Monday, 2 February 2009

Your time was up. But they missed you because of your ridiculous English climate.

No 75 - A Matter of Life and Death
Directors - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

And so, on my very lazy Sunday afternoon, Jen and I sat down to watch film 2 in our "Love Triumphs over Death" double bill. This film is a true classic and is a film that I ended up watching on film 4 one afternoon when I was meant to be doing university coursework. It impressed me. The story, the acting and the technical effects are really impressive, especially considering the fact that it was made in 1946.

The first thing that makes this film brilliant is David Niven. I am a big fan of Niven and he is both suave and yet as the possibility of becoming totally Kick-Ass. I can fully believe that he has spent many a year in the air force and is a trained killing machine. I just can't believe his character is 27. Although Niven was only 33 when playing the role, he is too old looking to play a 27 year old. My only concession is that it could be a side affect of the ravages of war making him more wrinkled and tired than he should.
What he does have going for him though is that he is a rogue. A big flirty rogue. Even in an airship crashing to his death he is able to successfully chat up a lady on the radio and eventually fall in love with her. Likewise, Bob his radio operator, dies and ends up in heaven flirting with the girl at the front desk. I do like Bob. He is a crude stereotype of a Brit, spouting things like "what ho" and "tally pip" but he reminds me of Ratty in Wind in the Willows and he isn't half jolly.

David Niven survives his plane crash for the weakest reason ever. It was foggy. Surely it has been foggy before? Surely Heaven can find a dead person even in adverse weather conditions? But it seems that no, they can't. So the film becomes a love story between Peter (David Niven) and June, the radio operator he spoke to as he crashed (Kim Hunter). All the while heaven are trying to convince him to be dead and go to Heaven.

The changes between Heaven and Earth are interesting, Heaven being a series of huge rooms with thousands of people in them and vast painted backgrounds to provide an epic sense of scale. All presented in glorious black and white. Earth is what you would expect Earth to look like but is presented in truly luscious Technicolour. This isn't just in the film, if we are to believe the characters, this is the true representation of what everything does look like.
As Conductor 71 says upon appearing on Earth "One is starved for Technicolor up there."

Ahhh, Conductor 71. An operative who has been up in Heaven since the French Revolution where he lost his head. He is a foppish dandy who speaks with a wonderful Antoine De Caunes French accent and is followed around by a smell of fried onions. Really.... Fried Onions?! Why not garlic? Lets make a truly crude French stereotype....
What I particularly like about Conductor 71 (besides his wardrobe) is his special power... the ability to make time stand still. I particularly like it because as he explains to Peter that he has frozen time and that nothing will move whilst they talk, you can quite clearly see some red flowers in the top of the frame bobbing around.... nothing will move aye?

I also want to talk about the special effects because there are some quite interesting elements in the film. Firstly the huge staircase used to link Heaven and Earth. According to my film scholar friend, this was a fully operational 40ft escalator which is very impressive. I also just love the fact that it is an escalator. The idea of an escalator being the link to the afterlife is sublimely ridiculous.
The other thing that I want to mention is a shot filmed from Peter's perspective. A shot of Peter being anaethatised. Slowly a giant eyelid closes over the view point as the anaesthetic takes him over.

Just like The Red Shoes, the visual style of A Matter of Life and Death contains many impressive feat, I want to quote Jeremy Robinson who lists them all in the Powell and Pressburger website:
Some of Powell's conceits included having Niven appear on Earth beside frozen actors; bells that didn't ring; people passing through doors; time being frozen (when Livesey and Hunter play table tennis, for example); whip pans during the ping-pong match; a startling point-of-view shot through a huge eyelid which closes when Niven is on the operating table; the use of Cocteauesque film running backwards (a table that's fallen over is righted again); one of June's tears caught on the petals of a rose (used as evidence by Dr Reeves); dissolves between colour and black-and-white (on a close-up of a flower, or Niven's tormented face, or the beaches of Kent). The dissolves to colour allowed for some visual jokes and verbal ones (Goring's messenger, for example, in an aside to camera when he visits Earth, says 'one is starved for Technicolor up there'). The sets were remarkable on A Matter of Life and Death (designed by Powell regular Alfred Junge) most memorable was the gigantic moving staircase between Earth and Heaven (which gave A Matter of Life and Death its other title, Stairway to Heaven), lined with giant statues of famous people (Solomon, Voltaire, Plato, Abraham Lincoln). It had 100 20 foot-wide steps (the crew nicknamed it 'Ethel'). The enormous courtroom set in Heaven was also very impressive, with its rows and rows of seats and arched roof.

The last thing that I want to talk about is the pivotal courtcase. Not about the visual splendour of the scenes but about the sheer feeble prosecution.
June is from Boston Massachusets.
Peter is British
So, the prosecution is an American from Boston who was killed by a British bullet.

His entire case seems to be. "They can not be in love because she is American and he is English. As an American she would not be able to live with someone so cruel as an English man or live in somewhere as rubbish as England". There is no evidance, no witnesses. Just one man's centuries old prejudice. Fun times.

Of course Peter wins his case to stay alive with his girl and all is happy and good. Bob even manages to have a DATE for the court case (his flirting with the girl at reception seems to have been succesful).
It worked well with Moulin Rouge because whilst one ends with death, the other ends with death losing to love. So it cheered Jen up a little bit!

And finally, any film that becomes a Big Train sketch has to be good....


EK Biddle Esq said...

This & brief encounter go down as dual award for "fastest spoken great script".
Niven for "fastest wooing awesome moustache". He could bring on my empty horses any day...

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points -- the film was originally intended as "don't hate Americans" propaganda for British audiences when the Americans joined the war. But it came out after the war was over, so that pretty much scuppered it.

Also the heavenly receptionist (Kathleen Byron) appears as the sexiest murderous nun ever committed to celluloid in "Black Narcissus", also by Powell and Pressburger. She may have been driven insane with sexual repression, but still... I would!