Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Unseen #51: A Matter Of Life And Death

Why’d I Buy It?: Two Michael Powell films for the price of the average forgettable studio blockbuster? With analysis by Scorsese? No way was I passing it by.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: No real reason. It’s always nice to keep a few really juicy titles in reserve.

How Was It?: A Matter of Life And Death starts with a title card informing us that however much the place our young airman, played by David Niven, may look like heaven it is not. And is further more all in the victim’s head. It’s a strange, almost stern opening and it just gets stranger.

The first proper shot is a long slow pan of nothing less then universe in it’s entirety. The shot brings to mind another WWII film concerning angels with the same opening shot, It’s A Wonderful Life. Though while that shot is undercut by a lush soothing score and the a dialogue track composed of prayers, before settling on a cluster of stars revealed to be nothing less then God himself. A Matter Of Life And Death on the other hand, supplies a cool clipped British voice lecturing on the cosmos, before almost reluctantly panning down to consider the Earth, and the second World War.

It’s a curiously unsentimental way to start a film. Particularly one about a young airman who forsakes Heaven for love. The message of It’s A Wonderful Life’s opening shot is that even in the vastness of the universe there is still someone whose looking out for old George Bailey. The message of A Matter Of Life And Death’s opening shot is that against the face of eternity even the defining conflict of the 20th Century amounts to exactly “fuck all”.

Powell and Pressberger did not take the expected approach.

Then again, when did they ever?

This isn’t to say that A Matter Of Life And Death is a joyless film. Far from it, it’s a film of keen wit (In one of the best moments Powell slyly sums up the difference between American’s and Europeans thusly. That upon reaching the afterlife The Americans make a beeline for the Coke machine). And like all the Archer’s films, in terms of visuals it’s staggering in both sophistication and invention. In a keen bit of subversion, life on Earth is presented in Powell’s trademark ultra saturated three strip Technicolor, while the eerie abstract Heaven is presented in monochrome. The cinematography by master Jack Cardiff and production design by Alfred Junge is beyond superlative (What's more in regards to Cardiff, there's a shot of an eyelid closing that nearly short circuited my brain with a case of the "How the fuck did they do thats?")

It’s just that the overall tone of the film is a lot closer to Carnival Of Soul’s then Defending Your Life, despite what the presence of deft comic performers like David Niven and Kim Hunter would have you expect, though they do bring their trademark sophistication to bear, with their unusually touching love story. Though nothing outright “horrifying” happens, things are unsettling in their impersonalness. To once again bring up the It’s a Wonderful Life Parrellel rather then a chubby homely angel begging Niven to cling to life, we have a foppish Frenchman (played by the great Powell regular Maurice Goering) pestering him to embrace death, for reasons no grander then bureaucratic annoyance.

The film was made, like the earlier Cantebury Tale, partially to convince America that allowing England to be bulldozed into the ground by Germany would be a bad idea (Though it wasn’t released until 1946) and thusly the many many pleas for Euro American friendship come off as a little heavy handed.

Yet, these entreaties only further ground the film in it’s particular time and place, and give the film a further sense of urgency (World War II may not mean much to the cosmos but we’re pretty happy that it ended the way it did down here).

A Matter Of Life And Death may in the end, be absolutely nothing like I expected. But it is something better. Just like all of Michael Powell film’s. A beautiful, strange, and meditate film, The Archers prove once more to be the masters of the ineffable cinematic dream state.


Neil Fulwood said...

I love 'A Matter of Life and Death' with a passion I'd normally reserve for my wife. If I were backed into a corner and forced at gunpoint to pick my favourite film of all time, this would probably be it.

Great review, Bryce; you've captured the quirky appeal of the film perfectly. And a beautiful selection of screengrabs, too. Can you believe that this was actually Jack Cardiff's first gig as DoP, having previously worked as an assistant cameraman? The guy was some kind of genius and his visual aesthetic was perfectly in tune with P&P.

Bryce Wilson said...

Many thanks.

And no. To answer your question I very literally have a hard time accepting this is Cardiff's first film,.

Andreas said...

God, this movie is so incredible on so many levels, and equally underrecognized. (Like the rest of the P&P canon.) It really gets under my skin, and it helps that it's blow-you-away beautiful.

Also, how about Marius Goring as Niven's heavenly messenger? He's so delightful and funny - I think it may be one of the great comic performances of all time.

Bryce Wilson said...

Goring was amazing! Not to mention such a different character from poor ole Julian Crastner.

I'll admit at first I mistook him for the Ballet Instructer in The Red Shoes.