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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Original at BBC Movie pages
A Matter Of Life And Death (U)
Powell and Pressburger's otherworldly story of a WWII pilot defending his right to stay on earth. Mark Morris revisits a true classic.
Director: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger
Cast: David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Clip from the film.
Great art can come from unlikely sources. This most original and unabashedly romantic of British films was made at the suggestion of some bureaucrat at the Ministry of Information. World War II had just finished, and the Labour government wanted to keep Anglo-American relations running smoothly. Bizarrely, the job was given to Powell and Pressburger, Britain's most flamboyant filmmakers. Instead of a worthy propaganda film, they came up with a fantastical plot which uses love as the link between the two nations. In the near-perfect opening, English bomber pilot Peter D Carter (David Niven) spends his last few minutes in a burning plane discussing poetry and cracking jokes through the crackly ether with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). The punchline comes when Carter announces "I'm bailing out, but there is a catch: I've got no parachute".
After leaping towards his certain death, Carter is bewildered to find himself alive on an English beach. He finds June and they fall in love. In the meantime, his unscheduled absence has caused a crisis in heaven. The story runs in parallel between Carter waiting for brain surgery on earth and appealing to a celestial court to keep his new leash on life. Powell reversed the logic of `The Wizard Of Oz', shooting England in lushest Technicolour, while the highly bureaucratic heaven is rendered in precise black and white. Technically, it remains an extraordinary film: unforgettable effects include a camera oscura overlooking a village, the massive stairway to heaven and the shot of Carter's eyelid closing seen from inside his head. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff and designer Alfred Junge deserve an enormous amount of credit.
But the burden still rests on Niven's shoulders. `A Matter Of Life And Death' is the highpoint of his long career. As a war hero himself, he was the obvious choice for Carter, the pilot and poet who has to embody all that is good about England (and it is specified as England, rather than Britain). He does: he's relaxed, charming, funny, romantic yet logical. The only weak point of the film comes when the trial becomes a tired argument about the qualities of England versus America. Niven's acting is a far more convincing defence of an idealised Englishness than any list of poets.
Does the `A Matter Of Life And Death' deserve its reputation as one of the very best films ever made in this country? Without any doubt at all.
See also the BBC's interview with Kim Hunter about her memories of making AMOLAD.
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