The Masters  
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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Meaning of 'Life and Death'
Edward Guthmann
San Francisco Chronicle

When Michael Powell directed "A Matter of Life and Death", a 1946 classic that opens today at the Castro, England had just emerged from World War II - exhausted, deeply scarred and desperately in need of light, cheerful, entertainment.

"A Matter of Life and Death" followed a series of highly popular wartime films that Powell made with his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger.

Of all the films Powell and Pressburger made together, "A Matter of Life and Death", released in America as "Stairway to Heaven", was Powell's favorite. Playful and profound, witty and carefully crafted, it distills the greatest of Powell's artistic gifts and celebrates, with an occasional self-conscious wink, the possibilities of film.

Tonight's screening at the Castro, part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, is definitely the best opportunity to see "A Matter of Life and Death". Powell's widow, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell will attend, as will Kim Hunter, who played David Niven's love interest in the film and later won an Oscar for "A Streetcar Named Desire".

Love on the Radio

In the film's opening moments, Hunter falls in love with Niven during a ham radio conversation, in the sort of deliciously preposterous, only-in-the-movies set-up that Powell adored. Niven is squadron leader Peter Carter, returning from a bombing raid over Germany and about to go down in flames.

"I'd rather jump than fry", he says despite his lack of parachute. Hunter is June, an American radio operator stationed in England, and when she hears Niven's heroic last words, she tells him she could love "a man like you".

But Niven doesn't die. And here's where Powell and Pressburger have their fun: Because of the incompetence of his "Conductor" (Marius Goring), whose job it was to deliver him to the "Other World", Niven escapes his appointment with death and finds June.

Cut to Heaven, an Orwellian vision that Powell shoots in pearly gray monochrome. What follows is a philosophical tug-of-war of sorts between Niven, who insists he was ready to die, but now should be allowed to live because of the Conductor's mistake and his love for June, and a celestial court, which wants him to keep his date with destiny.

True Destiny

But which is Niven's true destiny? At what point does life end, if at all, and when do consciousness and spirit transmute to other forms?

Powell never allows "A Matter of Life and Death" to ger wordy or ponderous, and never succumbs to the kind of sentimentality that Frank Capra evoked in "It's a Wonderful Life". It's his vivid pleasure in his work - his infatuation with film, his impeccable sense of color, and the warmth and cleverness of his and Pressburger's script - that comes through strongest in "A Matter of Life and Death".

Powell wasn't above a few cinematic tricks either. When Niven goes in for surgery Powell shoots the operating room from the point of view of his eyeballs. The image is framed by his lashes and eyelids. It's a goofy, gimmicky touch, but a reminder from Powell that art loses its value when it takes itself too seriously.

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