Thursday, January 10, 2013

It Came From The Archives! - Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death

When Walt Whitman wrote the words, “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost”, he could’ve been talking about the internet. Nowadays, Nothing is ever really deleted. Which is how I’ve found the first published review I ever wrote, for a re-release of A Matter of Life and Death, that originally appeared all the way back in April 2000 on the long-defunct 6degrees and is now archived at The Powell & Pressburger Pages.

A Matter of Life and Death was already comfortably ensconced in my Top Ten Favourite Movies of All Time back then (it still is), and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see it on a freshly-struck 35mm print at the BFI’s building on Stephen Street. (I was even more fortunate to watch it on a big screen again in 2003 in the company of the late, great Jack Cardiff, but that’s a story for another time).

Looking back at this down down the barrel of thirteen years, the review fails at all the things that I believe good film criticism should do - it’s not particularly informative or insightful or entertaining. But, hell, at least I could string a sentence together and it was my first time out of the gate, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on my younger self. (That doesn't stop me from cringing at Every Single Sentence and trite observation below.) Anyway, for the sake of posterity and to serve as a reminder to myself of how far I’ve come, here’s that review:
The Ministry of Information must have been shocked when, having commissioned Powell and Pressburger to come up with a propaganda puff piece to aid Anglo-American relations, they got A Matter of Life and Death in return. This 1946 masterwork starts with a cracking opening sequence and just gets better from there. During World War II, Squadron Leader Peter Carter (an exceptionally suave David Niven, even by his standards) is hurtling towards terra firma in a shot-up plane, with a dead crew and a shredded parachute, sharing his last moments with American WAC June (Kim Hunter) before surrendering to his imminent and inevitable death.

But, due to that most traditional of English weather, fog, he doesn't die. And before Heaven's administrators realise a mistake has been made, Carter and June fall in love, much to the chagrin of the celestial emissary who comes to take him away. And the film is only just getting started...

Before the end titles roll, we are treated to a cosmic battle for life and love in both Heaven and Earth, as Carter's crippling headaches intensify and the pencil pushers of Heaven conspire to spirit him away, as the drama unfolds in the mind of the poet-cum-airman. 

A Matter of Life and Death works on so many levels that it demands repeated viewings, and gives all the more reason to welcome this new 35mm print. Warm, fuzzy romanticism and unsentimental cynicism rub shoulders comfortably throughout the film, resulting in an ultimately positive meditation on the power of love to conquer all. What could potentially be trite and banal actually works incredibly well.

The film explores the nature of national identity and post-war relations, the power of love and sacrifice and the effect of war on those who live through it, and yet not once does it lose sight of the intimate tale of two lovers fighting for one another.

The contrast between the lush dreamlike fantastical Earth and the harsh monochrome red-tape hell that is Heaven is perfectly rendered. "One is starved of Technicolor up there!" complains Conductor 71 on one of his forays to Earth to retrieve his errant charge.

The film is exquisitely shot by Jack Cardiff, utilising all the tricks and tools of cinema, and is full of memorable visual effects: the table tennis ball frozen in mid-air; Dr. Reeves' camera obscura; the panoramic view of the heavenly court room, quite literally packed to the rafters with spectators. But these all take second place to the seemingly endless staircase between our world and the next. (The film was unfortunately named Stairway to Heaven on its US release). 

A Matter of Life and Death is full of sparkling banter that bounces between the characters, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Roger Livesey plays Dr. Frank Reeves, Carter's defender in both worlds, with great authority and presence. Raymond Massey scowls throughout as Abraham Farlan, who will be damned if he will let a young Boston girl be lost to an Englishman. But it is Marius Göring as the foppish dandy Conductor 71, who steals the film from the rest of the cast with his infectious charm.

The film confirms Powell and Pressburger's reputation as great directors, and A Matter of Life and Death is the greatest of their films. However, you can't help being slightly saddened at the fact that, with its humour, ambition, scope, vitality and, above all, optimism, they really don't make 'em like this anymore.

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