Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An event suspension in an orderly universe?

A Matter of Life and Death
David Niven and Kim Hunter

Probably in the top five of best British films is A Matter of Life and Death [American release]/Stairway to Heaven [British release] [1946] by the J. Arthur Rank Organisation . It was directed and written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey, Abraham Sofaer, and Richard Attenborough. This film blends high thematic content and superb craftsmanship.


Returning to England from a bombing run in May 1945, flyer Peter Carter's plane is damaged and his parachute ripped to shreds. He has his crew bail out safely, but figures it is curtains for himself. He gets on the radio, and talks to June, a young American woman working for the USAAF, and they are quite moved by each other's voices. Then he jumps, preferring this to burning up with his plane. He wakes up in the surf. It was his time to die, but there was a mixup in heaven. They couldn't find him in all that fog. By the time his "Conductor" catches up with him 20 hours later, Peter and June have met and fallen in love. This changes everything, and since it happened through no fault of his own, Peter figures that heaven owes him a second chance. Heaven agrees to a trial to decide his fate.

A reviewer at IMDb wrote...

This movie has the most beautiful opening sequence ever made. I've seen this movie for the first time a week ago, since then every day I see the opening and every time I feel as thrilled as I felt the first time I heard David Niven uttering the immortal words from Sir Walter Raleigh's The Pilgrimage:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope's true gage; And thus I'll take my pilgrimage (…)

Do you know why it would be a truism to say Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressuburger's lives are thoroughly justified for having crafted such a wonderful opening? Because they had been already admitted in the Paradise of Poets long before they made this movie.

I imagine both of them facing trial during Doomsday and saying nonchalantly to an irate God: I beg your pardon, Sir. So, do You want to know what have we done during our lifetime? Well, well you'll see: We've written directed and produced: I know Where I'm Going, Colonel Blimp, Red Shoes… do you think that enough Sir? It is rather obvious that these two great artists had already fulfilled their duty with God, Nature the Muse or Whatever you may call It when they shot A Matter of Life and Death. The fact that other people's lives would be justified for their deeds could be not apparent to everybody, notwithstanding I feel my life would have a meaning had I never done anything else that to see this movie.

Of course old-timers will be tempted to say: They don't do movies like this one any more. They'll be partially mistaken; they didn't make movies like this in the past times either.

I've have already quoted Keats here, but I'll repeat his words: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

And Damian Cannon wrote...

A fantastical, visionary and oddly elusive work, A Matter of Life and Death excels in almost every way without ever losing sight of its humanity. Flying back from a bombing raid over Germany, Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (David Niven) is nursing a fatally damaged plane. The crew, or that part of it left alive, has bailed out and only Peter is left -- with a shredded parachute. Knowing that death is near, Peter talks of life to June (Kim Hunter), the young radio operator trying to bring him in. Making the most of his last words, Peter prepares for eternity even as he celebrates the ephemeral. A connection born of extreme pressure forms between them; about to be separated forever, Peter and June fall in love. The twist comes when Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a Heavenly emissary, makes a mistake; Peter survives his long plunge into the Channel.

Originally intended merely to bolster post-war US-UK relations, A Matter of Life and Death attains a far higher state of accomplishment. Much of the credit for this surpassing glory must go to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P), that legendary teaming of the '40s and '50s. Here they take on the roles of producer, director and screenwriter; their unique sensibility is stamped into the story like seaside rock. In a genre prone to whimsy and superficiality, that of fantasy-romance, they bring a solidity, a feeling of depth. By standing within their film, rather than to one side, their total belief is apparent; our temptation to second-guess the story, or to treat it as a joke, is hence greatly reduced.

Such an appreciation is greatly aided by the wonderful cast of British and American actors. Whether they're in the foreground or the background, the case for several of the heavenly sequences, all contribute to creating a convincing atmosphere. The key is that P&P always have little scenes playing behind the main characters; they entertain the eye without distracting it. In fact this is a theme which runs throughout the film. Aided by Alfred Junge's production design, P&P feel free to be visually adventurous, to go for sights never before imagined. Yet while they push the limits of the technically possible, their efforts are hidden from us. Thus, like the boundary which separates the two worlds, everything within A Matter of Life and Death feels natural. These effects, combined with Jack Cardiff's photography, make the film a richer experience.

You could quite safely say that the performances in A Matter of Life and Death are excellent and you'd be right. That is, however, a quite inadequate description, it misses the essence of what makes A Matter of Life and Death special. To capture this you need to think in wider terms, such as the difference between a roaring log-fire and a humming, single-bar electric fire. Both give out heat and ward off the cold, but only one engages all of your senses. Stand close to a real fire and your skin turns to parchment under the shifting blaze, sparks erupt around you and the stinging smoke invades your sinuses. This is what you experience with A Matter of Life and Death; compared to films that engage on a single level, the power here is awesome, almost frightening.

With this perspective, both Niven and Hunter are quite enchanting. Their scenes together, bookending the film, bring a lump to the throat; the chemistry between them is palpable. Together with Roger Livesey (as Dr. Reeves) these three form the core of A Matter of Life and Death, bringing both an understanding of their character's emotions and an interpretative strength. In addition Livesey provides his voice, a wonderfully human instrument. Of a timbre that inspires trust and affection, Livesey's voice is perfect for the role of village doctor. In Heaven, Goring and Raymond Massey (the prosecutor Abraham Farlan) figure most prominently, standing out by virtue of their removed appreciation of Earth. While both are corny, almost to the point of humour, this is undoubtedly the correct approach; beings "alive" for hundreds of years are hardly going to be in touch with the Zeitgeist.

But without a good script even the best actors can achieve little. It's lucky then that A Matter of Life and Death is blessed in that department, with only a single caveat. P&P pen some astonishingly moving lines ("I love you, June. You're life, and I'm leaving it."), drawing out the romance inherent in the story without becoming saccharine. Their witty, dry humour keeps the characters grounded, preventing the movie from getting needlessly profound and alienating the audience; shared laughter is a great way to bring people together. The problem is that occasionally A Matter of Life and Death goes over the top in a big way, expressing sentiments which appear almost silly today. In being complimentary to both America and England, the dialogue simply becomes overblown. Now this may be the result of present day over sophistication, and a lesser desire for post-war reassurance, but that's just the way it is. However, and this is important, do not be put off by the idea of a few old-fashioned speeches -- this is a film worth seeing.

To cap all of this -- the inspired sets, the 37.2 degree acting, the perceptive writing and the subtle direction -- there is a further element which begs mention. This is the decision made by P&P not to clarify the reality of the situation, not to delineate reality and fantasy. Peter is brain-damaged, that's certain. He suffers from hallucinations, that's also clear. But it could be that he is really at the gateway to that magical other world, where everyone's destiny is catalogued in triplicate. A Matter of Life and Death doesn't care and neither should we; if we knew the answer we'd wish that the question had never been asked.

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