Monday, 11 March 2013

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death is a true demonstration of how far Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would dare go for the sake of a film. I consider that to be a theme I will focus on in this article.
A Matter of Life and Death is best known for the great difficulty The Archers went through in order to create the film the way wanted it, rather than being known for enjoyable antidotes about the production.

For example, in A Matter of Life and Death there is a sequence in which Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey play a game of tennis. They were both some of the worst tennis players imaginable. However, Powell and Pressburger were keen on the tennis sequence  Rather than alter the scene, they hired Alan Brooke to teach Hunter and Livesey to train them in the field of tennis. After a drastic improvement in tennis-playing skill, Hunter and Livesey were able to shoot the sequence. Just for additional luck, Kim Hunter borrowed Brooke's tennis racket for the game when they shot.

The stairway dividing the world of Earth and the world of Peter Carter (David Niven's character 's visions was crafted by the same builders who created the London Passenger Transport. The stairway "Ethel", took three months to build. To make matters more difficult, Ethel costed $3,000 pounds. This was in pounds, therefore it is more than Euros. AND, this was in 1946, therefore it would have been far more expensive. The staircase had 120 steps, each were 20 feet wide.

In the courtroom we see in the world of Peter Carter's visions, there is a large cloth that is shown to represent that the courtroom goes on into infinity. The cloth was 350 feet wide and 40 feet tall. Eight other clothes of similar size were crafted for the world of Peter's visions.

Kim Hunter was not a popular actress at the time. The Archers had intended for Betty Field to play the role of the American girl Peter falls in love with. However, Field lived in America and it was difficult to schedule a meeting between Powell, Pressburger and Field. Afterwards, Alfred Hitchcock made a recommendation that The Archers use an actress named Kim Hunter. According to Hitchcock, she was a fabulous actress who had auditioned for Notorious. However, Hitchcock went with Ingrid Bergman instead. Unable to let Kim Hunter's talent go to waste, he demanded that The Archers use her in A Matter of Life and Death. Kim Hunter became rather successful after her performance in A Matter of Life and Death. She went on to star in such films as Planet of The Apes and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Where does A Matter of Life and Death stand today? It is deemed among many to be one of The Archer's finest films. It currently holds an 8.1 on IMDb and a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 Peter Carter sits in the front of a burning aircraft. He calls into mission base knowing full well that he is soon to die. On the other line an American woman named June answers. After we learn the basis of these two character Carter's plane crashes. After this we learn that all of the member of Carter's aircraft - except him - have arrived in another world. Those who run the alternate world are frustrated, because Carter is supposed to have died.

Carter awakens in the middle of the ocean. He swims out onto land. After being created by a naked teenager he realizes he is awfully close to where June lives. They continue their romance. However, soon those from the other world come to take Peter back into his rightful passage of death. However, this goes against Carter's plans. He has just fallen in love with June and refuses to return.

Carter is taken into a court case to decide whether he should be given the privilege of staying on Earth to be with the woman he loves - or to resume his rightful position, as a dead man.

As I watched A Matter of Life and Death, I was struck by a sudden realization. Finally, this was the first Powell and Pressburger film I'd seen to use Technicolor in a comprehensible manner. In,  A Matter of Life and Death, black and white is used to symbolize the world of Carter's visions and Technicolor is used to represent "the real world". This leaves The Archers a change to do what they're great at - using Technicolor. However, this time, they're able to do it without us raising an eyebrow at their intentions.

This is without a doubt the most intellectually stimulating film I believe The Archers ever directed. They deliver great insights into reality that may be misunderstood by some viewers. The world they create is not that have heaven. The only referral to it as being heaven is when a disillusioned solider (played in his one speaking line by the great Richard Attenborough) states "this is heaven!". However, as the voices in the opening claims, the other world is not one familiar to anyone else. It is not heaven, or any after life belonging to any religion. This is a new world, and many were unable to wrap their around that. Many "religious-fanatics" were not impressed by  A Matter of Life and Death since it openly (in their opinion) states that there afterlife is not heaven, it is this "other world". Yet,  A Matter of Life and Death never states such a thing. We are never told whether or not Carter's visions are real. For all we know, he could be an old man in a mental institution dreaming all day long. For once, there is subtly in a film by Powell and Pressburger. Therefore, any person who believes that  A Matter of Life and Death contradicts with their religion  has clearly not paid attention to the film and should think it over once more before making such an accusation.

I'll put a quick note and say that the concept behind  A Matter of Life and Death is one I found very clever and unique. It is a touching story that combines a rather unrealistic love story that The Archers would be fond of with a very creative twist to it.

 A Matter of Life and Death would not be the same without Allan Gray's score. It combines the fantastical side of discovering the other world with the hopelessness of Carter's love. Gray has worked with Powell and Pressburger in many of their other films, but his soundtrack has never been so poignant before  A Matter of Life and Death.

 A Matter of Life and Death features a strong cast delivering strong performances. Kim Hunter is your typical female lover that you would find in a film of this time period, and yet she evoked my sympathy for some reason. Over the course of watching these film by The Archers, I have found Roger Livesey to be one of my favourite actors now. He adds much to  A Matter of Life and Death as he plays a clever and witty man standing up for Carter. However, I was slightly disappointed by David Niven in the role of Peter Carter. I think the role could have used a "Niven-esque twists" to it. In the opening sequence, we see what Niven can do as a comedian. After that, we never get to see that side of him again. It is as if he has a sudden change of persona. The great, Raymond Massey is fabulous in this film as the prosecutor against Carter. Although his character's hatred for Carter is slightly unrealistic  what can you expect from a dead man? However, the cake certainly goes to Richard Attenborough for muttering his one line... but oh... the power in his voice!

 A Matter of Life and Death is a fun film with great acting and new insights into existence. Be sure to see it!

A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven),
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey
9/10 (A+)

1. A Matter of Life and Death
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
3. The Small Back Room
4. The Tales of Hoffman
5. The Spy in Black
6. The Battle of the River Plate
7. I Know Where I'm Going

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