A Matter Of Life & Death (1946)
It was quite by accident that I happened to programme a cinema viewing of one of the all time great love stories on Valentine’s Day. Every year I naturally have to vacate my premises so that the local Council can extract and landfill the many tons of gifts and cards that my humble domicile is inundated with, so I thought it best to get out-of-the-way and take a trip over to the South Bank to take in one of Powell & Pressburger’s most lauded films, in fact I think it’s fair to say that A Matter Of Life & Death is one of the most beloved British films ever made. Much to the displeasure of the self titled Archers the film was retitled Stairway To Heaven for its Stateside release by interfering studio executives concerned that a film with the word ‘Death’ in the title wouldn’t sell, especially since the grim reaper had been gorging himself throughout the European and the Asian theatres over the previous decade and audiences relived at the war’s end would presumably be more attuned to escapist, imaginative fare. Why the unusual level of interference by the Yanks? Well, the film was a wartime co-production by both governments designed to enhance the friendship between England and America during the closing phases of the war, a period which of course saw our plucky Emerald Isle infested with thousands of American and their crucial support personnel, a migration which didn’t always sit well with the local populace after five long years of terrifying aerial bombings and debilitating rationing. Seen by some as the ‘Johnny come lately’s’ to the global conflict the rosy-cheeked Americans and their brash,well-fed demeanour could irritate an exhausted domestic populace, with their chocolate, comic books and nylons all proving to be incredible luxuries to the jealous, pallid skinned Brits. It sounds like a different world to me, when two powers would rely on the propaganda purposes of the movies alone to address social and national concerns, until you think of contemporary film suppression in various locations around the Middle East (and I’m sure in less reported localities) where storytellers critical of the status quo are still censored and silenced – the powers that still recognise the persuasive potential of the form. In any case let’s not get sidetracked with political matters, now this ladies and gentlemen is how you open a movie;
Squadron Leader Peter Carter (an impeccable David Niven) bails out from his doomed Lancaster bomber during the twilight phase of the global conflict, the only slight complication to his suicidal scheme being that he has no parachute after ordering the rest of his stricken crew to evacuate with the remaining equipment. Prior to leaping to his doom he radios in his status and swiftly (and more crucially believably) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), anticipating an intervention of the forces of fate as miraculously Peter is saved from the skeletal wielded scythe and disorientedly awakes on a Home Counties beach. After meeting with his paramour cycling down the coast Peter is visited by the ghostly aristocrat Conductor 71 (a spirited Marius Goring), a 17th century French nobleman who informs Peter of the clerical (heh) error ‘upstairs’ and advises that he must make the case for his evasion of destiny, and nominate his defence counsel for the astral trial that will soon be called to order. Concerned about Peters vivid hallucinations (as only he can see the Conductor who also has the charming ability to suspend the flow of time for a chat) June enlists the more earthly aid of the local Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey) who schedules a cerebral surgery, thus the stage is set for an aligned incorporeal and earthly struggle for life, love and liberty, in the remorseless face of an unswerving destiny….
To my eternal shame last years finalised list of Minty’s favourite movies failed to permit the Archers to spear the top twenty, having revisited another of their Technicolor masterpieces I think I should be damned to everlasting hell. The detonation of colour, so glorious and vivid in all of Powell and Pressburgers classics is divinely explosive to behold, from the red shrouded opening to the semiotics in the costumes and lighting streams, it is so skillful and assured, oscillating from the physical to the fantastic with equally assured grace. It is a stroke of near genius to have the real world in scintillating Technicolor and the other ‘place’ – heaven is very specifically never mentioned – being emulsified in a muted, pale and esoteric black and white shroud, witnesses the immortal skills of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I failed to point out that camera operator Geoffrey Unsworth went on to shoot a certain space epic some twenty-two years later. It’s such an antithetical choice, surely the afterlife should be presented in this glorious kaleidoscope of everlasting joy, it’s quite a sly commentary on the potential drab conformity of the higher realms in juxtaposition to the earthly delights of the mortal realm, where love and romance flourish like the tears trapped on cherubic rose. The juxtaposition of colour versus black and white seems so original until one recalls a similar reversal of Dorothy’s drab Kansas dust bowl existence to the hallucinatory daydream of The Wizard Of Oz a few years earlier….
It’s such a difficult choice but I think A Matter Of Life & Death is my favourite of Powell’s films, narrowly eclipsing the seething passion of Black Narcissus (which I’ll get to eventually) or the glorious hymn to aging and evolving in The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp. It’s just the sheer inventive wonder, the literal lust for life that permeates his films which them so memorable, they are certainly idiosyncraticaly British with a particular sense of humour and culture, and it makes me proud to be British to know that our artistically modest island has produced four geniuses in the film arena over the past century, with Powell arguably joining the impeachable pantheon of Chaplin, Lean and Hitchcock. It’s not just the photography, in Life & Death there’s also the cheeky match cuts, the ambiguous fantasy – I never recalled Peter’s visions being so queried and open to speculation in the film before, as I erroneously recalled his earthly companions as also being aware of the afterlife apparitions – overall it’s a deliciously dreamlike, fable rich halo of a movie, not soberly reflecting on all those lost during the global massacres of the recent war but looking forward to a brighter and more positive future. David Niven is eminently watchable in just about everything he ever made, a figurine of England’s gentlemanly face framed through a clipped colonial past, a bloody damn fine sort that one could enjoy a sneaky sniffter of brandy with down at one’s club, as he regaled you with an eyebrow raising endeavour and a defiant twinkle in his eye. Alas some of the forced banter during the closing trial sequence has dated quite badly, with chief prosecutor Raymond Massey particularly overplaying his part as a theatrical tyrant, but holistically the film is so fresh and vibrant on every other narrative and technical level, like Peter’s commuted sentence it’s completely ahead of its time.
Coincidently I re-watched It’s A Wonderful Life a couple of weekend’s ago in a frenzy of flu-based suffering, it’s a curious companion piece as both films were shot during the final months of the war and released in its immediate shadow, both deal with afflicted protagonists transplanted to alternate realities, and both have a bubbling coupling of remorse and optimism which contort and warp in a coagulating, emotional fashion. A couple of vague twinges of ephemera to close, look out for a young Dickie Attenborough as an early and curious recruit to the choir invisible, and did you know that Spielberg sneakily cast the smouldering Kathleen Byron, seen here as the impressively coiffured angelic clerk whom is best known as the sexually insane nun in Black Narcissus as elderly Matt Damon’s wife in the bookend sequences of Saving Private Ryan? Don’t say I don’t give you anything, and now that I’ve cleared the backlog the schedule is free and an ambitious programme of weekend screenings beckons, I just hope that two friends whom I know love this film whom have just suffered a serious bereavement can find some small reassurance in this modest reportage. After six years of terror and death it’s no wonder that audiences flocked to this exquisite picture that revelled in an unashamed love of life and our earthly Elysian, a richly served and diamond shielded classic, this sequence alone is simply immaculate;