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A Matter of Life and Death,

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2015

Title

This film recently, screened in the Leeds Young Film Festival, is one of the finest of the collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It has a well-written script, the assemblage of conventional and unconventional film techniques, and an oddly quirky but romantic sense of British/English culture. Moreover the film includes contributions by one of the best production teams that Powell and Pressburger worked with. There is Jack Cardiff, possibly the finest cinematographer to work in the Technicolor format. Alfred Junge and Hein Heckwith’s Production Design are both stylish and apt. The editing by Reginald Mills offers the necessary continuity but at other points introduces contrast and counterpoint. And Allan Gray, who had already worked on I Know Where I’m Going, provides music that is both apt and offers well grounded motifs.

There is also a very fine cast. David Niven combines feeling with a sharp edge in the character of Squadron leader Peter Cartwright:

”We also saw, for the first time, the real David Niven: shrewd, kind, quick-witted and full of fantasy, the image of our hero Peter …”

Kim Hunter achieves a genuine sense of emotional feeling as June:

“When she acted, imagination and intelligence showed in every line she spoke.”

Between them Roger Livesey manages the character of Dr. Frank Reeves as on one hand a bluff Englishman, on the other hand one with a strain of committed idealism. And Marius Goring is a sheer delight as the French aristocrat reduced to heavenly work as Conductor 71. There is a Powell regular Kathleen Byron, unfortunately, apart from one fleeting Technicolor close-up, only seen in the monochrome sequences of the film. Robert Coote is the cheery, but now dead, radio operator [sparks] Bob. And then there are visiting stars like Raymond Massey (as Abraham Farlan) bringing the requisite ‘American’ touch to the film.

The plot of the film involves earth and ‘the other world’; though the word ‘heaven’ pops up in the dialogue. And the odyssey of the hero, crossing from life to death, would seem to address for many in the contemporary audience a sense of an after life, which still retained religious connotations. The film certainly speaks to the loss and grief, which was the experience of so many who themselves survived the war.

Revisiting the film for the umpteenth time I was struck by the complexity of tropes, motifs and generic facets that combine in this film. The Red Shoes offers a greater intensity: Black Narcissus offers more exotic and sensuous settings: but this film seems to explore the philosophical predilections of the duo in great depth. The complexity can be illustrated to a degree by looking at the generic aspects of the film.

War Movie:

Lancaster

This is the obvious aspect of the plot: a love affair threatened by the exigencies of armed conflict. After the introduction the film offers a splendid sequence as a crippled Lancaster bomber attempts to return to its base and England. The military personnel and institutions dominate both the earthly sequences and the heavenly sequences of the film. Whilst the film does not dwell on sadness and loss, we are constantly reminded by characters who have paid the ultimate price in armed conflict.

Romance:

This offers the emotional heart of the film and viewers are likely to identify with and root for the young lovers. In classic generic mould love is threatened by forced separation. Whilst familiarly this has a religious aspect the film manages to find a daring alternative to the norm. The technique of monochrome and Technicolor alternation reaches a climax when ‘the other world’ finally enters its rich palette. And in terms of that film study favourite Propp we have – a villain – Farlan: a donor – Reeves: a helper – Bob: a princess – June: a dispatcher – Conductor 71: a hero/victim – Peter. All we are missing is a false hero.

Peter June

An Atlanticist paean:

This particular type of film is especially strong in the war years and early post-war years. Powell and Pressburger’s earlier films touch on the topic of the ‘special relationship’ between Great Britain [as it then liked to term itself] and the United States. The 49th Parallel is set in Canada but clearly wishes to draw political parallels between the culture of Britain and the culture of North America. The presence of Raymond Massey in both films is intriguing. In A Matter of Life and Death the script deftly resolves past tensions and cements the new alliance in the union of ‘British boy’ and ‘American girl’.

Science fiction:

Not an immediately obvious genre for the film but the opening sequence takes us on a brief trawl across the universe and then arrive on earth. Early in the film Conductor 71 is able to make ‘time stand still’ or as he explains

“We are talking in space not time.”

This is a staple of the genre: one can imagine that G. K. Dick enjoyed or would have enjoyed this film. Moreover in the heavenly sequences we have that familiar pre-occupation of the science fiction film, the form of a future society. Sci-fi’s preoccupation with technology is there with the military hardware and with the Camera Obscure: and one shot of the ‘heavenly records’ looked from above like a modern computer board.

Records

Psychological drama:

Peter is suffering from a mental illness, but aspects of it can be seen as a form of psychosis. The title tell us that one world

“… exists only in the mind …”

The film, unlike Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), is not that interested in the psychoanalytical. However it share with the Hollywood film psychological states presented in dream sequences and a very distinctive mise en scène for these.

Medical drama:

The central conflict of the film resolves around the illness suffered by Peter and the treatment of this by the several doctors. And the climatic sequences of the film cut between heaven and the operating theatre. Indeed to the resolution of the film is at once both medical and judicial.

Courtroom drama:

The climax and resolution of the film occur in the heavenly court. And in earlier sequences we have briefings between prosecutors and between the defendant and his counsel. Very cleverly the film crosses over between its two worlds in these characters. The final witty touch is that one and the same actor plays surgeon and judge.

Political film:

This type of film is not that common in British cinema. But a sense of wider political culture informs a number of Powell and Pressburger’s films: especially The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale. But this film addresses such values in the most direct manner and takes these issues farther. Especially in the declamations to the court by Prosecutor Farlan and Defence Council Dr Reeves we hear aired both contemporary political debates and past debates that still inform the presence.

A film about literature:

Stairway

Peter Cartwright is a poet and he is inclined to frequently quote other poets including Andrew Marvell and refers to the classics, as with Plato. We have witty rehearsal of a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Dr Reeves has published in medical journals: Conductor 71 ‘borrows’ a book on chess from Peter: and literary figures loom large on the impressive staircase running from earth to heaven. At the resolution the Judge makes a witty remark about Sir Walter Scot.

A film about cinema:

The obvious point here is Dr Reeves’ Camera Obscura. And there is the use of both monochrome and Technicolor cinematography. Conductor 71, on the first visit to this world [earth], remarks,

“One if starved for Technicolor up there.”

Numerous critics have discussed the striking techniques involved in a monochrome ‘heaven’ and a Technicolor earth. But the eyelids that close at the start of the operation also have a cinematic feel.

Canine friendly:

Obscura

The film starts well. Peter walks along a beach, under the misapprehension he is in the ‘other world’, heaven? A black Labrador barks at him and as he walks over to pat the dog he remarks,

“Oh, I always hoped there would be dogs.”

A little later, as Dr. Reeves unveils his new lens on his Camera Obscura: his view of the village is shared by two cocker spaniels [belonging to Michael Powell. But then the cut that introduces June also removes the dogs and they never ere-appear. A mainstream convention that Powell and Pressburger often avoid.

This rich tapestry of motifs and references is one factor which enables the film to work for an audience seventy years on from its initial release. The film’s sense of Englishness and of ‘American’ culture have now past on, in the manner of Farlan and even Reeves, in the film’s plot. But the cultural sensibilities the two filmmakers and their colleagues bought to the work continue to effect a rewarding 104 minutes of proper cinematic pleasures.

 

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