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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One to die for
When I was a kid, my image of the afterlife didn't come from a synagogue or church. I got it from "Stairway to Heaven". I saw the marvelous British fantasy on the "Million Dollar Movie" when the old black-and-white TV set got three channels if the rabbit ears were properly arranged.
It wasn't so much a stairway as an escalator that ferried souls to a bureaucratic heaven where individuals were invoiced and delivered in a stripped-down Oz. With its beams of light, standard-issue wing sets and salesgirl angels, it was a sedate, approachable place - like Sears first thing on a Sunday.
While you could rub shoulders with famous historical icons from Abe Lincoln to Paul Bunyan, this heaven was a child-free zone. That was when I still believed that because my sister was 4 years older than me, her death would precede mine by four years.
In the Michael Powell - Emeric Pressburger movie, which was released in 1946 as "A Matter of Life and Death", there was also a loophole, a way to cheat the inevitable. David Niven's R.A.F. pilot leaps from his injured plane over the English Channel without a parachute. He survives because the angel assigned to guide him got lost in the fog.
The fabulous Marius Goring plays Conductor 71, the efette Frenchman who "lost his head" in the French Revolution and is still a little addled by the experience.
The movie becomes an appeal to heavenly court for Niven to remain on earth. The pilot's chief argument is that he has fallen for Kim Hunter, the American soldier he bonded with over the radio as his plane plunged. Conductor 71's mistake has resulted not only in a delayed death, but in the birth of a true love.
"A Matter of Life and Death" is a matter of love and propaganda. What I couldn't have known when I was watching the movie on a Sunday afternoon before bath and Disney's wonderful world was that the Archers, as the Powell-Pressburger team are known, were men with a mission. They began shooting on V-J Day with an assignment: encourage British and American amity in the post-war era.
While the movie celebrates abandoning reason and embracing love, there are a number of pointed scenes that I saw in a new light with a little historical perspective. Niven says of his Yankee girl-next-door, "Her accent is foreign, but it sounds sweet to me".
The climactic heavenly trial is not a pitched debate about morality, but a grudge match between the British and Americans who air all sorts of mutual cliches before finding common ground, a code of law in which the rights of the individual are protected against the system.
Watching the new, restored 35mm print, I discovered a major difference from the upbeat-titled TV version I remembered: heaven is in black and white, but earth is in glorious color.
British spring is heaven on earth, with azaleas in bountiful bloom and lush greenery. The Conductor's tossaway phrase suddenly has bie; when he comes down to England to retrieve Niven he says "One is starved for Technicolor up there".
Don't miss "A Matter of Life and Death", which begins a two-week run today as part of the Film Forum's Powell-Pressburger tribute. During their 14-year collaboration as the Archers (1942-56), the filmmakers made 14 films including "The Red Shoes", "Black Narcissus" and "Contraband".
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