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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 Mark Fuller

A Matter of Life and Death

From: Time and Tide
9 November 1946

I like my cinema a little mad. David Niven yelling "Give me my scallop-shell of quiet" into the uncaring infinite as the burning bomber fell pleased me. If only he had yelled it only to the uncaring infinite and not to a caring W.A.C. also.

     A Matter of Life and Death could have been a fine and flowing picture. It might have said something that has never been said before or anyway never in the cinema. When you come to think of it that shouldn't be very difficult because so few things are ever said in cinemas. Most weeks I learn that love conquers all and that it's all right to dig gold a little if you are pretty and sorry. If A Matter of Life and Death hadn't hankered to show me that love conquered all even in Heaven it could have shown me more interesting things. How, for instance, it feels to be half alive and half dead with earth and Heaven battling for you. When the film's hero leaps a thousand feet without a parachute and doesn't die he has a mystical experience as well as a miraculous escape. For blest seconds it looks as though Powell and Pressburger comprehended this. There is a perfect shot of wide sands that the sea has washed new. As the young man staggers across them he casts off his flying equipment like mortal coils. Is he alive or is he dead ? We don't know and he doesn't. A boy sits naked playing a flute. The hero asks his way. We open our minds to magic and are wafted to the W.A.C. hostel where the youth of America rehearse Shakespeare and play ping-pong.

     All we lack is a bogus psycho-analyst. We find him soon. He has a beard and some smart talk about visions and onions. He is Roger Livesey. He and the W.A.C. (Kim Hunter) do battle for the hero's soul against the powers of Heaven as represented by a Heavenly messenger (Marius Goring) who trips around in the clothes he was beheaded in in the French Revolution and looks as though he's mislaid Sadler's Wells. When the Heavenly messenger speaks to the hero time has its stop. When this happened in Les Visiteurs du Soir, my heart stood still. At A Matter of Life and Death I spent my seconds wondering what Powell and Pressburger were going to make of Heaven.

     But there is a remarkable sequence before we go there. Doctors operate on the hero's brain and the camera goes with him in the ambulance to the hospital, along the wooden corridor to the theatre, down the long journey of anaesthesia to what Flecker called 'Ether's long bankless streams". Our eyes see only what the ill man's eyes see. It is, I suppose, hospital ceilings that the dying say goodbye to. We like to think that we shall look our last on street or hill or sea but really it will be on flaking distemper and the homes of spiders.

     Heaven is one of those things that functionalism hasn't helped. Both the Primitives and the Victorians were right to people it with bright harps and cosy angels. Powell and Pressburger have made it look like a sports ground. Its inhabitants wear the uniforms of the United Nations. They died in uniform and now they face eternity in it. Their minds are clad in the prejudices current on earth when they left it.

     Clad too in the limits of the director's wit. Powell and Pressburger wrote A Matter of Life and Death as well as directing it. Even a functional heaven could come alive with wit and poetry. We must make do with moral cliches and with small jokes about GIs. Who shall defend our hero's right to stay on earth with his W.A.C.? "If it's Voltaire," I said to myself, "you will leave in protest." I could not bear what Powell and Pressburger would do to Voltaire. Fortunately the bearded neurologist perishes in a motor accident in time to defend his patient.

     I am afraid this is a biased notice. I applaud a film that tries to find new mental territory. I am cajoled by moments of sensitiveness like the pilot and his poetry, the scene on the washed sands, the journey into anaesthesia. Because of these things I like to forget the vulgarity of moving staircases which linked earth and Heaven, the inadequate tenderness of the heroine who like all heroines in films of this kind, has only to look tender and doesn't know what this ????ely word means, the implied suggestion that even the saints read this morning's newspapers. I don't ????? that St Peter is delivered a News Chronicle . Only everyone in heaven seems fascinated by the goings on on earth, goings on which, though earthbound myself, I have long since ceased to find fascinating.

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