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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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
By Henry Coombs
30th January 2000
The opening flourishes left me purring with delight at their inventiveness - the altered version of the Archers' logo, the introductory disclaimer, the way the camera pans over the cosmos. It's strange to think that `It's a Wonderful Life' came out in the same year. No great coincidence: the 1940s was awash with heaven-and-earth films; but the glowing cotton wool nebulas and cutesy angels of the competition look tattered, something best passed over in silence, when placed next to Alfred Junge's vision.
It continues to look great all the way through, as more and more striking ideas are sprung upon us. I'm not a great fan of mixing colour with black and white in general. One of the two visual schemes almost always looks ugly when placed next to the other. Not so here. Powell dissolves colour into monochrome and monochrome into colour as if it's the most natural thing in the world, a mere change of palettes. Both the colour photography and the black and white could stand on their own.
As for the story ... this may be Pressburger's best script, or at least it would have been had the conclusion been a more logical outcome of preceding events. Other than that it's tight, yet with more going on than I can possibly allude to here. Was the heavenly stuff real or imaginary? (Or both? Perhaps Carter dreamt up a fantasy that was, as it so happened, true.) Everyone says we're meant to neither ask nor answer this question, but I don't see why. I'm sure we ARE meant to ask the question. The film even gives us clues as to what the answer is - indeed, the problem is that there are too many clues and they seem at first to be pointing in different directions. The fact that other things ought to occupy our attention as well doesn't mean that this shouldn't occupy us as well. There is, as I've said before, a lot going on.
Consider the scene in which Abraham Farlan (Heaven's prosecuting lawyer) plays a radio broadcast of a cricket match, and contemptuously says, `The voice of England, 1945.' Dr. Reeves (the defence) acknowledges the exhibit with a great deal of embarrassment, and then produces one of his own: a blues song from America, which Farlan listens to as though he's got a lemon in his mouth. Reeves looks smug.
Snobbery? Well, I don't see why it's snobbish to condemn blues music - and that's not what Powell and Pressburger are doing, anyway. As the song is being played, we get a shot of the American soldiers listening to it: several of them nod their heads to the rhythm, perfectly at home. THEY don't find it incomprehensible. There's something valuable about the song and neither Reeves nor Farlan knows what it is. Reeves probably realises as much. All English audiences (and all Australian, Indian, etc. audiences as well) know without being told that there is something of value in the cricket broadcast, too; and that while Reeves understands THAT, he is unable to explain it to Farlan - hence the blues broadcast, which shows that people can understand each other without sharing an understanding of everything else. It's a clever scene.
One last thing. I found David Niven a bit cold, without the charisma he would acquire later in his career; but even so, I don't think a film has grabbed my heart quite so quickly after the action began, as this one did.
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