Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is #577 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 01/28/11 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #137 on TSPDT

Inexplicably retitled Stairway to Heaven for US release (an arrogant irony considering Powell & Pressburger took great aims to never directly refer to the afterlife in the film as Heaven), A Matter of Life and Death is a stunning movie, in both character and form, and easily one of the Archers' greatest collaborative works - second only, in this critic's opinion, to that high watermark of grand cinema The Red Shoes).

It is the story of a World War II British pilot, played by the always congenial David Niven, who is shot down and supposedly killed (ever congenial and ever "English" to the bitter end) - another in a long long long line of casualties of war.  Only thing is, he doesn't die.  Washed ashore, presuming himself in the afterlife, Niven's pilot instead finds himself very much (and very miraculously perhaps?) still among the living - only to run into, and fall in love with, the American radio operator who was the last person he talked to before his untimely, near death experience.

Enter an envoy from that place that is not Heaven (except in the aforementioned US release version) enlisted to take Niven's pilot to where he belongs.  You see, here we find out it was merely a clerical error of sorts that has kept our intrepid hero amongst the living, and he is due in that "other world" immediately - if not sooner.  But our hero refuses to go.  You see, when he was on his dying plane, and was about to meet his maker, he was ready to go - a real proper gentleman about it, but now he has fallen in love and has a reason to go on living.  This brings us to the trial - a matter of life and death as it were - with the whole of human history at its beck and call.

Shot with remarkable beauty (in a roundabout from The Wizard of Oz, the Archers portray the real world in colour - Technicolor at that) and the other world in crisp black and white) and given a sheen of overwhelming sentiment, while at the same time hitting deeper topics (both political and scientific, as well as the obvious religious quandaries) than what merely lie on the sublime surface.  This was Powell & Pressburger at the height of their joint career.  Right in the middle of their remarkable run that also included The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I Am Going, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.  Never has such a six-year run been equaled in the annals of world cinema.

The film also features Kim Hunter in the role of the radio operator, Richard Attenborough as a fellow pilot, Raymond Massey as the prosecuting attorney in the aforementioned trial (Massey, when asked if he would take the part, immediately cabled the response of "For the Archers anytime, this world or the next.") and two of the Powell/Pressburger stable of regulars, Kathleen Byron as an angel who takes an interest in the case and Marius Goring as Cunductor 71 (as a rather fey, and quite hilarious French revolutionary who is the blame for the error that has caused everything to unfold as it has), later seen as mad Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus and Julian Craster in The Red Shoes, respectively.

To toss out just a few adjectives to describe this film, we have astonishing, brilliant, magnificent, breathtaking, majestic, sensational, mind-blowing and utterly sublime.  Perhaps I am gushing like a lovesick schoolgirl, leaving my critical chops in the back pocket as it were, but one cannot help such hyperbole when discussing the works of Powell & Pressburger - especially at the epicenter of their already stunning oeuvre.


MP said...

This review makes me want to check this one out soon! But I just can't get my hand on it! Your description of their use of colour and black and white reminds me how Wenders used it in Wings of Desire and maybe in Tarkovsky's films also. Keep this quest going Kevyn! I myself am at number 481 in this adventure through the 1000 Greatest Films!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx. Yes, Wenders was actually highly influenced by Powell/Pressburger, so that connection makes sense.

I am up to #586 as of yesterday, when I watched Luis Garcia Berlanga's Placido. I need to catch up on posting the reviews of them.

Good luck with your quest as well.

Jason Liller said...

I realize I'm in the minority here, but I always felt that the last act of this film was a colossal misfire. Once the trial starts, the whole focus of the picture changes and the whimsy overwhelms the film. It's always good to see Zira and Sister Ruth, though!