The Fire Raisers

UK 1933, 74 mins
Director: Michael Powell

After a prolific run of ‘quota’ films, Powell signed to Gaumont-British on a four-film deal, where he benefited from better facilities and higher budgets. His first production was this atmospheric thriller about an insurance man in over his head with a gang of arsonists. A clear step up, the film boasts some well-staged set-pieces and is often surprisingly tough.
James Bell

The Fire Raisers was the first production in a four-picture deal between Michael Powell and his writing partner Jerome Jackson and Michael Balcon’s Gaumont-British studio. Gaumont-British was then one of the two biggest companies in the British film industry (alongside British International Pictures), so this was a considerable step up for Powell and Jackson.

The film cost around £12,000 to produce, a bargain even in those days, and featured West End stage star Leslie Banks in the lead role. ‘It was the first time that I had worked with a great actor,’ Powell later wrote. ‘He was an actor’s actor. He had speed and he created magic.’ Banks appeared in three further Powell films, including Powell’s early favourite, Red Ensign (1935).

Described by Powell as ‘a sort of Warner Brothers Newspaper Headline Story’ and based on a contemporary scandal about Leopold Harris, an insurance assessor convicted of arson, The Fire Raisers is a mixed success. The narrative moves at great speed, and Banks’ performance is restrained and elegant. But the direction is often crude and lacks the subtlety and genuine insights of Powell’s later work.

Two scenes do stand out, however. In the first, Bronton’s assistant Bates (Henry Caine) is tied up and interrogated by Stedding (a chilling Francis L Sullivan) and his men, who suspect him of double-crossing them. We don’t see Bates being beaten. Instead, Powell cuts from Bates to the faces of each of the interrogators. As the camera gets closer and closer to the men’s faces, the editing gets faster, until holding on an extreme close-up of Bates’ face, at which point he faints.

In the most atmospheric scene, Bronton (Banks) returns to his office looking for Bates. The office has been wrecked. As Bronton takes this in, he hears a faint tapping sound. Bronton looks around, and sees a window blind cord tapping against the glass. He pauses and realises that there is another noise, coming from inside the large wall safe. He opens it to find Bates inside, bruised and near death. The scene, played without music, convincingly underscores an air of brutality.
Ann Ogidi, BFI Screenonline, (with thanks to Sergio Angelini)

Directed by: Michael Powell
Presented by: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Distributed by: W. & F. Film Service
Producer: Jerome Jackson *
Assistant Director: Bryan Wallace
By [Screenplay]: Michael Powell, Jerome Jackson
Photography: Leslie Rowson
Film Editor: D.N. Twist
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
[Sound] Recordist: A.F. Birch
Recorded on: British Acoustic Film
[Recorded] at: Shepherd’s Bush Studios

Leslie Banks (Jim Bronton)
Anne Grey (Arden Brent)
Carol Goodner (Helen Vaughan)
Frank Cellier (Corbett Brent)
Francis Sullivan (Stedding)
Laurence Anderson (R.M. ‘Copper’ Twist)
Henry Caine (Bates)
George Merritt (Sonners)
Joyce Kirby (Polly) *
Wally Patch (Price, the trainer) *
Ben Welden (Bellini, Stedding’s henchman) *
Danny Green (Stedding’s henchman) *

UK 1933
74 mins
Digital 4K


The remastering of Rynox, Hotel Splendide, His Lordship, The Fire Raisers, Red Ensign and The Night of the Party has been supported by Matt Spick and the Charles Skey Charitable Trust

Rynox + Hotel Splendide
Mon 16 Oct 18:10; Fri 10 Nov 18:10
A Matter of Life and Death
Mon 16 Oct 20:45 (+ intro by Thelma Schoonmaker and Kevin Macdonald); Sun 29 Oct 12:10; Sat 4 Nov 15:00; Tue 7 Nov 18:10 (+ intro by academic Lucy Bolton); Sun 19 Nov 18:30
Farewell (Abschied)
Tue 17 Oct 18:40 (+ intro by filmmaker Kevin Macdonald); Wed 1 Nov 20:40
His Lordship
Tue 17 Oct 20:50; Sat 4 Nov 12:20
The Fire Raisers
Wed 18 Oct 18:40; Sat 11 Nov 12:30
Black Narcissus
Wed 18 Oct 20:50; Sun 22 Oct 18:30; Wed 8 Nov 18:15; Sun 12 Nov 18:50; Thu 16 Nov 20:50; Sat 18 Nov 20:50; Mon 20 Nov 20:45 (+ intro by author Mahesh Rao)
The Edge of the World + Return to the Edge of the World
Fri 20 Oct 18:20; Wed 8 Nov 20:30; Wed 15 Nov 20:50
The Thief of Bagdad: An Arabian Fantasy in Technicolor (aka The Thief of Bagdad)
Fri 20 Oct 20:30; Tue 24 Oct 14:40; Sat 28 Oct 15:00; Sun 26 Nov 12:00
The Spy in Black + Smith
Sat 21 Oct 15:30; Sun 29 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
The Boy Who Turned Yellow + Heavenly Puss
Sun 22 Oct 12:00
49th Parallel
Sun 22 Oct 12:20; Mon 6 Nov 20:30
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing!
Sun 22 Oct 15:10; Tue 31 Oct 20:40 (+ intro by film historian Ian Christie)
Mon 23 Oct 17:50 (+ intro by Miranda Gower-Qian, BFI Inclusion Lead); Mon 30 Oct 20:30
Red Ensign + The Night of the Party
Tue 24 Oct 20:30; Sun 5 Nov 14:40
A Canterbury Tale
Wed 25 Oct 20:20 (+ intro by academic Thirza Wakefield); Sat 11 Nov 14:50; Fri 24 Nov 20:35
Library Talk: The interior life of an archive: an evening with the Michael Powell Collection
Mon 27 Nov 18:00
The Elusive Pimpernel
Sat 28 Oct 12:20; Mon 13 Nov 18:00 (+ intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator)
Gone to Earth
Sat 28 Oct 18:20; Wed 22 Nov 20:45; Sat 25 Nov 17:50
Silent Cinema: The Magician + The Riviera Revels + intro by Bryony Dixon, BFI National Archive Curator
Sun 29 Oct 15:00
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Sun 29 Oct 17:20 (+ intro by Kevin and Andrew Macdonald); Sun 5 Nov 17:45; Thu 23 Nov 17:45; Sun 26 Nov 14:00 (+ pre-recorded intro by Stephen Fry)
Paths to Partnership: Powell + Pressburger before The Archers
Tue 31 Oct 18:30
Projecting the Archive: The Queen’s Guards + intro by Josephine Botting, BFI National Archive Curator
Thu 2 Nov 18:20
Twice upon a Time
Mon 6 Nov 18:10 + extended intro by James Bell, BFI National Archive Senior Curator
Talk: Philosophical Screens: A Matter of Life and Death
Tue 7 Nov 20:20
Talk: Centre Stage: The Leading Women of Powell + Pressburger
Thu 16 Nov 18:20
Ill Met by Moonlight
Fri 17 Nov 20:40; Sat 25 Nov 12:40
The Battle of the River Plate
Sat 18 Nov 18:20; Mon 27 Nov 20:30
Behold a Pale Horse
Sun 19 Nov 11:50 Wed 22 Nov 17:50
The Wild Heart
Sun 19 Nov 15:10
Miracle in Soho
Mon 20 Nov 18:10; Sun 26 Nov 18:30

Course: The Magic of Powell + Pressburger
Wed 25 Oct to Wed 22 Nov 18:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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