The Film: 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946), Dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring and Abraham Sofaer.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Every film buff worth his salt has at least heard of Powell and Pressburger, the brilliant duo behind such films as 'The Red Shoes,' 'Black Narcissus' and 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.' After all, here are two guys commonly cited by great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese as major influences. But let's be honest with ourselves here -- how many of you have actually sought out and watched all of their work? As highly regarded as their films are, few of them scream "Watch me! Watch me now!" From the outside looking in, their stuff just looks, well, a little antiquated.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: 'A Matter of Life and Death' is a screwball romantic comedy about death and the afterlife in the same way that 'The Red Shoes' is a melodrama about ballet. Meaning that while 'A Matter of Life and Death' is a screwball romantic comedy about death and the afterlife, it is the absolute best screwball romantic comedy about death and the afterlife ever made. Hell, let's stop avoiding potential hyperbole and just dive right into the over-the-top acclaim: 'A Matter of Life and Death' is one of the best British films ever made, making it a surefire contender for any shortlist of the greatest movies of all time.
The story of a man who survives an accident that should have killed him, the woman he loves and the agent from beyond who's come to Earth to shuffle his mortal coil and reclaim his soul for the underworld, Powell and Pressburger created a dark, witty and weird comedy that feels at least thirty years ahead of American filmmaking (although with Ealing Studios right around the corner, British directors would soon master the droll black comedy). Although death and dying have become commonplace in modern comedy, just look at the Joel and Ethan Coen's oeuvre, the idea of a borderline slapstick comedy on the subject in 1946 is entirely unheard of. This is a time when American films had to follow strict moral guidelines in order to find a release and right across the pond, England was schooling us, laying the seeds for a form of comedy that would later grow into everything from Monty Python to 'In the Loop.'
I love the Powell and Pressburger movies that I've seen. In fact, I think they're extraordinary, ahead-of-their-time films that haven't aged a day and represent a standard that all filmmakers should aspire to, even though few can even play in the same ballpark. Heck, they're like Pixar if Pixar was British and made technicolor films in 1940s England. Am I a fool for expecting absolute perfection from 'A Matter of Life and Death'? Well, it's their own fault for raising my expectations so freakin' much.
Post-Viewing Reaction: There's a simple explanation as to why we avoid watching many great movies. Fear. It's all about fear. Fear that we won't like a film that's considered a classic and face the scorn of our fellow film buffs. Fear that a four hour subtitled film about death and dying will simply depress and befuddle us. Fear that a film made many decades ago will have aged poorly and bore us to tears. How many times have I avoided putting on an Akira Kurosawa film because I'm afraid of it? I remember Ingmar Bergman's 'Winter Light' sitting on my desk for about a month before I finally worked up the nerve to actually watch it. However, every time I finally work up the nerve to hit play, I find myself transfixed, kicking myself for putting this off for so long, promising that I'll never be afraid of a filmmaker or a classic film ever again.
But it always happens. Always. Even with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I know how modern their films feel. I know how gracefully they've aged. I know I've loved several of their other films with all of the energy my little heart can muster. But every single time I go to watch one of them, a little voice crops up in the back of my mind: "This was made over sixty years ago. It's o-o-o-o-ld. It's probably boring. It's about ballet or nuns or something you don't care about. Why are you watching this?"
I hate this voice. I want it to die. I need it to die. This is the voice that kept me from seeing 'A Matter of Life and Death' until right now and 'A Matter of Life and Death' is one of the best films I've ever seen and easily the best film I've discovered since I began Where Everyone Has Gone Before. It not only met the blank, grandiose acclaim I threw out in the Pre-Viewing section, it exceeded it on every level.
'A Matter of Life and Death' opens with possibly my favorite meet-cute in cinematic history. The year is 1945 and a British pilot named Peter (Niven) finds his plane going down over the Atlantic, with one of his crew dead and the rest having bailed out with the only working parachutes. Peter gets on the radio to report what's going on and gets a hold of an American radio operator named June (Hunter). Having already accepted that he's going to die, Peter doesn't so much give a mayday as he has one final chat with a woman he's never met before. They have an instant rapport and fall in love over the radio, both knowing that he'll be dead in minutes. It's a funny, strange and romantic sequence that instantly endear us to these characters. Peter is droll and cool under fire, the consummate British officer. June is romantic and passionate, the prototypical American girl. When Peter miraculously survives and wakes up on the beach and meets June face to face, we're already rooting for these two to hook up and stay together forever.
But of course, this is a movie and movies are all about complications! The movie then takes us to heaven, a black and white world that works as a wonderful contrast to Powell and Presburger's typically gorgeous technicolor, where Peter's dead crew member sits in a waiting room, wondering what's taking him so long to arrive. Soon enough, the folks who run the afterlife realize that Peter was supposed to die and send Conductor 71 (Goring) down to Earth to drag Peter up to heaven. Naturally, the now in-love Peter refuses and he's put on trial to decide whether he should be granted an extension to his mortal coil.
With this premise, I was expecting a silly screwball comedy filled with slapstick and pratfalls, but none of that is to be found. The film is far more nuanced than that. While frequently hilarious, 'A Matter of Life and Death' is really a fantasy. If you want to get absurdly particular, it's a fantastical romantic comic drama, a fantasy filled with more laughs than most comedies and more pathos than most dramas and a central romance that should be two-dimensional but is imbued with so much spirit by Niven and Hunter that it can't help but come off as a great romance. They're backed up by one helluva supporting case, with Goring's flamboyant French angel being one of many highlights.
Ultimately, the movie belongs to Roger Livesey who plays Dr. Frank Reeves, a psychiatrist who attempts to "treat" Peter, who keeps going on about being visited by people from the afterlife. To discuss Dr. Reeves' arc and why he's such a fantastic character would be to spoil the surprises of the film, but I will make note of a sequence near the end where he becomes embroiled in a debate concerning Britain's crimes against the world. It's a scene that could have been preachy, but Livesey is an actor with seemingly unrivaled class and dignity and plays the scene with a melancholy knowing. In the years after World War II, the British empire would all but vanish and although he has the conviction of a true patriot, you can see it all over his face: "We probably deserve it."
Exactly how a sweet romantic fantasy about the afterlife manages to weigh in on such subjects is remarkable, but it all makes sense, really. When they named this movie 'A Matter of Life and Death,' they weren't kidding. What goes into life? What goes into death? The answer to both questions is, well, just about everything. Love, war, sex, violence, revenge, bitterness, redemption, sacrifice...it's all in this film. The use of black and white in the afterlife sequences doesn't just feel like a cool stylistic choice -- it feels like a commentary on how life and death aren't black and white. Between the two exist an infinite variety of opportunities and chances. One moment you may be alive and the next you may be dead, but you will always leave the people you've touched in your wake, keeping you alive even after you've died.
All of this baloney is never implicitly stated in the film, but it's there under the surface to be thought about if necessary. 'A Matter of Life and Death' is so much fun that maybe it's actually doing the film a disservice to bring up too many heavy thoughts, but maybe that's why Powell and Pressburger's work remains some of the best ever crafted. This is not only perfect entertainment, it is a perfect work of art. It is a perfect film.
Now watch me put off watching another one of their films for six months because I'm a moron.
Next Week's Column:
Which film should I watch next of the five films listed below? Cast your vote in the comments below and I'll watch the film with the most votes...unless you can convince me otherwise!
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'The Bicycle Thief'
'The 39 Steps'
'The Sound of Music'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'