Monday, 25 June 2012

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) - Review

I'm currently working my way through a boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's movies. Today, I looked at A Matter of Life and Death, a film that many consider to be their finest piece of work, and here are my thoughts....

It's little wonder, after the enormous carnage of the Second World War, that Powell and Pressburger's next project would focus on what becomes of us after death. But this is not the film's only focus, A Matter of Life and Death's secondary motive (or perhaps its first, it's hard to tell) is to encourage Americans and Brits to reconcile their differences and disregard historical prejudices. The result achieves more than these two aims, however, because what you get is a story about love that will be re-shown to generations.

In an opening that, in retrospect, seems to have influenced J.J Abrams' Star Trek, we are introduced to British aviator Peter Carter (David Niven) and American war volunteer June (Kim Hunter) conversing over the phone as Peter is plummeting to his doom. The two form a connection over phone-line and quickly fall in love but Peter, due to his subsequent crash, is on his way to death. However, he avoids it due to the angels missing him on the way down. The angels are not too happy with this and promptly try to explain to him that he needs to come with them to make up the time. Needless to say he refuses and so Peter & co. proceed to play a game of chess with the forces of the universe. He's helped along the way by Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) and the peace-brokering dead Frenchman named Conductor 71 (Marius Goring). And so the film sets up two worlds, the first one is our planet as we know it, the second is a version of the afterlife.

Full of fantastical elements, this is bold stuff from the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And, like all of their work, A Matter of Life and Death is full of the odd little touches, such as a a point of view shot of Peter's eye closing comes to mind, that really suit this kind of film. Indeed, the climatic act features a courtroom drama over nationalistic ties that remains truly unique. Direction, as always, is superb; with the Archers choosing to shoot the earth scenes in glorious technicolour and the death scenes in black and white, perhaps to show the unhappy nature of this afterlife, or maybe to just remind us that it might actually all be in our aviator's mind.

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