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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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'A Matter of Life and Death' still flies
Michael Wilmington
San Francisco Examiner

You can tell a lot about an era by the way its artists picture the afterlife. In "A Matter of Life and Death" - the Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger fantasy-romance that was originally released as "Stairway to Heaven" in the U.S. and that's now being reissued in a restored version - the world beyond looks like an otherworldly detention center.

Its officials resemble wartime bureaucrats presiding over infinite rows of office files; its closets are full of racks upon racks of identical wings. And though the film's earthly scenes range he full color spectrum, this afterlife is strictly black-and-white.

This was the kind of joke war-weary and rationing-plagued Americans and Britishers could share in 1946, when the film was issued. And indeed, "A Matter of Life and Death" was made on a commission by the British Government to help patch up strained relations between the two countries. But it's considerably more than a wartime propaganda film; it's full of the kind of sardonic touches and extravagant risks that were the stock-in-trade of the Powell-Pressburger team.

The work of these celebrated filmmakers - who collaborated under the banner of The Archers to produce classics like "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus", "I Know Where I'm Going", "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" and more - is the subject of a tribute this year by the San Francisco International Film Festival (The reissued "Matter" screens Thursday as part of the festival and then plays at the Castro for a week).

In "A Matter of Life and Death", Powell and Pressburger started with the sentimental tale of a wartime romance between a dashing British flier (Davin Niven) and an earnest American WAC (Kim Hunter). Then they catapaulted it into a metaphysical realm, where souls traverse the border between life and death along ornate staircases and appeals to heavenly tribunals take place in vast coliseums filled with spirits from every historical era. (In this version of the next life, you can take it with you, at least when it comes to period costumes)

It seems that Niven's airman had been slated to die from a parachute-less jump out of a burning bomber. But the courier sent to collect him - a foppish 17th-century Frenchman (Marius Goring) - got lost in the cursed English fog. Goring's heavenly superiors send him back to collect the missing soul; he appears to Niven in a literally time-stopping annunciation. But now that the flier's in love, he rejects the summons, and his demand for a day in supernatural court is granted.

Powell and Pressburger provide enough medical asides to allow hard-headed moviegoers to interpret all this as the product of a neurological disorder. But everyone else will follow the movie's fancies without reservation.

"A Matter of Life and Death" seems stiff and dated only as its length trial scene dwells upon a costume-drama conflict between European and American national prejudices (the American prosecutor seeking Niven's death is a caricatured Revolutionary-era firebrand played by Raymond Massey). Otherwise, there's an infectious exuberance to the filmmaking here - from the grandeur of the opening sequence in the depths of space to comic touches like the heavenly Coke machine that greets arriving American troops.

When Niven and Hunter share the films closing exchange - "We won!" "I know darling" - they seem to be referring not only to their metaphorical trial but also to the global victory that had just been secured. Powell and Pressburger found inspiration in the persistence of everyday human emotions amid the dislocations of the post-war era. And they approached "A Matter of Life and Death" with conceptual daring - a willingness to jump sans parachute.

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