Saturday, 16 December 2017

It’s more important than that… A Matter of Life and Death (1946), BFI

This is a film for the ages, a film to grow with. When I first saw A Matter of Life and Death, I must have been very young and pretty much read it literally but when I watched in my teens I realised that it was not quite that simple: of course it wasn’t.

Seeing David Niven in massive close up for the first time on the big screen it is perfectly clear how much this story takes place from his point of view and yet his imagined afterlife is almost too huge in scope to be the dream of a single mind… but then it’s always hard to believe that the main works of Powell and Pressburger came from just two minds. If that’s not enough, the opening statement that "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… “is clear enough, especially when followed up by “any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental".

This is a new 4k restoration and it’s exceptionally lovely with Jack Cardiff’s colours like so much newly-polished, quicksilver summer fruits, all the more so when contrasted with the monochrome “heaven”. Real life and real love are more vivid than the antiseptic afterlife especially as so many seem to have carried their grudges with them, of which more later.

Kim Hunter and David Niven - screen grabs from the BFI trailer for the restoration
The film has so much context and has to deliver on a variety of briefs. As with A Canterbury Tale, AMOLAD had to address the relationship between the allies and whilst there are French issues there are very specific American ones too. Alsi, with this film coming just at the War’s end, there was also a consideration of the UK’s future role in a World of vanishing Empire, a situation very much on the minds of the then self-determining USA (even so long after Woodrow Wilson). So many of the barbs from Raymond Massey’s American Revolutionary, Abraham Farlan, ring true today: then we’d just worked together to defeat the Nazis and now, well, now… we just get on each other's nerves.

But, no matter how Farlan rails against the unpopularity of Great Britain and the unsuitability of one of its sons loving a daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, ultimately love is the law. It’s probably all you need, love is, you know.

It’s curious that Farlan is so mealy-mouthed and prejudiced but then again this is in the mind of Peter. Niven's Squadron Leader Carter typifies the bravery of the best of us, putting his men before himself and ready to take his chances even without a parachute. He has been valiant and highly effective after his bomber was shot to bits and he engages with his last few moments with an almost matter of fact energy. He is intensely interested in the America radio operator, June (Kim Hunter) who picks up his distress call and the two form and instant, almost super-natural bond in the flaming seconds he has left. This was the War: tomorrow was never guaranteed not even assumed and we simply didn’t waste as much time as we do today.

Instant connection... as life ticks down

June, Peter… all of the characters on Earth are pragmatic and focused; what can be done will be done and in whatever conditions prevail. Oh, what you can achieve when your own mortality is no longer a comforting deception? Yet, Peter’s surface calm is counterbalanced by all kinds of agitation below in his subconscious and we get to meet them all, one by one.

Whilst Peter’s number 2, Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) waits for him to arrive “upstairs” he chats admiringly to an angelic (in all ways…) Kathleen Byron. Things run smoothly up there but this administrative angel is concerned at Peter’s non-appearance. Richard Attenborough arrives from the stairway to Heaven and caused the old couple in front of me to chatter excitedly: yes, after all these years, Dickie is still in the film…

Kathleen Byron (gulp) and Robert Coote
American soul-soldiers chat excitedly as they pop open bottles of celestial coca cola and eye up the angels as they would on Earth: in “heaven” everything is fine… and not too different from home.

But the mathematics is wrong, and Peter has unbalanced the books… the English fog meant that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) just couldn’t find him and he fell to Earth still alive. As Peter wakes up in the surf he sees a boy, strangely naked, playing a flute as he minds his goats… it’s an other-worldly seaside and it’s only when the lad points to buildings and a woman on a bike that he realises he’s alive. And the woman… it’s June, the woman he talked to as his took his leap of faith.

71 arrives and, literally, stops the World as he explains the rather awkward predicament… Peter needs to crack on with being dead and he would do, decent chap that he is, were it not been for the fact that his "extra" hours have seen him fall in love with June and her with him.

These consequences of celestial carelessness end up being discussed before the highest court in a stellar sequence which is so heavy in dialogue and yet remains a tour-de-force of edited brilliance. Peter is operated on by a brain surgeon just as he battles with himself in his vision of eternity. Is it worth going on living? How can you prove that someone loves you? And has there ever been a better portrayer of the decent British man than Roger Livesey?

After all this time... I can conclude that this is still a very odd film but also that it is a genuinely great one. It is an experience that has to be lived with and seen on screen and for the first time I really felt I’d paid The Archers and Mr Cardiff the respect their work deserves. Now I can wish for a Blu-ray version of this restoration without feeling that I’ve not given the bigger picture its due.

The Great Livesey
So, do go see AMOLAD on screen for this re-release and indeed any P&P film you can (I'm watching Blimp tomorrow at the Barbican). Tickets are available for A Matter of Life and Death from the BFI and elsewhere as the restoration is re-released.

Powell and Pressburger smuggle so much meaning in this film, it’s truly uncanny and almost as if we’re characters in their dream watching a debate about our lives… the watchers, watched this time in 4k resolution.

Yes Richard, still in the film.

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