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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

aka Stairway to Heaven.

For this month’s Mad Movie Challenge, Kristina of Speakeasy has handed me a wonderfully filmed fantasy tale from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with the legendary Jack Cardiff serving as the cinematographer and it shows.

It’s an other worldly tale told in vivid color that begins with Niven on board a doomed WW2 bomber. His crew has either parachuted out or lay dead at his feet. Calling in to the coastline he’ll never see again, he begins to converse with a young Kim Hunter as an American woman handling radio duties for incoming planes. It’s an emotional chat. One that is doomed as they both know they’ll never meet. Niven carries on as if she is the love of his life that he’ll never know. Tears flow on her end as he signs off and meets his fate jumping from the plane into a fog without the benefit of a chute.

Fade to black and white.

Scores of men and women in uniform are seen entering into a futuristic factory like setting where they check/clock in. They’ve arrived wherever one goes when their earthly life has ended. Heaven if you prefer. Waiting at the gate for Niven to arrive is his co-pilot, Robert Coote who let’s the hostess know that he’s MIA. “There hasn’t been a mistake here in a 1000 years.” she points out yet when roll call is taken, Heaven is short one soul.

Brighten to color.

Niven is seen floating just off the English shore as he comes to. As far as he’s concerned  he’s passed on to another world until he happens across a surprisingly naked youngster along the beach. (photographed from just the right angle) Rejoicing at his luck and as fate would have it, he finds his radio girl Kim Hunter along the beach bicycling home. Sure it’s a sappy scene but one that is sure to melt your romantic heart as they embrace.

Entering into Niven’s life just a day after his supposed death is a heavenly Frenchman played by Marius Goring who stops time when he appears. No one can see or hear him but Niven, his intended mark here on Earth. Niven listens intently to his one time beheaded Angel only to  tell him that he refuses to leave his life behind to take his place in the stars with the others that have been called during the war. This creates a problem that Goring will have to take up with his superiors.

Still to come is Niven being looked over by Hunter’s friend and doctor Roger Livesey who believes that Niven believes he’s being visited by an Angel. Surgery of the brain may be needed to cure some ailment that he thinks Niven is suffering from. While the Livesey character will figure in prominently at the film’s conclusion, Niven has been given a chance to state his case before higher authorities in the heaven’s above. The prosecutor who will demand he stay in the stars is an actor who can so easily display a coldness and does so here with a hatred towards the Englishman, Canadian born Raymond Massey. Massey’s prosecutor was at one time an American killed during the American Revolution in Boston. Thus the cold blooded intentions towards the kindly Englishman, Niven.

Interestingly the film drifts back and forth between color and black and white photography. All the more so when we might assume that the heavenly backdrop would be the colorful portion of the film when in fact it’s all rather drab while the colors are used magnificently when here on Earth. Truly a beautiful film to look at. The large scale scenes in the heavens with dozens of extras have a very Metropolis or The Shape of Things to Come like feel. More so if one were to look at specific images taken from the film and compared to the other two titles. The set design is spectacularly put together including the giant stairway to the heavens.

 

I’m sure there are plenty of other titles one can come up with when talking of heavenly plots. Here Comes Mr. Jordan or It’s a Wonderful Life from the same era come to mind. I was reminded of a 1991 film by Albert Brooks while watching this titled Defending Your Life which featured a court case in the heavens. A nice off beat comedy should you be so inclined. Calling all Three Stooges fans, you might even expect Shemp Howard to turn up sporting a set of wings as he does in the hilarious Heavenly Daze short where he’s wreaking havoc on Moe and Larry from the great beyond.

A winning film that is far too beautiful to ignore. Niven at the top of his game and young Kim Hunter just starting here bring out a rooting interest in the viewer. Plenty of fun characters here though I don’t include Massey in that comment but refer instead to Goring and Coote in support. Surely you noticed the name Richard Attenborough in the opening credit list. Just don’t blink too hard or you’ll miss him entering the pearly gates.

Head on over now for Kristina’s monthly film diary and see what she thinks about one of my personal favorites from the team of Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker.

18 Comments »

  1. Fabulous, isn’t it? It’s visually spectacular and both rich and rewarding thematically. This is not only one of the high points of British cinema but one of the high points of cinema anywhere. Probably Niven’s best role.

    • It’s a feast for the eyes. Niven is such a fine leading man and deserves to be rediscovered for those unaware. I had a copy here on a double Powell feature and Kristina’s suggestion was well received. I’ll have to check out the other title on the second disc, Age of Consent with James Mason and Helen Mirren.

  2. I love this one (and hope you get to see Colonel Blimp soon too 🙂 ) remarkable visuals and nice message of the afterlife being just what you want it to be (with a coke machine even!) and knowing that, makes life more precious and colourful.

    • I’m still caught up in the visuals of this when talking about it. So many color films of the era but this one just breathes life through the TV screen. Only negative for me was Massey being to unlikable and scored second billing to boot in what amounts to an elongated cameo. Love those Angel Wings on the factory line.

  3. I remember thinking of this wonderful film again when I was watching 2011’s “Captain America” and the British agent, Peggy Carter (same name as Niven’s pilot, of course) was speaking to Cap for the last time over the plane’s radio.
    1940s films don’t get better than this. Whimsical, and marvellous. Mr Niven was just delightful — as were Mr Massey, Ms Hunter, Mr Livesey, Mr Goring and the rest.
    Thanks for reviewing this. 🙂

    [By the way, I’m one of the very few who appreciates 1944’s “A Canterbury Tale”, too!]

    • Isn’t it fun how we see a newer film and it causes us to recollect something from yesteryear. Have to wonder if it’s intentional or by chance sometimes. Whimsical a good word for this marvellous tale. I’m always hard on Massey but that’s just cause I’m rarely fond of his characters. I’m familiar with Canterbury but have yet to see it. I’ll see if I can rectify that.
      And thanks for stopping in and speaking up. Much appreciated.

      • Definitely: I’d like to think it was a deliberate homage, but it may have been coincidence?
        I’ve only seen Raymond Massey in this film, but his son and daughter were good actors in Britain, in more recent years, so I suppose I think he must have been well-regarded. Daniel Massey was very good, in my opinion, and similar to his father in looks/style.
        ‘Canterbury’ is very much an acquired taste…! I hope you like it when you see it.
        You’re welcome, Mike… I’ve been following for a while but only wanted to speak up when I had something I felt was interesting to say. Great blog, by the way. 🙂

  4. As you mention, it really is an amazing looking film, one that deserves to be seen in optimal conditions. So until Masters of Cinema or Criterion get the rights, might I recommend the French blu-ray. While it doesn’t appear to have had any serious restoration – certainly nothing Red Shoes level – it walks all over the various DVD editions previously available, non of which are in particularly good shape. Best of all, and unusual for French discs, subs are easily removable.

    • I’m sure it will look stunning on blu but I will say the copy I have is a very good one. It’s from The Film Foundation and Columbia and was the full length version in “restored glory” as the cover says.

  5. This one’s on my list of best films ever, but you still need to see Colonel Blimp at some point – those Powell/Pressburger films are stellar stuff. I’d have loved to have seen those massive sets where the above the clouds stuff was shot if only to snag a set of those bagged angel wings for posterity. Okay, I’d wear them around the house once or twice a week, too.

  6. A wonderful film as are most of Powell and Pressburger’s collaborations. One of my faves that they made, though not with any glorious technicolor, is 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going, starring Livesay again, this time as the romantic lead, opposite Wendy Hiller. If you’ve not seen it, do so!!!! You won’t be sorry!!!

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