Saturday, 27 October 2012


A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH





"This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war", adding "Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental". 


This is perhaps my favourite movie of all time. It was made by the British production team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger  in 1946 and is arguably one of their most stylish and sophisticated achievements, and incidentally, Powell's own personal favourite.  This is part fantasy, part romance, part surrealist courtroom drama. 

David Niven plays Peter Carter, a British Royal Air Force pilot trying to fly a badly damaged Lancaster bomber home after a mission over Germany. He has his crew bail out safely, realising that it is the end for him as there in no parachute left for himself. During his last moments alive he decides to talk to anyone out there who might be at the other end of the radio, and finds to June, a young American woman working for the USAAF. They are immediately attracted to each other. 
Peter jumps from his plane rather than burn to death and wakes up in the surf. We soon learn  from Conductor 71, played by the magnificent Marius Goring who quite simply steals the movie, that Peter should have died at this point. Conductor 71 is the guide sent to escort him to the 'Other World'. The problem is that the conductor missed him in the thick fog over the English channel. 

By the time the Conductor catches up with him 20 hours later, Peter and June have met and fallen in love. Conductor 71 stops time to spell out he predicament to Peter and urge him to accept his death and accompany him to the 'Other World '. However, Peter demands that the whole situation be appealed  as his life hangs in the balance through no fault of his own. He appears before a celestial court to plea for a second chance at life, with the always excellent Raymond Massey, an English-loathing American revolutionary, as the prosecuting council.

The cinematography by Jack Cardiff is truly stunning. Particularly impressive is the inspired contrast from the monochromatic textures given to the scenes played in heaven, and the coloured ones when the scenes come back to earth ( completely reversing the contrast of colour and black & white in 'The Wizard of Oz'.)  The black and white sequence that involves the long staircase to 'the other world' is often regarded as landmark in movie production.The cast, led by the magnificent David Niven, provide a tour-de-force in acting.

In an interesting side-note - Powell & Pressburger consciously never referred to "the other world" as heaven, as they felt that was too restrictive and limiting. The explicit statement at the beginning of the film ( & at the top of this page) only adds to the ambiguity of whether the other world portrayed is part of the world we know or part of Peter's hallucinations.
Ironically, when the film was distributed in the USA was renamed 'Stairway to Heaven' .The distributor believed that American audiences would not want to see a film with the word "Death" in the title, especially just after World War II. As a consequence, the ambiguity that Powell & Pressburger wanted for the destination of life after death was lost.

The movie is a classic of British cinema - a true gem. Below is the whole film split into 2 segments - if you have the time, enjoy this marvellous Fantasy film.




Part one







Part two

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