The Masters  
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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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Senior Screenings at the Curzon, Clevedon
10 October 2012

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

This film has a curious history. It's one of a series of films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the team that they called The Archers. Powell & Pressburger had been making films together since 1939, a major feature film every year despite World War II going on around them.

Powell & Pressburger wanted to make this film in 1944 for release in '45. But they decided early on that they wanted to use Technicolor and there weren't many Technicolor cameras available. All of the ones that existed were in use making training films for the armed forces. Mainly telling G.I.s how to behave in Britain and then in Europe.

This film was inspired by a meeting that Powell & Pressburger had with the Ministry of Information (MoI) who mentioned that there was a bit of animosity between the British and the Americans. There was some ill feeling towards the American forces who were famously "Over paid, over sexed and over here" especially in the build up to D-Day. But there was also some animosity by the Americans towards the British for getting them involved in another European war which some of them claimed was just to help preserve the British Empire.

Powell & Pressburger were independent film-makers. They didn't take orders from the government or from anyone else, but they listened to suggestions, so they started to think about this idea.

The amount of freedom they had was unusual and has never been repeated. Once their first few films were seen to be successful they were given their initial funding by backers like J. Arthur Rank and then they were left alone to make whatever film they wanted to.

This film had an initial budget of 320,000 in 1945. That's over 10 million at today's prices so Rank obviously had a lot of faith in them and as long as they continued to make interesting and successful films, he continued to back them with no interference.

Emeric Pressburger would write the original story. All of their films since 1940 and many of the films they made after this were from original stories by Emeric. They would pass the script back and forth between each other as they worked out the details. Michael Powell would do most of the directing but Emeric was always nearby. The whole team of The Archers made a massive contribution to each film. They worked as an artistic collective, all of them striving to make the best film possible. If a scene wasn't working out as well as they hoped they would discuss it with cast and crew and listen to suggestions. Then they would change it and shoot a new or different scene. Emeric was always on hand to make sure that any changes fitted seamlessly into the story.

The cast and crew were hired separately for each film. Nobody was on a long term contract. But such was the reputation of Powell & Pressburger and the films they made that people were queuing up to work with them. They never used a casting director, Micky Powell cast every actor himself, even for the minor roles. Micky had seen just about every film and every play of any interest or quality and he had a prodigious memory and could remember performances he'd seen years ago. The heads of departments in the crew, the cinematographer, the designers, the composer, were all very experienced people at the top of their game.

So who were these unusual people, Powell & Pressburger?

Michael Powell was born near Canterbury in 1905. The son of a Kent hop farmer Michael was raised as a classic Edwardian English gentlemen. But unlike many people at that time, he was an Englishman with a world view. Well travelled and superbly well read he was interested in the cinema from a young age. He started working in film studios in the south of France from 1925 where he learnt all about how films were made. He started directing his own films in 1930, making a series of quota films. These were a good training ground as he developed his skills.

Emeric Pressburger was born in Hungary in 1902. The son of a Jewish estate manager he did well at school specialising in mathematics, music, and writing stories. He worked in Germany, France and then in Britain. In each country he had to learn the language well enough to write films in that language.

Both men shared a deep love of Britain, its history, literature and culture. Pressburger saw Britain with the eyes of the outsider learning to understand his new home while Powell knew Britain and the British in all their eccentricities, customs & dialects. Together they created a picture of Britain that was subtle, valid and unique.

All of their films are unusual, daring and intelligent. In this film, A Matter of Life and Death, they took advantage of the extra year to do some very detailed research on brain conditions which would have only been understood by a handful of people at the time, but which are remarkably accurate and have been the subject of some academic work in recent years. Their films were about a wide range of subjects and genres, the only common factor is quality in depth with a very well crafted story, great design and memorable performances.

Because it was delayed by a year, the war had finished by the time it was released, but it is still significant because so many people had lost loved ones and the subjects of life, death and love were very important.

Watch out for when they go to collect Peter from the operating theatre and he walks straight through a glass panelled door - without injuring himself. It must have taken ages to make that shot, and it's over in a couple of seconds.

This film was chosen for the first ever Royal Film Performance in November 1946. The King and Queen and the two princesses saw it - so you're in good company, even if they couldn't make it here today.

Enjoy the film.

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