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Original at Classic Images

Restoration - "A Matter of Life and Death"
By: Cathie Christie

   The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and Sony Pictures Entertainment screened a newly restored version of Michael Powell and Emerich (sic) Pressburger's benchmark film, A Matter of Life and Death, (1946) to a near capacity house last July (2000) in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Los Angeles. Powell, Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, maestro's of British film, were well-known for visually sumptuous productions like Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). A Matter of Life and Death, the first of this delicious triumvirate, pays homage to the very invention of Technicolor and captivated the Academy's contemporary audience.

   The results of the restoration are immediately evident in the color and detail of the opening sequence. We are introduced to the universe: stars, planets, novas and gasses. The blacks vary in shade and the gasses and star clusters create a view of space that could only have been imagined, predating modern space exploration. As we traverse into earth's atmosphere, the narrator reminds us of how comforting it is to know our planet is there, spinning, constant. From outer space we leave comfort and descend to the treacherous sky over England, into a dense fog as thick as the pea soup. Time is 1945, death rains from above under the assault of Hitler s terror weapons. The sounds of panic fill the night air and fall away as a conversation unfolds between June, (Kim Hunter) a young American air traffic controller and Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) of the R.A.F.

   June tries in vain to guide Carter to a safe landing area but it's no good: he ordered his crew to bail out, his engines are ablaze, and his 'sparks' (radio man) Airman Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) is already dead. Carter is on a collision course and he's about to jump because he'd rather drown than fry. There's just one catch - he's got no parachute. He wants to spend his last living moments with her voice. Where is she from? Is she pretty? Will she write a telegram to his mother telling her that he loves her? Has she ever been in love? He doesn't want an answer; he'd rather pretend for these last precious moments that she might love him. "June," says Carter, "if you're around when they pick me up, turn away, will you?" With that, Carter jumps from his plane into the fog, into the night, presumably into the arms of death.

   Technicolor dissolves to black and white as we join Trubshawe, (perhaps named after an old army buddy of Niven's who was best man at both his weddings) who waits for Carter in the other world where all good airman go to trade-in their props for wings. He waits but his Captain (Niven) never comes. It appears the unthinkable has happened - a mistake has been made.

   A Matter of Life and Death holds up today due in large part to the brilliant script crafted by Powell and Pressburger. A love story/war picture with flashes of surrealism and several good laughs, the story is about an airman who should have died from a fatal jump but was missed in the fog by the Conductor who was sent to recover and escort him to the other world. As a result, the airman falls madly in love with the American girl whom he knows only as the voice on the other end of his radio. When the Conductor tries to retrieve Carter 20 hours later, the airman refuses to go, after all it wasn't his fault he didn't die. He insists he be allowed to appeal his case to the high court. Carter's friends on earth believe he's suffered neurological damage causing him to hallucinate all of the above (maybe). He must have an operation or die. The joy of Powell and Pressburger's script is that the story line is as fantastical as it is logical and in the end they let you decide for yourself.

   A Matter of Life and Death, was released in the US in 1947 under the title Stairway to Heaven, a title Powell always disliked. Kim Hunter saw the restored version last fall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and remembered that, at the time, some great movie mogul insisted Americans would never go see a film with death in the title so it was changed for the US release. Ms. Hunter declared the restored film to be "Breathtakingly beautiful." She remembers David Niven as a "Wonderful storyteller." And of the creative team she said, "It was so wonderful to work with a group of people who cared so much about the picture."

   The film was to be a very important picture for David Niven. Having spent the war in Britain's army, he had been out of the Hollywood spotlight for 6 years. In his book, "The Moon's a Balloon" Niven wrote of his impending return, "Six months is too long for an actor to be out of business - six years is almost certain disaster." Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn welcomed Niven back into the fold with a new, five-year contract, his first film to be on 'loan out' to Powell and Pressburger for A Matter of Life and Death.

   Niven received some of the best notices of his career and the picture was chosen as England s first Royal Command Film. When it was shown at the Empire Theatre the Royal Family was nearly mobbed by the throngs that jammed Piccadilly. Ms. Hunter recalled that when the cast were introduced to the royals it was H.R.H. King George VI who told Powell that he understood the picture, that he knew what Powell and Pressburger had done and why.

   While the black and white sequences take place in the other world, earth is awash in Technicolor's brilliant tones mellowed by a soft focus lens. The transitions from Technicolor to black and white are particularly inventive. When Niven breathes in the ether that puts him to sleep for his operation, the POV puts us inside his head, behind his eyes, as his lids close and we are conveyed to the other world. It's downright surreal and brilliantly executed. Cardiff's cinematography, from his wide, epic shots of the beach on which Niven washes up, to the backlit close-ups on Kim Hunter in the last scene of the film, is dazzling. This is classic British filmmaking at it's finest, enhanced by 1990's technology.

   In 1995 the British Film Institute released a version of the film that had some restoration work done on it. According to Grover Crisp, V.P. of Asset Management and Film Restoration at Sony Pictures they were not satisfied and hence the desire to fully restore the work. Undertaken in July of 1999, Sony, in cooperation with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the British Film Institute, began the restoration which was completed a year later at a cost of around $150,000.00. The process was all photochemical and only the soundtrack was remastered digitally. "The color sequences," says Crisp, "have a vibrancy and a palette that people haven't seen in quite some time." He and Mike Pogorzelski of the Academy have collaborated on several projects including the restorations of: Oliver, The Matinee Idol, and a series of Columbia's noir films. They are in the completion stages of All the Kings Men, The Lady from Shaghai and The Lion in Winter.

   "The key collaborators are the laboratories. They are the unsung heroes of film restoration," said Crisp. A Matter of Life and Death was done at the YCM Lab in Burbank, CA and the soundtrack was remastered at Chace Productions. According to Crisp one of the biggest challenges in film restoration today is the instability of the new digital technology. Because no two films are exactly the same it's trial and error. What couldn't be done three years ago in some cases, can be accomplished today. Easy Rider took four different processes because what worked in one shot didn't work in the next. The original negative for In Cold Blood was damaged in over 30 places. The challenges are often daunting and the technology continues to change rapidly. "Digital," claims Crisp, "is unreliable, takes time and increases costs."

   A Matter of Life and Death had challenges of its own. The British Film Institute provided the technicians with the camera negative for the three-strip Technicolor film. They discovered that when the original film was edited the three strips were slightly out of alignment. Although this was less of the problem in 1946, it became more of problem in 1999 when in addition to the misalignment, the technicians found that the three strips had shrunk in the ensuing 50 plus years. Adding to the challenge was the fact that each strip had shrunk at a different rate. There are a few moments when the film looks slightly out of focus but all in all the color sequences are impressive.

   The team was further tested, surprisingly, by the black and white sequences. There was no original black & white negative from the film, which was apparently cut together with duplicate negatives. The delicate process involved shooting a new positive of the black and white with black and white film stock. From the positive three separate fine grain negatives were made. The team then discovered that the original black & white negative had it's own set of defects which transferred to the three newly printed negatives. However, not all the negatives had inherited the same defects. It became clear that it was impossible to cut the three new negatives together because of the varied defects, and in the end they chose the best of three b&w negatives and cut it into the new film.

   A Matter of Life and Death looks beautiful, sounds as clear as a bell and is an excellent piece of storytelling that is reflective of a very important time in our history. It was made in England in the year following the end of World War II. Entire countries had been torn apart and millions had died. The world yearned to make sense of it all and there was a desperate need for healing.

   Airman Peter Carter must appeal to the high court of the other world to commute his sentence. Having survived Hitler, Carter's counsel argues for "the rights of the common man against the system", trumpeting democracy's crushing defeat of the dictator. Through Carter and June, Powell and Pressburger assert that healing can only come through love and understanding. Carter professes his right to protest because he was ready to die on the day he was supposed to die and it isn't his fault that he didn't! Now he's in love and his only chance of winning his case is to prove how powerful that love is.

   The Prosecutor (Raymond Massey) makes a long-winded speech, rife with bigotry and isolationist doctrine, questioning whether or not this girl of good American stock and the Englishman are experiencing anything more than a love of the moment. He insists their love is flimsy in comparison to the power of the law. "In all the universe, nothing is more powerful than the law." In all of Germany no one had been more powerful than Hitler and he was the law. Finally, love itself is put to the test when June must prove her love by taking Carter's place in the balance sheet. Can they win? Does love conquer all?

   A Matter of Life and Death is a bold piece of filmmaking, much more so than the average war picture (no disrespect intended) and a most worthy treasure. Several people at the Academy screening of A Matter of Life and Death inquired as to when the film would be available on DVD. While Sony Pictures Entertainment appears to be dedicated to preservation and restoration of it's extensive archive, it is an enormous organization and economics must be taken into account. Often the newer films are given the video or DVD greenlight sooner that the older ones. I was able to locate and older version of the film on video for rent at a local video store. Not surprisingly, the quality can't be compared with this newly restored version. If you would like to add this version of A Matter of Life and Death to your collection, and I highly recommend you do, you may contact Sony Pictures Entertainment to inquire about a release date.

Sony Pictures Entertainment
Columbia Home Video
10000 W. Washington Blvd.,
Room 8101
Culver City,
CA 90232.

Peter CarterDavid Niven
JuneKim Hunter
Frank ReevesRoger Livesey
Bob TrubshaweRobert Coote
Abraham FarlanRaymond Massey
Conductor 71Marius Goring
An AngelKathleen Byron
English PilotRichard Attenborough
An American PilotBonar Colleano
VicarRobert Atkins
Dr. GaertlerBob Roberts
Dr. McEwanEdwin Max
Mrs. TuckerBetty Potter
The JudgeAbraham Sofaer
Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger
Director of Photography Jack Cardiff, F.R.P.S.
Music by Allan Gray
Conducted by Walter Goehr
Production design by Alfred Junge
Film edited by Reginald Mills
Sound Recorder C. C. Stevens
Special Effects by Douglas Woolsey, Henry Harris,
Additional Effects by Percy Day
Motor-bike shots by Michael Chorlton
Costumes by Hein Heckroth
Make-up by George Blackler
Hair Styles by Ida Mills

   Restoration supervised by the Academy Film Archive and Sony Pictures Entertainment in collaboration with the British Film Institute Collection's National Film, Television and Video Archive. 1946. Running Time: 104 minutes. 35mm. Color.

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