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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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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Powell's 'Stairway' Still Leads Somewhere
By: Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times

    There was a time when romantic, sentimental movies were not the exclusive property of dolts and simpletons, when filmmakers of wit and sophistication made clever fantasies about the triumphant power of love. "Stairway to Heaven" is such a movie, and Michael Powell is the only director who could have made it.

    First released nearly half a century ago and beginning a two-week revival run at the Nuart in West Los Angeles today, "Stairway" was Powell's personal favorite, which is saying a lot, because the output of the Archers -- the production company he formed with writing and directing partner Emeric Pressburger -- included such lush and inventive visual extravagances as "Black Narcissus," "Tales of Hoffmann" and the beloved "The Red Shoes."

    Powell, who died in 1990 at age 85, lived long enough to see his bravura filmmaking style go in and out of fashion and then in again. After a time of neglect, Powell was championed by Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who became Powell's wife. Scorsese is one of the forces behind "Stairway's" re-release, which coincides with the American publication of "Million Dollar Movie," the second volume of Powell's autobiography, and a multi-city tour of Powell-Pressburger features that belatedly will reach Los Angeles early next year.

    In the meantime, we have "Stairway" to wonder over. The film has never been on video and has not been seen theatrically in 15 years, and the current British Film Institute restoration includes a bucolic scene of a nude boy playing on a reed pipe that was inexplicably considered too racy for American taste and deleted from all previous U.S. versions.

    And that was not the only example of domestic obtuseness. The original British title for the film is the more fitting "A Matter of Life and Death," but as Powell mischievously relates in the first volume of his memoirs, "A Life in Movies," tyro distributors Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin were aghast. " 'You can't have "death" in the title,' they screamed.... It was only the United States that had to be protected from the realities of life and death."

    All that was quite ironic because the initial impetus for the film came when someone in authority asked Powell and Pressburger: "Can't you two fellows think up a good idea to improve Anglo-American relations?" What they came up with was, to quote a voice-over near the start of "Stairway," "a story of two worlds, one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman."

    David Niven, more dashing than any human could possibly be, plays Peter Carter, an RAF squadron leader near the end of World War II. The picture of blithe heroism, Peter is thrust at the audience as the only man left alive in the fiery cockpit of his bomber.

    His parachute gone, Peter is about to jump anyway, but still has time to recite some beautiful poetry to June, the plucky British-based American servicewoman he chances to be in radio contact with. She's played by Kim Hunter, later to win an Oscar as Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire," who was brought to Powell's attention by old Hollywood hand Alfred Hitchcock.

    Peter is next glimpsed in the English Channel, having miraculously survived his jump. He not surprisingly thinks he's in heaven but is soon set right and almost immediately catches sight of a woman bicycling near the beach. It is, of course, June and, as Powell put it, "in the magic way of lovers, they recognize each other and fall in love."

    In the Other World (except for a brief shot of a very young Richard Attenborough saying, "It's heaven, isn't it?," Powell and Pressburger went to pains to avoid the word), things are not going so smoothly. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), an aristocratic French victim of the guillotine whose job it was to escort Peter to the hereafter, has somehow missed him and now must visit Earth to try to rectify his mistake.

    But Peter, when told that his still being alive is all a mistake, refuses to go quietly. During his new time on the planet, he explains, he has fallen in love, and that has changed everything. He tells his dilemma to June, who confides it to Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), the local doctor who just happens to be a frequent contributor to Brain magazine. He theorizes that Peter is suffering from a series of highly organized hallucinations that tricky surgery might cure.

    While the operation is being set up, in the Other World Peter is granted the right to appeal. The prosecutor will be the Brit-hating Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first Englishman to die in the Revolutionary War. And who will Peter choose to be his counsel? He can't seem to decide.

    This back and forth between two worlds, the familiar one on Earth and the Other out there, is made more striking by the film's inventive use of three-strip Technicolor.

    With Jack Cardiff (a future Oscar winner for "Black Narcissus") as cinematographer and Geoffrey Unsworth (ditto for "Cabaret") as camera operator, "Stairway" saves its gorgeous colors for conventional reality. The Other World is shot in a kind of pearly monotone, which was actually the three-strip film printed without the dyes. The difference leads to the film's most memorable line, recited to the audience by Conductor 71 after we've watched the hues flow back into his clothes when he arrives on Earth: "One is starved for Technicolor up there."

    Though it gets a bit talky once the trial starts, "Stairway to Heaven" remains remarkable for being a film that believes that heroism is reciting poetry as your plane goes down in flames and exults at the sight of a lover's single tear on a red, red rose. Another world indeed.

    * "Stairway to Heaven," at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379. Through April 27.

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