Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Starring David Niven and Kim Hunter (although Roger Livesey is given higher billing) 

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressubrger

In that quaint old way you used to see / hear, this film begins with a voiceover, but it's an unusual one.  A written message also scrolls across the screen: "This is the story of two worlds and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war."  Any correspondence to any world, real or imagined, is purely coincidental..." Starting with a shot of planets and stars, the voice intones: "This is the universe.  Big, isn't it?".We get a short astronomy lesson before the film itself begins. The central idea of he film, as hinted here, is that life, death and the afterlife are way beyond our current comprehension, and played out as part of a grander scheme of things.  As a 7 year old, seeing this for the first time, how could I not be arrested by this notion?  A historical film, set firmly in the real world, but with a supernatural - dare I say it metaphysical (not that I'd have known that word at 7!) - bent.  It's one of the films which made me fall in love with cinema.  

The story is that of a British airman, Squadron Leader Peter Carter, whose Lancaster bomber is crippled and shot down a few days shy of the end of the Second World War.  Believing he must surely die, he nevertheless makes radio contact with Britain, and talks briefly with an American radio operator named June.  His plane crashes, but miraculously, he seems to remain alive. Making his way back to his base and unit, he eventually meets up with June, and they soon fall in love.  This is the point at which Fate (with a capital F) intervenes, and the meaning of the mysterious Cosmic prologue becomes clear.  Peter is visited by an ethereal visitor, "Conductor 71" (Marius Goring), a corporeal spirit whose role is to guide (conduct) souls to the afterlife.  The thing is, Peter should have died when his plane was shot down, but due to an "administrative error" he remained alive.  Now, the Conductor, and Heaven, want to balance their books.  But Peter and June are in love now, and this occurred after Heaven's error.  So they argue that Peter should be left to live.  Thus begins something of a battle of the fates, between human and post-human life.  An unearthly trial occurs in "Heaven" to determine Peter's future, whilst Doctors back on Earth fight to save his life.  The outcome is truly in the balance in a markedly tense sequence of scenes.

The Prosecutor is an American Revolutionary, Farlan (Raymond Massey), who despises England and Britain arguing that Peter must stay in the afterlife.  Peter is allowed to call a counsel for his defence, and chooses his friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey).  Truly, the trial becomes a matter of life and death - if Peter loses, he will have to remain in "heaven"; if he wins he can return to earth to be with June.  The plot itself is emotional and engrossing, compelling, I would say.  But what really makes the film work is the direction and cinematography.  Pressburger and Powell were the most formidable pair of directors of their age.  "Life and Death" is easily up there with "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus" and "Peeping Tom".  The photography, by the unmatched Jack Cardiff (check out the biography "Magic Hour", seriously) is superb, and lives long in the mind.  The scenes on Earth are in glorious Technicolour, but the scenes set in Heaven are, somewhat counter-intuitively, depicted in Black and White.  One would imagine it would be the other way round, but it's striking and extremely effective.  Thematically, it says that things in Heaven are simply black or white, right or wrong.  On Earth things things exist in bold technicolour, and are debatable. It sticks long in the memory. The two realms are linked by a giant, dramatic "stairway to Heaven".

Niven is predictably superb, as he always was, the stoic Brit, fighting his feelings and fighting for his feelings.  Newcomer Kim Hunter - later to play Dr. Zira in "Planet of the Apes" and its sequels, is remarkably sympathetic as June.  Roger Livesey offers up sterling support as June's friend, and Peter's Doctor, Reeves.  Particularly humourous and memorable is Marius Goring as the Conductor, a French Revolutionary in a former life.  There's even a cameo from a young (Sir) Richard Attenborough as a befuddled, deceased airman arriving in Heaven and being sent to "registry".  Aside from the already mentioned look of the film, and great performances, what deeply draws a viewer in is the emotion and unpredictability of the story.  The denouement is not only highly unpredictable but also sincerely emotional.  It's unique, and I can't think of a film to which it can be compared.  I try to shy away from the cliche of the word "masterpiece" but this truly is one.  It sparked my love of cinema (OK maybe "Star Wars" or "ET" did that, but this just cemented it.  See it if you get any chance to do so.


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