Alone after his companion, actor Pamela Brown, had died, he was driving around trying to sell a porcelain statue Brown had given him so he could get enough money to buy food. That was when Scorsese found him.

"The situation he was in when Marty found him and rescued him was horrendous," recalls Schoonmaker. "He couldn't afford fuel oil, so he was chopping wood at the age of 74." He never made another movie, but he did offer Scorsese advice on various projects, including Goodfellas, which the director was ready to scrap when the studio insisted he remove drug references. Powell encouraged Scorsese to go back in and fight to make the movie the way he saw it.

"He always used to say to Marty and me, 'Never talk down to the audience. Don't dumb down your movie.' He never wanted to do that, and neither does Scorsese," says Schoonmaker. "He wants the audience to think and feel."