Rediscovering Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's amazing WWII romantic propaganda fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.)
It’s standard operating procedure for our cruel and unjust universe that anything we loved when we were younger invariably fails to hold up when we see it again years later. That’s why it was such an amazing experience for me to watch A Matter of Life and Death this week and to feel just as overjoyed by it as I was the first time.
I first saw it as a freshman in college, in a cinema studies class. At the time, those classes were more tedious than enlightening; the novelty of “I get to go watch a movie every night… for education!” tends to wear off pretty quickly. (Especially when you get the teaching assistant who springs Un Chien Andalou on you unawares at 8:50 in the morning). In retrospect, though, I saw some great movies I probably wouldn’t have seen or even heard of otherwise, from 8 1/2 to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Out of all of them, my favorites were Rear Window and A Matter of Life and Death.
Rear Window is perfect fodder for cinema studies classes: it’s a great movie on its own, and it invites an academic to come in and suddenly give it more depth (and make himself seem more insightful) by talking about movies within movies and applying the liberal application of terms like mise en scene. But A Matter of Life and Death is different. It’s relentlessly charming, and seemingly straightforward 40s romantic comedy, until it goes off on some bizarre tangent or tosses in some weird detail that makes the whole thing resonate. At the time, I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it instantly became one of my top five favorite movies.
And then I completely forgot about it for the next 20 years. It wasn’t until I read Matt Dessem’s posts about two other Powell/Pressburger movies, I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus, that I remembered loving some bizarre WWII-era take on Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I actually felt a little guilty for forgetting about it, and put it in the Netflix queue with some trepidation: could it possibly be as good as it was back when I was a freshman in college?
The movie didn’t waste any time reminding me how much I’d loved it and how much I was surprised by it. Within the first fifteen minutes, it shows you: a tour of the galaxy, a wide-eyed dead body inside a crashing WWII bomber, Kim Hunter (surprisingly beautiful when not disguised as a chimpanzee) in a featureless void listening to the last words of a doomed pilot, the waiting room in heaven, and David Niven talking to a naked shepherd boy on a beach. (I’m still wondering about that one: was it really de rigueur for kids to hang out nude on beaches in 1945 Britain?) The shots of heaven are appropriately fantastic, including the image included above, looking down into the records room. All of the set design and art direction is genius, but instead of lingering on it, it’s treated as a backdrop for Powell & Pressburger’s extremely dry, British sense of humor: the arrival of a group of American pilots in heaven is just a perfectly-executed gag.
The directorial touch that gets the most attention is the shift between monochrome and Technicolor when the scene shifts between heaven and Earth. (As much as I loved Wings of Desire, I probably would’ve been more impressed if I hadn’t seen Stairway to Heaven just a month earlier). Powell & Pressburger make a fourth-wall breaking joke about it via one of their national stereotypes, the foppish French dandy in charge of David Niven’s case:
It’s a character that would’ve been insufferable anywhere else, but this movie is so gleefully eccentric that an over-the-top caricature like this one fits right in. (Also, he can stop time right in the middle of drinks or ping-pong games).
Take, for example, the hero of the movie. Technically, it’s David Niven’s character Peter, but I say the real hero is the movie’s stable voice of authority, motorcycle-riding action neurologist Dr. Frank Reeves:
We first see him while he and his cocker spaniels are scoping out the town via his camera obscura. After that, he saddles up on his hog to check out the local US Army base, where he can diagnose Peter’s head injury while the soldiers are putting on amateur Shakespeare festival. He then invites Peter and his new American girlfriend to shack up at his own place, where he can pump the airman full of sedatives while he and the lady play ping pong. The motorcycle does become an important plot point later, but when it’s introduced, it’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be funny or exciting or just weird. Considering there’s a similar motorcycle sequence in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I imagine that Powell & Pressburger just thought that motorcycles were cool. In any case, it gave us this scene:
where a goateed Roger Livesey in full-on 40s biker gear storms into a hospital on a stormy night and schools a surgeon about adhesions involving the olfactory nerve in the brain. As an impressionable 17-year-old, I thought he was just the biggest bad-ass.
It’s around that scene that the movie goes back into full-on fever dream mode, pelting you with one fantastic image after another. It’s possible that everything plays differently now, since it’s been ripped out of its WWII-era British context. I imagine this scene of heavenly nurses was always intended to be memorable, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if it was supposed to be this creepy:
It’s also here that the movie becomes its most pedantic. All the national and ethnic stereotypes we’ve seen so far aren’t just examples of Powell & Pressburger’s dry sense of humor. They’re part of the movie’s message. This clearly isn’t just a romantic comedy, and it’s not “just” a fantasy, either: it’s part propaganda film, just as much as Colonel Blimp. And the lesson was for the Allies to stay allied. Remember that this was in the 40s, back before society had evolved to the stage of renaming French fries to demonstrate patriotism; back then, people had to make whole movies to get past stereotypes. This part of the movie takes the form of a court case, to determine whether Peter can remain on Earth. Any court case needs evidence:
which in this case is to prove that British airman Peter and American communications officer June are truly in love. But the two “main” characters are really ciphers — I had to look up “June’s” name again, since she’s given no character beyond “all-American girl from Boston.” The real trial is an excuse for Powell & Pressburger to poke fun at Americans and Englishmen (and our common enemy, Frenchmen). But it’s not in any way cynical, or bitter, or spiteful. They’ve got real love for their characters and real optimism and genuine good humor. This was back when people referred to The Good War with a real understanding of its importance, and without any sense of irony.
And while the movie spends its last half hour in danger of becoming too talky, it’s also filled with some of the most fantastic imagery. The conclusion of the trial is kind of a spoiler, but it’s also the best example of the kind of genius filmmaking that makes this somewhat silly, somewhat goofy romantic comedy fantasy propaganda piece so unforgettable:
On the surface, it’d seem like there’s nothing making A Matter of Life and Death relevant anymore, now that it’s been almost completely removed from its original context. But it’s a testament to Powell & Pressburger’s talent and imagination that it’s still completely charming, odd, and fascinating. Looking for more info about the movie online, I saw that it was turned into a stage play in the UK a couple of years ago, reportedly despite the protests of Pressburger’s relatives. Based on the pictures and occasional write-ups on English blogs, it sounds like the play involved a good bit of wire-work and “imaginative” staging, and the gimmick of a random ending for the story with each performance.
I don’t object to the idea of a stage production — especially if it raised awareness of the original — but everything I’ve heard about this production makes it sound completely superfluous and more than a little condescending. It reminds me of Old Man Murray’s (brilliant) review of American McGee’s Alice and that game’s clumsy attempts to make a darker, edgier, more trippy reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland. A Matter of Life and Death isn’t some quaint relic of a simpler time. It’s every bit as weird, wacky, gimmicky, and innovative as anything a 21st century stage director could come up with. If anything, it makes modern attempts seem trite for reproducing all of the gimmicks but not being able to fit them into a decent story.
We all tend to be dismissive of anything older than 20 years; clearly, as a culture we’re more advanced and enlightened than the simple, formulaic stuff that the old-timers put out. But whether it’s because they were fiercely independent, because they didn’t depend on a Hollywood model or Hollywood formula, because they had one of those rare examples of a creative partnership that just “clicks,” or just because they were geniuses, Powell & Pressburger managed to rise above that.