Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


An American poster with the film's altered name.
The Archers

Following several years of living in fear of their homeland possibly being struck at any time by foreign enemies, British movie audiences are delivered a fantastical reprieve with a lighthearted tale of a soldier literally facing death in the 1946 picture A Matter of Life and Death. Written, directed, and produced by the cinematically adventurous duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressurger, better known as “The Archers,” this picture mixed the loss of war with a love story while providing hints of unique British humor. The product resulted in what is one of the top motion pictures in British cinema history.

A Matter of Life and Death is a british romantic fantasy drama of an air force pilot called to a celestial court where he must defend his right to live after he miraculously survives a plane crash, oversight made by the afterlife that they hope to right. British bomber captain Peter David Carter (David Niven) bails out from his damaged bomber over the sea without a parachute and survives miraculously unscathed. Soon after, Peter is confronted a celestial being only he is able to see, known as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), informing him that he is supposed to have died and he is here to collect Peter’s soul. Peter argues that that following his survival he had fallen in love with an American radio servicewoman named June (Kim Hunter) and appeals that due to this he cannot now be declared dead.

The otherworldly powers that be allow Peter to defend his continued existence in a celestial court. Paralleling Peter’s afterlife visions, on Earth his life-threatening head injury leads him to a risky brain surgery, coinciding the surgery with the afterlife trial. The prosecution is led by Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) the first American to die in the Revolutionary War with a staunch bias against all British. To defend Peter is Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey), the intellectual physician who was caring Peter’s brain injury before suffering a life claiming accident, joining his patient on the other side, now understanding the reality of Peter’s visions. Reeves defends Peter’s character, his love for June, and the character of Britain’s to the anti-English prosecution as well as the jury complied of various Americans. In the end, it is June, brought to the court under a dream state as a character witness, who saves Peter, sacrificing herself for his own. The manifestation of love sways the jury to believe that love allows Peter and June to continue living on Earth.

The film is a wonderfully creative story with marvelous use of the motion picture medium to a grand measure for its day. The filmmakers utilizing great special effects, creative use of Technicolor, and memorable performances from a talented cast to release one of the year’s very best pictures. This is a case of employing the medium’s unique delivery of storytelling to its fullest, producing a tale that could not be shared in such magnificence anywhere else. Capturing the drama and earnestness of the time and mixing in a form of fanciful whimsy of spirituality while parlaying any connection to religion itself, creates a film that lasts the test of time providing comedy, drama, and the feeling of awe in a singular picture.

The filmmaking partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was a powerhouse of British cinematic creativity. Together known by their production company name “The Archers,” the two were determined to bring unique independent features that they controlled wholly and delivered with the upmost quality that they stood by. Both shared time writing their films while Powell tended to much of the actual directing and Pressburger focused on logistics of producing. In their partnership, they chose to share their credits, as if they were the cinematic Beatles of their day.

A Matter of Life and Death speaks to how committed the filmmakers were to their product, sparing no expense when it came to effectively delivering that which they felt best served their films. From the beginning the production was delayed due to limitations British cinema was enduring because of World War II. Three strip Technicolor was being rationed in the United States, mostly utilized by government instructional film, and the producers had to delay the start of shooting until avenues opened for the color film shock to return to England. Sets were elaborate for the production as well, including that of the vast divine courtroom, as well as the large moving staircase from earth to the afterlife. He large motorized moving staircase proved to be so loud on stage that all dialogue had to be re-recorded afterwards, adding further cost to the picture.

Upon completion of principle photography, the filmmakers decided on further differentiating the style of the “other world” from earth by having the other side (I am carefully not using the word “heaven,” as the filmmakers did so in avoiding beliefs in the picture) be presented in black and white while Earth remained in color. With all scenes shot in Technicolor, post-production delivered the style they wanted by only developing one of the three color strip with a special process that avoided adding any color. Utilizing technically one third of the definition of the high-quality Technicolor process delivered not only the black and white image they desired, but created a slight fuzziness to the gain s of the frames, delivering a dream-like hazy characteristic that further added to these scenes.

Through the years The Archers had developed a regular stable of actors that they preferred to work with in their productions. By utilizing the same actors in their many films production was usually smoother and sometimes quicker during principle photography. You may recognize Roger Livesey and Raymond Massey as two of these such continually used cast members. Livesey’s authoritative, yet compassionate delivery provides the characteristics that make Dr. Reeves a very liable individual. Canadian born Raymond Massey portrays the anti-British character, Abraham Farlan. Massey portrays well he snickering and seething American character which pants the US in a bad light, but eventually gives in to British-American relations through the idea of love. Irony is the versatile Massey would become an American citizen shortly after this picture.

The outside stars of the picture are the two that carry the romance of the picture, David Niven and Kim Hunter. David Niven supports the picture with a uniquely British class and drama that he does so well. Known later in his career for playing the proper and many time snooty Englishman in Hollywood films, Niven here balances the drama and romance as Peter, while being able to dip into some dry humor from time to time. Kim Hunter was a surprise for the filmmakers, discovering her with recommendation from fellow British born filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock to Powell and Pressburger. The 23-year-old actress was not the most elegant actress on screen, but the filmmakers were looking for a more simple American actress that conveyed the simple American qualities of a servicewoman that any British man would fall in love with. This was Hunter’s first major movie role before going to Broadway for the next five years.

The Matter of Life and Death was a major motion picture for British audiences, being the first to receive a royal premiere, an event where British royalty would attend and proceeds for the event would be donated to a fund that supports British cinema. Due to American distributors believing negative box office results from a movie title with the word “death” in it, the title of the picture was charged in the United States to Stairway to Heaven, a reference to the significant set piece in the film. State side the picture would bring in good numbers as well, resulting a in strong box office numbers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Part of A Matter of Life and Death’s brilliance derives from the film’s plot being open to interpretation. The love story and court case is simple and entertaining by itself, but there is not definitive answer to how Peter’s visions of the afterlife relate to him in real life. Did Peter actually go visit the other side and prove his case for living, or was it all a hallucination resulted from a brain injury that was sured through his surgery? This is partially complicated due to the actor Abraham Sofaer portraying Peter’s surgeon also portraying the otherworldly Judge. The ultimate conclusion on the matter of what Peter envisioned being real or not is left to the audience to interpret on their own. Both story structures work and can become a great conversation piece among viewers of the picture.

A Matter of Life and Death has held a strong respect in British cinema since its release in late 1946. For years, it remains on many top British film lists through the decades to this day. Whether you know it as A Matter of Life and Death, or as Stairway to Heaven, it is a wonderful picture that is imaginative and beautifully orchestrated, a must see for any classic film aficionado.

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