Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Between Heaven and Earth
The highlight of the Film Forum's current season of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is "A Matter of Life and Death", their delirious 1946 fantasy about an English airman caught between heaven and earth. Beyond envisioning a peaceful, orderly afterlife to soothe a world still reeling from the Second World War, Powell and Pressburger created a dewy, eleventh-hour romance for the dying airman and orchestrated a debate over his destiny on a collosal scale. This film reaches the pinnacle of its fancifulness when an international array of angels listens to the arguments on behalf of the R.A.F squadron leader, Pere Carter (David Niven), whose life hangs in the balance.
This film may have hard-working angels, but it's no "It's a Wonderful Life" (which opened the same year). The Powell/Pressburger style is far more voluptuous and peculiar than Frank Capra's, and so feverishly romantic that a glittering tear on a rose petal is one of the film's most representative visions.
Divided between a black-and-white monochrome heaven and a lushly colorful earth, it spans these two spheres with a golden celestial staircase conceived and executed with breathtaking audacity. ("Stairway to Heaven" was the film's American title, and it will soon, somewhat confusingly, be rereleased here under that name).
The debonair Peter Carter falls in love with an American radio operator's voice just as his plane plummets towards the English Channel. "You're life and I'm leaving you" he tells the tearful, wholesome June (Kim Hunter), displaying the wild bravado that is the film's most stirring quality. Carter is ready to face his destiny, but when he gets a reprieve because of a heavnely clerical error, he is able, quite literally, to stop the clock. Time stands still while Peter, his flamboyant Heavenly Conductor (Marius Goring) and all other interested parties settle the question of whether he deserves a second chance on earth. And the rules of normal life are suspended in a curiously comforting, death-defying fshion. Even an operating-room patient, ndergoing brain surgery can get up and walk away.
The premise is strange and the execution even more so, with unexpected visual tricks that keep the film richly eccentric and a use of color that is intoxicatingly bold. Gorgeously restored, "A Matter of Life and Death" explores the quirky, whimsical realm where Powell and Pressburger made overripe movie magic.
"A Matter of Life and Death" opens today at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, in the South Village, and runs through April 27. Tickets are $7.50; $4.50 for members, and $4.50 for the elderly Monday through Friday before 5 p.m. Screening times and other information (212) 727-8110.
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