Thursday, November 24, 2011

“A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH” (1946) Dir- Powell/Pressburger

What I Remember:

Another of those great films from the Channel 13 WNET vault they used to play from time to time that I would make a point of watching if home. There were generally three studios that provided these films: Janus, J. Arthur Rank and Toho. If the film was Continental European, then it was Janus (the 2-faced Drama/Tragedy mask). If it was British, then it was Rank (the guy hitting a gigantic gong). If it was Japanese, then the Toho logo showed up (just the name and some Japanese writing). If I saw any of those openings, then I knew I was in for a treat.

One evening I was home and flipped over to 13. The gong guy came on. The titles started and it was a British film called “Stairway To Heaven”, starring David Niven and Kim Stanley. I knew Niven from “The Pink Panther” and “Casino Royale”, two very silly movies wherein he played a dashing, debonair character. Kim Stanley I only knew as Stella from “A Streetcar Named Desire”. The movie began and the most riveting scene ensued: an RAF pilot about to die in a burning plane is on the radio with an American WAC. She is trying to ascertain his situation and summon help for him, he is spouting poetry and hopeful fatalism. She is captivated by his bravery and erudition, he by her wholesomeness and earnest character.

He miraculously survives, but it turns out he cheated death. Unfortunately that’s pretty much all I can recall nowadays. I remember some very cool effects, especially this incredibly long stairway that seems to be the Roslyn Metro Escalator on steroids. Vaguely I remember a heavenly trial, and a very effeminate Frenchman from the 17th Century as this film’s version of Clarence the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The movie was very touching, and extremely poignant having been made just as the war ended.

After Re-watching:

“Don't be upset about the parachute, I'll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones. I hope it hasn't gone all modern, I'd hate to have a prop instead of wings!” – Peter Carter


Peter Carter, an RAF pilot (David Niven) is going down in his disabled plane. He has no parachute, so his choice is to jump and die in the fall, or go up in a ball of fire with his aircraft. He is on the radio with a young WAC named June (Kim Stanley), who is trying desperately to help a no-win situation. The urgency of it all forges a bond between the two. When contact is lost, the WAC is obviously distraught. In heaven, his co-pilot waits for him, but he never shows up. You soon realize that this is a special wing of heaven, where only victims of the War are processed. We find Carter dragging onto a beach, apparently unharmed. He assumes it is heaven, but in actuality it is a beach very near where June is stationed. They meet, and fall in love. Meanwhile, heaven figures out that a foppish Frenchman/Angel from the 17th Century named Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) who was supposed to deliver Carter, lost him in the British fog. They must bring him back to heaven where he belongs, but he contends that his falling in love exempts him, especially since it was no fault of his own. Eventually a trial ensues, and his fate is decided.


Apparently the reason the film has two names is that the USA distributors felt that putting the word “Death” in the title would not be good for box-office so soon after the end of WWII. Pretty much everybody was related to, or friends with someone lost in that conflict. Therefore the change to “Stairway to Heaven”; which stuck until a recent restoration effort of all the Archer films. Their most well known effort is of course “The Red Shoes”, a monumental treatise on the subject of art vs. life. Interest in this film has recently been sparked by the success of “Black Swan”, which took so much from the Archer classic as to almost be a remake.

What superficially seems to be a story of love conquering all—even death, has some very interesting undercurrents. The most obvious and pervasive of these themes is the Anglo/American connection, so clearly strengthened by the Allied effort to defeat the Axis. The love affair in the film is between a British pilot and an American woman. It is somewhat symbolic of the gratitude the British felt to Americans for their help in subduing the Nazis. There is also a feeling of respect from the American side for the courage under fire the British showed during the war years. When an American revolutionary (Raymond Massey) is appointed to prosecute the case, his anti-British prejudices weaken the bond, but merely temporarily. The writing is down to earth (with the exception of the poetry recitations) and tautly paced.

Yet there are some plot issues which detract a bit from the film. As the story goes on, June’s friend, Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesay) has decided that maybe Peter has some kind of brain illness from a concussion that is causing him to see the messenger from heaven. He urges that surgery be performed, and the operation occurs on Earth concurrently with the trial in heaven. This is confusing, since the whole thing is a fantasy anyway. I mean, Carter survived plummeting thousands of feet into the sea. Why bring in Earthly matters into something so blatantly spiritual? You are never as invested in the surgery as you are in the trial, since none of it feels like reality.
When Reeves dies in a motorcycle crash trying to get to the ambulance which will take Carter to surgery, everybody feels bad, but life goes on. Why is Carter’s life so much more important than Reeves’? Because he’s in love? Wait—next we’re supposed to feel good that Reeves dies so he can be Carter’s defender in the heavenly trial? Nobody seems to care that this poor schmuck gave his life up just so Peter and June can be together.


“A Matter of Life and Death” is a fantasy, a romance and a war film all wrapped up together. There is also an element of science thrown in. The film starts with a narrator (God? Carl Sagan?) talking about the vastness of the universe (“the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans…”). Look at that dust cloud, it’s space gas! Uh-oh, a super-nova is destroying a solar system. Maybe someone was playing with Uranium atoms. Considering what’s to come, the whole intro is a touch weird. To us in 2011, it’s rather quaint. However, when I think of it, the whole intro and all the very cool scientific trappings like the camera obscura scene must have been very cutting edge to those watching in 1946. It’s hard to hold that against the movie. It would be like making fun of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” because its all-powerful robot, who could stop the Earth’s rotation, can’t speak even rudimentary English.

One fascinating film choice was to exclude mention of the enemy from the halls of heaven. There are plenty of ethnicities there, but no Germans, no Spaniards, no Italians and no Japanese. I think the words that explain this are “TOO SOON”.

Probably the biggest filmmaking decision was Powell’s to make Earth beautifully Technicolor, and Heaven drably monochrome. When Conductor 71 appears on Earth to bring Carter back to heaven, he even comments about the Technicolor as he holds a flower in his hand. This anti-Oz treatment works beautifully. It makes the Earth a place you want to stay in, while heaven seems somewhat like the set from “Metropolis”. I guess if heaven was so great and amazing, why wouldn’t the lovers just both die so they can be in the better place together? Incidentally, when some Americans are entering heaven, they both look wide-eyed (you don’t see what they see) and one says, “This is nothing like home”. The other retorts, “It is like MY home.” Hmmm. The whole thing resembles a bureaucratic nightmare. The celestial courtroom looks like a colorless Rose Bowl. It’s certainly not the typical cinematic heaven. Whatever you may think about these set and camera choices, it keeps the film interesting.

The other great set piece is the giant, infinite stairway, festooned with huge statues of the great figures from mankind’s history. It’s an amazing effect, and it never gets old. When Carter feels he is being tricked into ascension, he turns and runs down the up escalator as fast as he can. This scene makes the climax in “Vertigo” seem like a step-aerobics class.


Niven and Stanley are charming and perfectly cast. Their opening scene is unforgettable. Afterwards, the real heavy lifting is given to Livesay and Massey. Good old Dr. Gillespie (that was my into to Massey, in the Dr. Kildare series) had had some big time roles to that point, in particular “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, which showcased his formidable trial lawyer chops. As the prosecutor in “A Matter of Life and Death”, he does ‘bombastic’ beautifully. Livesay, who is magnificent in the Archer classic “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, has a smaller but perfectly played part as the sacrificial doctor/ defense counsel. Goring is the perfect fop; he is concerned about his job, but those concerns are outweighed by his French respect for true love. As always in these Powell/Pressburger efforts, the acting and casting of all smaller roles are pitch perfect. When the writing is this good, it takes a real amateur to screw up the performances. Look for a VERY young Richard Attenborough in one of the early celestial scenes.


“A Matter of Life and Death” or “Stairway to Heaven” is a moving and fun post-war effort, regardless of what you call it. It is a touching tribute to those who gave their lives in armed conflicts. It is a romantic fable of love conquers all, even when that love is between two war-tossed nations.

1st Look- ✭✭✭1/2 2nd Look- ✭✭✭1/2

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