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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It's Like Heaven on Earth
Postwar classic by Powell is given a new lease on 'Life'
and you'll be eternally grateful for Brit's winged victory
During and directly after World War II, Hollywood released a large number of supernatural romance films - such as "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" - that suggested love was not limited by death. It was a message of obvious comfort to the many thousands whose partners did not return at the conflict's end.
The most haunting and original of these films remains a British production, "A Matter of Life and Death", created in 1946 by a team of film makers who called themselves The Archers - writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell. Retitled "Stairway to Heaven" for its American release in 1947, the film has been restored to its original length and title by the British Film Institute with grants from Piper-Heidsieck. The results - as breathtakingly beautiful a Technicolor print as you ever will see - are on display these next two weeks at Film Forum.
The tour-de-force opening sequence presents an RAF pilot, David Niven's Peter Carter. preparing to jump without a parachute from his burning bomber as it approaches England: in the few minutes before his leap he establishes radio contact with June (Kim Hunter) a WAC working the late shift at squadron headquarters. In the intensity of the moment, they fall in love. Peter jumps, presumably to his death.
But he does not die, waking up on a pristine beach he believes at first to be paradise but is (second-best) good old England. A woman in uniform is riding by on a bicycle - June of course, never believing she'd see Peter alive. It's all a mixip, a procedural error committed by a celestial "conductor" (Marius Goring in the drag of an 18th-century French Aristocrat) who should have been lifting Peter's soul to the other world but somehow let him slip back to Earth.
Powell's most famous invention is to present Earth in the ravishing hues of '40s Technicolor and heaven in pristine black and white, but the film is full of audacities. While June and the local doctor (Roger Livesey) try to calm Peter, he imagines himself in a celestial court, where he must argue his right to remain on Earth.
There are special effects sequences that still dazzle - a moving stairway that crosses the heavens, a view of the village through the doctor's camera obscura - yet the movie's most memorable effects are simple; an intense red light that blooms over June's shoulder in the opening scene, a freeze-frame that holds a tear on the petal of a rose.
It adds up to one of the great accomplishments of the medium. Don't miss it.
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