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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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Submitted by Jeremy Robinson

An impossible romance?
By: Jeremy Robinson

     A Matter of Life and Death (1946) showed Powell at the height of his powers as a director and magical image-maker. It was favourite among The Archers' films. His self-assurance with the camera is amazing; not only in the operatic camera movements, the stylised sets, the extravagant and subtle lighting, the visual conceits, but also in the beautiful pacing and editing, and the skilful transitions between scenes. A Matter of Life and Death was a fantasy set in a realistic wartime Britain involving an RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven, never better) who is taken to heaven by an angelic messenger, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring, as a foppish Frenchman of the Revolution) while doctors (led by Roger Livesey's Dr Reeves) on Earth fight to save his life. When Carter bails out of his burning Lancaster bomber without a parachute, he should die, but somehow survives (the film was apparently based on a real incident of a British gunner who fell 18,000 ft and survived); in the governmental bureaucratic machine of Heaven, 91,716 people were 'invoiced' but 91,715 were 'delivered'; Conductor 71 is thus sent down from Heaven to fetch Carter. Meanwhile, Carter has fallen in with an American woman, June (Kim Hunter), at an airbase in Kent. At Carter's trial in Heaven, the airman is represented by his doctor, Reeves; the prosecution is led by the anti-British Abraham Farlan, who died at the hands of the English in the War of Independence. One of the goals of A Matter of Life and Death was to ease Anglo-American relations at the end of the war (the film was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to promote Anglo-American relations), hence the many lines in the script about America and Britain. Some of the British-American interplay is depicted in a comic fashion (to illustrate the current state of Britain, Farlan uses a radio to play some cricket commentary to the court; Reeves responds with some American jazz music). A Matter of Life and Death started shooting in September, 1945, after the war had ended; a reference to the atomic bomb appeared in the opening narration ('someone's been messing around with the uranium atom again') over an image of a star exploding. The budget was 300,000. A Matter of Life and Death was the first film to be chosen for the Royal Command Performance, which was a starry affair, with 50,000 people turning up to see the celebrities at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

     The performances were strong (from Niven, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey, and Powell regulars Roger Livesey and Kathleen Byron). Heaven was shot in glowing black-and-white (because people will expect it to be filmed in colour, Powell said), and Earth in exuberant Technicolor (it was Jack Cardiff's first feature film, an extraordinary debut). Cardiff suggested using Technicolor rather than standard black-and-white stock for the Heaven scenes, to give it a pearly look, and also for the gradual transitions between colour and black-and-white. Music was by Allan Gray, one the regular Archers collaborators; his atonal theme on the piano, for the astral staircase scenes, was perhaps the most memorable part of the score. There had been two wartime films set in Heaven: Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), and two Fritz Lang films (Der M de Tod and Liliom).

     Some of Powell's conceits included having Niven appear on Earth beside frozen actors; bells that didn't ring; people passing through doors; time being frozen (when Livesey and Hunter play table tennis, for example); whip pans during the ping-pong match; a startling point-of-view shot through a huge eyelid which closes when Niven is on the operating table; the use of Cocteauesque film running backwards (a table that's fallen over is righted again); one of June's tears caught on the petals of a rose (used as evidence by Dr Reeves); dissolves between colour and black-and-white (on a close-up of a flower, or Niven's tormented face, or the beaches of Kent). The dissolves to colour allowed for some visual jokes and verbal ones (Goring's messenger, for example, in an aside to camera when he visits Earth, says 'one is starved for Technicolor up there'). The sets were remarkable on A Matter of Life and Death (designed by Powell regular Alfred Junge) most memorable was the gigantic moving staircase between Earth and Heaven (which gave A Matter of Life and Death its other title, Stairway to Heaven), lined with giant statues of famous people (Solomon, Voltaire, Plato, Abraham Lincoln). It had 100 20 foot-wide steps (the crew nicknamed it 'Ethel'). The enormous courtroom set in Heaven was also very impressive, with its rows and rows of seats and arched roof. The settings on Earth were also highly stylised, with Powell's customary eye for colour and detail (the outdoor studio set where the lovers are together at night, for example, with its masses of rhododendrons, roses and pink flowers).

     The opening of A Matter of Life and Death has rightly been celebrated: everyone remembers the desperate, emotional dialogue between Carter in his stricken Lancaster bomber somewhere over the Channel on a fogbound night and radio operator June. It is a wild, improbable opening, with Carter reciting poetry, speaking metaphysically and crazily, and falling in love in the space of five minutes with June. The scene, fantastical though it is, is grounded in a carefully constructed reality, with the Lancaster cockpit torn apart, the wind howling through it, and Carter's mate, Bob Trubshaw (Robert Coote), dead and bloodstained beside him. Few films have such a strong beginning. It's all highly unlikely, but so brilliantly pulled off that the viewer is swept along by it. This is film-making at its best. This scene was not the very first one, however: there was a prologue, involving a complex panning shot around the universe that ends up on Earth; this section of the film, with its narrator explaining about supernova and galaxies, was like a populist scientific lecture. The urge to explain was undercut with humour (the opening of A Matter of Life and Death is 'this is the universe ... big, isn't it?'). Then came some dissolves to a model map of Europe at war, seen through fog from miles above, with the narration explaining that the fire in Germany or Poland was a city after an Allied bombing raid. The movement from outer space to Earth, moving closer and closer, has been used many times in movies. After this scene, the themes of A Matter of Life and Death gradually emerge: love and death, love and war, Heaven and Earth, America and England. The Romantic aspects of A Matter of Life and Death included many references to poetry (Byron's famous poem 'She Walks in Beauty Like the Night' was quoted over Hunter on her bike); references to Shakespeare (the Americans are putting on A Midsummer Night's Dream) in the country house; in the final scene, the judge quotes from a poem about love from Sir Walter Scott.

     A Matter of Life and Death had a mythic, fairy tale simplicity to it: viz., the early scenes, with Niven being washed up on the beach following his leap from the burning Lancaster bomber; after stumbling ashore, he meets a young, nude goat-herd, playing a flute and surrounded by goats, a character out of Greek mythology; immediately after this encounter, he meets June riding on her bicycle.

     A Matter of Life and Death is impossibly romantic? and Romantic. Wartime Britain was evoked in an idealised fashion, with the Americans and British being uncommonly friendly. Jokes were made about national stereotypes (the American GIs have a Coca-Cola machine laid on for them in Heaven, for example, while Niven's Lancaster pilot is pure stiff upper lip). Also, Goring's Frenchman made many comparisons between the British and French. British stereotypes included Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, a country house, a rural Kent village, the English coastline, with its cliffs and dunes, stiff upper lip mannerisms, women compared to roses ('English rose'), the doctor on his motorbike (a T.E. Lawrence figure? He also dies in a motorcycle crash).

     Despite these idealisations and Powell's overriding urge towards fantasy, anti-naturalism and romance, parts of the earthbound scenes are 'realistic': Powell said the film was a 'surgical operation' grounded in reality, not a fairy tale. As an example, he cited Dr Reeve's death, at night, in the rain, burning to death when his motorcycle goes up in flames. The same sense of brutal realism was included at the end of The Red Shoes, when Moira Sharer's feet were cut off by the steam train.

     Other pure Powell touches in A Matter of Life and Death included Dr Reeves (Livesey) being first introduced to the audience as a latter-day alchemist or magus: he is shown in a darkened room working a camera obscure, with the images of a Kinetic village being projected onto an oval garden table. Here Reeves is like the film director as deity, overseeing and (optically controlling) the denizens of his Kent village.

     The ending of A Matter of Life and Death was profoundly romantic, and as gloomily sentimental as the slushiest Hollywood tearjerker: the court descends the heavenly stairway to observe the medical operation on Carter; Carter (now in his flying gear) has to prove to the court that he loves June; she is asked to do the same. The ultimate is giving up one's life for the beloved, so June is asked (by Dr Reeves) to prove she loves Carter by stepping onto the staircase and taking his place in Heaven. She does so, and the stairs start to move upward, separating the lovers; Powell cuts between close-ups of June and Carter staring at each other. Then, with a jolt, and in a close-up on the tearful June, the stairs stop; June runs down the stairs to embrace Carter. Reeves informs the assembly that although the law may be the strongest thing in the universe, 'on Earth, nothing is stronger than love'. The film ends with the lovers embracing, having been granted a long life by the court.

     Jeremy Robinson

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