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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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David Lean Cinema, Croydon - 8 April 2011

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

This film was released in 1946, 65 years ago.

By 1945, when it was made, Powell & Pressburger had made a feature film every year since 1939 despite the inconvenience of the world war going on. This is set during that war but like all of their films made during the war you won't see any fighting. They were much more interested in the effects of the war on people and how people reacted to those extreme conditions.

The subject of this film was suggested by the British government, but they were NOT paid or supported by the government. Apart from 49th Parallel, which was partially paid for by the government, Powell & Pressburger remained fiercely independent.

Towards the end of the war there was quite a lot of ill-will between the British and the Americans. The Americans were famously "Over paid, over sexed and over here". They had been brought to Britain in their millions to prepare for D-Day. In their spare time they were out dating the local girls - your mothers and grandmothers - enticing them with things like stockings and chocolate which hadn't been seen for many years in heaviny rationed wartime Britain. This annoyed the British men who were still around, and the many more British men who were serving, or were prisoners, overseas.

The ill-will went the other way as well. America had stayed out of the war for the first few years, not wanting to get involved in what they saw as another European conflict. Even after Pearl Harbour there were still plenty of people in America who objected to sending their troops to Europe.

The suggestion from the Ministry of Information was that Powell & Pressburger make a film that would do something about this situation and point out that we should all be friends, despite our differences.

Powell & Pressburger wanted to make this film in 1944, for release in 1945. But they had decided early on to use Technicolor and all the Technicolor cameras in the world (there weren't many of them) were in use, mainly making training films for all of those American troops that were over here.

So while they waited they made another feature film, I Know Where I'm Going!

They needed an American girl to take the female lead. They didn't want a big established star, as independent film-makers they probably couldn't afford one and they preferred to use the talent they discovered themselves.

They went to the States and started a "search for a star". They saw quite a few but couldn't find the person they wanted. It was Powell's old friend Alfred Hitchcock who suggested that they look at a young actress who had been helping him by reading lines for other actresses who he was doing screen tests for. That young actress was Kim Hunter and as soon as they met her, Powell & Pressburger knew that their search was over.

Kim had only made a few films before, she was mainly a stage actress, but she did very well and went on to fame and fortune in A Streetcar Named Desire and of course the Planet of the Apes franchise.

I won't say anything about the contents of the film itself at this point, I'll let you form your own judgements and we can talk about it more afterwards.

I'll just add that it was selected as the first Royal Film Performance at Leicester Square in November 1946. That gave everyone a chance to dust off their tiaras and fur coats after the war and was a huge success.

Also, that if you don't yet have the DVD, it's being shown on FilmFour tomorrow.

Other P&P reviews