A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Starring Roger Livesey, David Niven, Kim Hunter

The second scene of the film, the one where Peter Carter (Niven, who will always be the guy who got off the best burn in Oscar history) descends about as slowly as possible in a crashing airplane, is surprisingly moving. The surprise comes from the fact that I was moved at all even though there was no doubt that Peter would survive; killing off David Niven in the first five minutes of a movie is bad business no matter how you slice it. The moving comes from thinking about what watching that scene must have been like in 1946, when no person in Britain could have remained unscathed by World War II. The people who could still see a movie had lived on despite the deaths of 450,000 of their countrymen. Countless young men had gone down in the same fashion as Peter and his already deceased friend, Bob (Robert Coote). The deep blues and the powerful reds of the scene provide all the necessary contrast as, lit up by yellow flame, Peter falls for the American radio operator (Hunter) on the other end of the line. He lapses into recitations of Walter Scott; he gets a message off to his family; he tells June it’s really too bad that his parachute’s been shot up, because he sure would love to meet her. His Kobayashi Maru is in front of them, and there’s no retest. By all rights, he should die. What a gift it must have been to contemporary viewers to see one man, especially one so authentically English he should travel with his own tea cozy, survive the flames.

The second scene is a reaction to the first scene, which is stunning in its own way. The second scene is all about action, tension. The first scene takes us on a reasonably tranquil, even dispassionate view of the universe, starting from any point and ultimately bringing us along to Earth. Although we’ve come rather further than the painted depiction of the universe offered up, which has a curiously oceanic quality in color and movement in this film, the scene still meets its mark because of the magnificent editing. Cuts in and out in this movie are something really sensational – later, a packed amphitheater will zoom out to reveal its identical shape to the center of a galaxy – and this is the first example; we see Earth, which appears serene, and then we get closer and the sounds of barked German and warplanes and explosions begin to ring. It’s one heck of a statement – in the vastness of eternity, no one can hear you destroy one another. (This is not long after the narrator sees that a supernova has occurred and wonders if the people of that solar system were playing with “the uranium atom.”) I thought at first that it was a needlessly opaque opening; give it two minutes, though, and it turns into a real humdinger.

The third scene is the one that really got me, even though I didn’t think I’d be got. A Matter of Life and Death pulls the reverse Wizard of Oz (otherwise known as the “full Wings of Desire“) and provides a fantasy world in black and white while the world available to the five senses is in the dreamy color of ’40s Technicolor. The black and white of the other world is surprising, but what caught me is the parade of people who come in. They’re mostly soldiers. A Frenchman and an Englishman converse. A parcel of Yanks drop in – from the moment they arrive, they could hardly be anything else. Bob, with his big nose and silly mustache, is waiting for his friend to show up; he must not know that David Niven mustn’t be killed in the first act. What’s almost terrible about the whole thing – what is the most shocking element of the other world – is how happy everyone else appears to be. All of these people have died, and the suggestion is that many of them have died violent, painful, and/or sudden deaths. And here they are again, smiling and joking with each other, flirting with the lady at reception (Kathleen Byron). Richard Attenborough has a wordless role as an airman who looks around a little nervously and then smiles. I think I would have been comforted more by some people who were upset about being dead; the shocking cheerfulness of the people who will never see their loved ones again is by far the film’s most haunting element. If there’s a transition period, it’s elided completely.

The rest of the movie, sadly, fails to really live up to the promise of those first three scenes, each of which is different in appearance and tone. The romance between Niven and Hunter is less appealing than what you’d hope for; essentially, what’s missing here is Deborah Kerr or Moira Shearer or some other British redhead. Hunter is not given much to do besides be supportive of her man, and to tear up a little sometimes, but she does what she can with it. Her American girl, June, is energetic in a way that Kerr or Shearer simply aren’t, and while I can understand the appeal it doesn’t make the character more engrossing. Weirdly enough, Niven is sort of forgettable. I half-like it; given the rivalry between the United States and the United Kingdom that is brought out later in the film, his position as a traditional good English chap (i.e., “charming Renaissance man”) is a pleasant fit. But Peter doesn’t have much of a personality beyond the charm; the last interesting thing he does is call for an appeal on his own life. Aside from an aptitude for flying, lovemaking, and poetry, Peter is also a keen chess player. A copy of a book by Alexander Alekhine is something of a running gag in the piece; aside from being world champion and one of the most dominant players of the first half of the 20th Century, Alekhine might be best remembered for the Alekhine defense. White sends a pawn to e4; Black sends a knight to f6. It is a daring strategy, one which aims to tempt White to overexert itself and create weakness in the center of the board. Although Peter hasn’t set hands on My Best Games of Chess just yet, the Alekhine defense is a nifty one for him. Just like chess, the other world seems to be based on orderliness and strict rules. The fact of Peter’s absence – the once-in-a-millennium strangeness of having one less person delivered than invoiced – is enough to create havoc, and Peter does his best to create disorder in the other world in the hopes of achieving his victory.

As it seems to be in our own time as well, the dead are really the most interesting characters. Byron, although she doesn’t say or do very much, seems to catch our attention just by the mere fact of her standing or sitting, of her clear voice explaining the rules of the other world. The judge (Abraham Sofaer) at Peter’s trial wears an expression of kindly wisdom that must have been learned over centuries. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), guillotined during the French Revolution (and never seen without a dandy scarf around his neck), is a personal favorite. It is his mistake that allows Peter to cheat death; he lost him in the fog off the English coast, though the conductor can’t stop himself from blaming the “English climate” first and foremost. He is charged with convincing Peter that he must come to the other world; Peter, who has had nearly a full day to fall in love with June, lying around in the middle of vast pink groves of flowers and whatnot, now feels responsible to her. He manages to get the conductor to take back the request for an appeal, although the conductor is something of a sly devil himself. In the only black and white Niven scene, the two of them ascend a great escalator to the other world lined with statues of the great men of history. Anyone is available, Conductor 71 says. Do you want Plato to be your defense attorney? Lincoln? Solomon? Richelieu? (Conductor 71 is fond of Richelieu.) Only just in time does Peter realize what’s happening – should they reach the top, there will be no return – and just manages to run down the stairs in time to save his own life. Conductor 71, in the happy spirit of the other world, does not appear to be at all malicious. Just as death is no cause for sadness there, Conductor 71 isn’t trying to kill Peter so much as he is trying to fix a clerical issue. Indeed, in some cases he appears to be rooting for him. When he first returns with the news that his appeal has been granted, Conductor 71 offers a genuinely impressive list of potential defenders for Peter. He also brings back one of June’s tears on a rose for evidence, and, as any good stereotypical Frenchman does, pulls for true love to win out.

June’s doctor friend, Frank (Livesey), is a key character throughout. He is the one who examines Peter and deduces that it’s possible that the experience Peter is talking about is fixable with surgery; he gentlemanly pretends that he believes Peter, but in truth he spends most of his energy trying to ensure that Peter will stop having these visions of the afterlife. The joke’s on him, then, when he dies in a motorcycle accident (why do British people even ride motorcycles?) and is chosen to be Peter’s defense counsel. What follows at the trial itself would make sense in a movie that’s two and a half hours, but in a movie that barely cracks 100 minutes seems especially stilted. Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) is the prosecutor at the trial, a Bostonian like June, and the first American killed at Lexington. The trial devolves from a question of whether or not Peter should have to give up his life into a question of British versus American characteristics, a change that is so surpassing queer that I honestly wondered if I were dreaming it the entire sequence. (For how weird it is, I thought it a pretty fair indictment of both nations, especially of Britain’s colonial history and, back then, present.) The trial and the existence of the other world are commonly debated: are they real, or are they imagined? The judge and the doctor who completes Peter’s operation are played by the same actor (“And you were there!”), for instance, and there’s the fact that the movie is about an afterlife but that there are plenty of good scientific reasons for Peter to see what he does. It’s an unanswerable question, but I personally like to think that Peter really is struggling to keep his earthly life away from the hands of the eternal. Powell and Pressburger frequently tarry in the zone between what is real and what is supernatural, even if their films are on their faces realistic. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Deborah Kerr plays three different women in three different times with three different personalities. In Black Narcissus, something about the atmosphere and the strangeness of the mountain affects the unsuspecting nuns who come to the convent. In The Red Shoes, there are the red shoes. It just seems right that A Matter of Life and Death would be ready and willing to meet the afterlife in its plot and, happily enough, treat it seriously enough to never wink at its ludicrousness.

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