DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: A Matter of Life and Death

Wednesday 17 June 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesay, Raymond Massey


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

With an opening as staggering as the one on display in this extraordinary Powell/Pressburger production, one is almost distracted by the thought that no picture could ever truly recover from such a dazzling romantic entry point.

How do you go up from up?

Peter Carter (David Niven), a doomed wartime pilot in a flaming airplane spirals to his death and participates in a final conversation with June (Kim Hunter), a honey-voiced dispatcher. As their conversation over the radio waves proceeds, these two souls remain stoic in the face of certain doom, even as they realize what a match made in Heaven they might have been had things been different. He is touched by her spark of life and compassion, and she for his gentle bravery. But as the conversation over the radio waves proceeds and death for Peter is more inevitable than ever before, the time comes for this couple to say their final goodbyes.

How in God’s name can a picture get better than this?

It does, and then some, for “A Matter of Life and Death”, a picture rendered by the immortal Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – a team of filmmakers who, under the corporate moniker of The Archers, hit bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. Almost every one of their movies (“Black Narcissus” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “The Red Shoes”, etc.) pushes the boundaries of traditional cinematic storytelling with the kind of ingenuity that has seldom been matched (but is certainly emulated and outright copied).

From a storytelling standpoint, “A Matter of Life and Death” constantly keeps our eyeballs glued to the screen. One moment, we are plunged into a situation wherein we have absolutely no idea where the story can go and the next, we are convinced it’s going one way and our expectations are pleasantly dashed. This happens so often, that when we are actually treated to a moment in the story that we’re convinced is going to go in a particular direction and it actually DOES go there, we’re delighted that it goes into a comfortable, familiar place – not only because it is emotionally the right thing for the movie to do at that point, but because it gives us WHAT we crave at just the right moment.

This is great writing – no doubt about it. The abovementioned opening features our two romantic leads who, as characters, have not even met face to face, but WE see them and WE want them to meet face to face. And hell, they want to meet face to face too, but this is the first few minutes of the movie and our leading man is in a burning plane and he decides to make a suicide jump rather than go down in a crisp. The leading lady, while clearly distraught, has suffered enough and/or witnessed enough suffering during this world war to know that death will almost always be the clear inevitability.

Unfortunately, the original and rather unimaginative American title, “Stairway To Heaven” was enough of a silly tip-off to let us know that the story would occasionally veer into the spiritual/fantastical realm, but even within that context, Powell and Pressburger’s command of the proceedings is so taut that we’re still on the edge of our seats wondering where this could possibly go.

The direction the narrative takes is that our leading man does survive the plunge and does meet the voice on the other end of the radio and, of course, they do fall in love. Alas, the bureaucracy that runs the spirit world on the other side of death has made a dreadful mistake. Peter WAS supposed to die, but someone slipped up. When Death comes a collecting, Peter balks and demands a hearing. His life and the lives of those around him have irrevocably been changed because of this mistake and it seems extremely unfair that he is to be plucked from the physical world after having been given a chance to live longer than he was supposed to.

A trial is needed. However, the trial that proceeds has less to do with a matter of life and death and veers into the political arena of American vs. British superiority. This, of course, is yet another staggering plot element as this captures, quite resolutely, the animosity between the British and American sides during the war on Hitler.

In addition to the magnificent plotting, elegant dialogue and complex characters, “A Matter of Life and Death” is also replete with the Powell and Pressburger visual genius. Not only are images used in thrilling and engaging ways to propel the story forward, but some of the most staggering images and special effects are designed in order to tell the story as well as it is. With a combination of outstanding production design and both optical and compositional genius, this is a picture that not only holds up in a modern context in terms of the effects but also renders many contemporary digital effects to utter shame in comparison.

Last, but certainly not least and what makes this picture one of the greatest of all time is that Powell and Pressburger are not afraid to wear their hearts on their respective creative sleeves. The film is wildly romantic, sentimental and emotionally stunning.

It has heart, and that, if anything is something to be cherished.

Innovation AND heart. It’s an unbeatable combination.

“A Matter of Life and Death” (AKA “Stairway to Heaven”) is available on DVD in a package titled “Michael Powell, The Collector’s Choice” and double-billed with Powell’s “Age of Consent”.


smoore said...

There's a short but fascinating book by Diane B. Friedman,'A Matter Of Life And Death:The Brain Revealed By The Mind Of Michael Powell', that, by the medical procedures of the day,shows how (spoiler)it really all took place in Peter Carter's head. It could actually be a case study, Powell used an incredible amount of neurological detail.

Klymkiwlicious said...

I loved the lengths Powell/Pressburger would go to research the worlds of their characters and use reality as an inspiration and springboard for fantasy of the highest level.