A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
During the Wartime era, Powell made a number of patriotic films, including The Lion Has Wings (1939), The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. With A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger set out to create their own version of the afterlife fantasies that became the vogue in Hollywood during the Wartime era. A Matter of Life and Death is really a British equivalent of the American-made Air Force angelic fantasy A Guy Named Joe (1943). The plot reads as a distillation of elements from the most popular of the Hollywood afterlife fantasies of the era the afterlife bureaucratic mix-up and complications that ensue in taking/not taking a person up when their time had come from Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941); the afterlife for pilots who are shot down in combat from A Guy Named Joe; and the heavenly trial convened to argue for and against someones soul from All That Money Can Buy/The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).
The plot is contrived. The neurological explanation of David Nivens hallucinations offered up by Roger Livesy is not at all convincing, especially Livesys dubious claim that the condition will be cured by everybody playing along with Nivens delusions. There are also obvious contortions of the plot that have to be conducted in order to set Roger Livesy up as David Nivens advocate. The last quarter of the film goes off at a tangent into a bizarre debate as to the superiority of British vs American cultures. Nevertheless, the trial scenes are mounted with an epic dramatic flourish. There is a shattering sacrificial ending, even if the film subsequently offers a cheat that gets out of it.
Less so than the story, A Matter of Life and Death is worth watching simply for the lavishness of the colour and architecture with which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are determined to dazzle us. Like Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire (1987) several decades later, Powell and Pressburger depict the afterlife in black-and-white and the corporeal world in colour. (One is starved for Technicolor up there, Marius Gorings awfully gay afterlife agent comments upon arriving on Earth). A Matter of Life and Death has possibly one of the most epic openings ever created for a film (which may have been inspired by the start of the Rite of Spring sequence in Disneys Fantasia (1940) a couple of years earlier). The camera opens in a sweep across the entire universe, moving past stars and giving us a quick astronomy lesson, passing a nova and wondering if maybe the inhabitants there had an accident with the uranium atom, and eventually coming down to Earth, closing in on Europe where one city is alight with flames and then drifting across to a fog-covered England, before it segues into the main action. (This was all conducted before the era of CGI effects and digital 3D animation and the sequence is all the more stunning as a result).
Even after such an awe-sized opening, Powell and Pressburger dont stop there the opening scene immediately captivates our attention with David Niven as the last man in a burning plane getting radio operator Kim Hunter on the other end and telling her how he is planning to jump from his plane without a parachute rather than face being burned alive. The romance that occurs between them in these few minutes is fabulous, with Kim Hunters plain beauty framed against gorgeous red background lighting that seems to suggest the imminent flames that are about to engulf David Niven.
The visions and architecture that Powell and Pressburger depict throughout are utterly stunning absolutely no other film of this era being made in Hollywood was conducted on such an epical scale. Most other Hollywood afterlife fantasies, for instance, simply depicted the afterlife as a nebulous realm of white clouds. Instead, Powell and Pressburger are determined to overwhelm us architecturally and throw in visions of David Niven and Marius Goring seated on a giant marble escalator that travels all the way up to infinity, lined with statues of famous people or pilots moving up the escalator while carrying their wings; the vision of a massive dome filled with clouds where the camera pans all the way down to see hundreds of tiny arrivals appearing through the huge arched doors; a library of records that is rendered in staggering size, all seen through immense circular holes in the floor of the afterlife anteroom; of the courtroom as a gigantic amphitheatre, which the camera pulls back to reveal nestled in a horseshoe valley with the rest of the galaxy surrounding it, and with the escalator stretching down from the courtroom into the operating room where David Niven is under anaesthetic. Powell and Pressburger even delight in purely visual touches like looking down upon a village through a camera obscura, or of a conversation held in front of the players in a game of ping pong who have been stilled in motion. A Matter of Life and Death is a film that is made with a love of all the possibilities that the new Technicolor process could offer and succeeds wonderfully. There are few films that can be enjoyed purely for the extravagance of the visuals they offer.
Michael Powells other films of genre note are: The Phantom Light (1935), a little-seen comedy-thriller set in a supposedly haunted lighthouse; as co-director of The Thief of Bagdad (1940); the ballet fantasy The Red Shoes (1948); the ballet fantasy portmanteau The Tales of Hoffmann (1951); the classic psycho film Peeping Tom (1960); and the childrens film The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972).
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