Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Film #166: A Matter of Life or Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven)


Out of the seventeen movies Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger made together, A Matter of Life and Death was their sixth, sandwiched in between two other humanistic yet fantastical tales, 1945’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” and Black Narcissus (47). This team was, at the time, used to dazzling audiences with their idea-dense, often passionate and visually rich flights of imagination (thanks to their collaboration with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff). Yet A Matter of Life and Death feels somehow different, maybe because it’s such a glorious mix of so many genres. It first feels almost like science-fiction, with that quick, witty tour of the galaxy at the film’s outset (this is the first glimpse of the subtle but often brilliant special effects featured throughout the movie). Then it most certainly feels like a war picture in the spectacular opening scene between David Niven’s presumably doomed RAF pilot Peter Greene and Kim Hunter’s June, the “Yank girl” he radios as his plane is going down (few movies, if any have had the temerity to begin with such florid and unbound emotions—I mean, what gorgeous close-ups we have here–and yet with the two main characters at the edge of being separated not only by space but by life itself).

For a while, the film becomes a fantasy, as we are taken into another world…a world that may be Heaven (though Powell and Pressberger purportedly wanted to avoid inferring anything such; they balked at the American retitling Stairway to Heaven) or it may be simply another dimension that exists only in a dusty corner of Peter Greene’s brain. It does feel like if the directors truly wished to erase the concept of Heaven from the film, they wouldn’t have had new arrivals in the black-and-white world picking up their made-to-measure wings at the sign-in desk, nor would they have given the young Richard Attenborough—as a breathless newbie–his only line is “It is Heaven, isn’t it?” Either way, the film works in the possibility that all Peter Greene is experiencing--including a ghostly visitation by an erring French “conductor” (Marius Goring)–is a hallucination suffered as a result of something nasty pressing down on his brain. In this way, with the introduction of Roger Lievsay’s Dr. Frank Reeves (who's magnificent here), the film also becomes a tense medical drama.
Goring’s foppish conductor is sent down to the Technicolor “real” world in order to bring Greene back where he belongs—in the afterlife, where the numbers aren’t adding up for the first time in a thousand years. Greene, indeed, was supposed to die after bailing out of his crippled aircraft. But the conductor lost him in the British fog, and instead Greene survives, washing up on the shores of Devon (there’s an unusual scene with a nude shepherd boy that was cut out of American prints). In short order, Peter finally meets June, who’s bicycling desperately along the shoreline. With the tiny sound of her bicycle bell, the two profess their instant love for one another, and this complicates matters greatly. Upon his visitation, the conductor apologizes for the mistake, but Peter refuses to go along with him, reasoning that this new romance has saddled him with a fresh responsibility that he must own up to. That it comes as the result of a mistake by the powers-that-be, he argues, is not his fault and certainly not a reason to punish he and June with a prolonged separation.

This disagreement necessitates an appeal to the authorities of this other world, and so a trial date is set, with Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, set as the prosecuting attorney. Peter is told to choose anyone he wants—from Socrates to Abraham Lincoln—as his defense attorney. But it takes an unexpected accident for him to get the representation he truly desires. In its final third, A Matter of Life and Death becomes a dizzying celestial courtroom drama, complete with a white-wigged judge (Abraham Sofaer), a stoic jury (at first composed of members with a certain anti-British bias), and a vast audience of the world’s members, all separated out into their separate cheering sections. It’s fascinating that, in this sequence, the film takes on the subject of rancor between the British and the Americans (this was a big subject in the UK during WWII, with the Americans’ often unwelcome arrival on British shores). Farlan—who naturally despises the British whom he fought against and who killed him–is constantly trying to use Greenes’ nationality against him, while Peter’s defense is just as constantly trying to steer the arguments back to the facts (that June is an American girl, born in Boston, infuriates Farlan even further).

The film ultimately comes to a stalemate on the issue, settling on the equitable notion that there are good and bad things both about those on each side of the pond (this is amusingly done with each of the attorneys sampling bits of radio broadcasts from each country, with Britain’s a burbling, pretentious Churchill-like commentator pontificating endlessly, and America’s a snippet of a goopy Sinatra-like pop song, complete with swooning girls screaming in the background).

Ultimately, though, A Matter of Life and Death is primarily a sublime love story. That very unusual first scene sets it up so perfectly (I adore it when Niven tells the unforgettably red-lipped Hunter, who’s just confessed she could love a man like Peter, “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving you.”). They enjoy a passionate connection, clawing at life, that feels palpably real despite its unusual pedigree. Powell and Pressberger wisely upend the Wizard of Oz color separation, making the Earthly world vibrantly hued with the possibilities of romance, and the other world coldly reasonable in the starkness of black-and-white (what miracles photographer Cardiff performs all throughout). The unforgettable climax is set against the massive stairway (built at huge cost to the filmmakers) that stands as perhaps the film’s most provocative or at least memorable image. While Peter is on the operating table in the real world, he finally also appears in the other world as a witness for the trial. June appears here, too, and it takes a supreme sacrifice on both their parts to prove that their love is substantial. “Be careful,” Farlan warns. “In the whole universe, nothing is stronger than the law.” But the defense counsel counters just as emphatically: “Yes, Mr. Farlan. Nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe. But on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.” Very few movies convince us of this as vigorously, and with such agile intelligence, as does A Matter of Life and Death. 

NOTE: This piece first posted as a part of WONDERS IN THE DARK's overview of the best romantic movies ever made. Take a look at the complete collection here.

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