Saturday, August 1, 2009

Target #279: A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

TSPDT placing: #126

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger effectively introduced Technicolor to British cinema, but it's how they utilised the new technology that is astonishing. The Red Shoes (1948) and Gone to Earth (1950) each boast a wondrously flamboyant visual style, rich in lush colours and vivid tonal contrasts. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), a post-War fantasy that builds on Powell's work in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), is equally magnificent. As in many of The Archers' colour films, there is a certain slap-dash quality: rather than bearing the products of careful, meticulous planning, it feels as though the directors simply threw caution to the wind and went with whatever felt right {certainly, cinematographer Jack Cardiff took his to heart, choosing to "feel" the correct lighting rather than use a light meter}. Though the parallel settings never quite gel with complete harmony, the wealth of imagination, creativity and sheer gob-smacking wonderment left me utterly entranced for two hours.

In 1945, a doomed British aviator (David Niven) falls in love with June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator to whom he conveys his final words. After bailing from his floundering plane without a parachute, Peter Carter is resigned to death, but later wakes up on the beach to find that the heavenly angels overlooked him in the fog. He quickly requites his love for June, but Heaven soon sends a romantic French "Conductor" (Marius Goring) to retrieve Carter and correct their previous oversight. However, having suddenly found something meaningful for which to live, Carter demands a celestial appeal, winning the right to argue his case for extended life. Powell and Pressburger are judicious in avoiding any direct mention of Heaven, opening the film with a canny subtitle in which we are told: "This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental."

Roger Livesey's astute neurologist is the film's most rational character, recommending a surgical procedure to curtail what he believes to be elaborate post-traumatic delusions. In tales of this sorts, the skeptic ultimately suffers at the hands of the director, but here they're apparently on his side. That Carter's visions of the afterlife are a product of a shell-shocked mind is reinforced by the film's subtle nod to The Wizard of Oz (1939); both the celestial Judge and the surgeon are played by the same actor, Abraham Sofaer. However, the romantic in me – and, may I add, the atheist romantic in me – wants the converse to be true. At the time A Matter of Life and Death was released, the nations of the world were still mourning the War's significant human losses, and to see young British soldiers emerging from death, wide-eyed and cheerful, must have been emotionally reassuring for grief-stricken families, particularly the purely innocent image of a fresh-faced Richard Attenborough remarking, "It's heaven, isn't it?"

A Matter of Life and Death is a masterpiece of contrasts. In one memorable moment, the idyllic and vaguely-mythological scene of a naked goatherd on the beach sands is unexpectedly punctuated by the overpass of a low-flying Mosquito bomber. The most crucial contrast, of course, is that of Cardiff's photography. Inverting the logic of The Wizard of Oz, the Archers shoot their fantasy sequences in ethereal monochrome, whereas the terrestrial scenes are captured in glorious, vibrant Technicolor. This stylistic decision is also important thematically, typical of the filmmakers' Capra-like optimism in the years during and directly following the War (until they began to indulge in operatic tragedy). The film's afterlife is a Utopia of sorts, where the populace can indulge in their hobbies and neglect the worries of mortal life. However, the Archers' preference is most certainly for the real world. The souls of Heaven seem frozen in time, sporting the same dreary clothing and prejudices of their era. Conversely, the people of Earth – like Peter and June – are living, loving and learning every day. Life is a colourful wonderland of emotion, so make the most of it.

Currently my #3 film of 1946:
1) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
2) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
3) A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
4) The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler)
5) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
6) The Killers (Robert Siodmak)
7) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)
8) The Locket (John Brahm)
9) Crack-Up (Irving Reis)
10) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak)

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