Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death

"A Matter of Life and Death" (aka "Stairway to Heaven") (The Archers, 1946) A cryptic reference to "The Archers" (and their ability to seamlessly combine reality and fantasy) crept into my review of "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," and necessitated the completion of a couple reviews I've had in draft stage the last few months, waiting for the creative spark that would ignite them into a full-blown post.

"A Matter of Life and Death," coming as it did with the stench of the Second World War still enveloping the planet, is a meditation on, and an impassioned plea for, the value of a single human life at a time when the world had seen so much slaughter.  Like it's American counterpart, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," both films begin in the Heavens for a brief prelude contemplating cosmic predetermination.  One man is literally, and spiritually, put to trial for his life, on Earth (as it is in Heaven) when he doesn't die in circumstances that should have killed him.  The story proper begins with the protagonist's life in the air.  A lone RAF pilot, poet Peter Carter (David Niven) is the last man crouching on a doomed bomber hurtling to destruction.  The rest of the crew has bailed out, and Carter, without a parachute, has determined to go down with the plane, hoping to bail out at the last second to avoid death. 

He spends his last fleeting moments in tenuous radio communication with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, who listens, horrified, as Carter banters through his stiff upper lip, and a  parallel falling occurs, as the two are linked in life, death and love for those precious few minutes.  Nothing can come of it, of course.  He's a dead man, for sure.

So, the two are both shocked (though delighted) that Carter survives the fall and is washed up on the beach.  It's some sort of miracle.

"Every time the factory whistle blows, an angel gets it's wings..."

Heavens Above...

The Earth Below

Actually, no.  It is more of a clerical error, as the being-counters in Heaven (we presume, and it's never stated outright) await Carter's arrival with the rest of his crew (none of them made it).  A representative (Marius Goring) is dispatched from Powell and Pressburger's amusing depiction of Kingdom Come (as a sort of empyrean General Motors, an Industrial Age Promised Land), to send Carter packing for Paradise...except...he doesn't want to go.  And won't, unless, he's forced to.  Of course, that he's seeing time-stopping visions of Heavenly Hosts indicates "chronic adhesive arachnoiditis" suffered from an earlier brain injury, and a battle for Carter's life is fought on two fronts, both dependent on the work of one man: Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey), who diagnoses the ailment and, before he can perform surgery, is killed, where he can conveniently argue Carter's case for life in a celestial court-room—the highest court of all.

The Highest Court of All

Carter's out-of-body experience on the operating table—a comic highlight

But, it is more than that—it always is with the films of Powell and Pressburger.  At the end of the European War, there was bitterness on both sides of "the pond:" Americans were grieving their losses and blaming England for "having to be bailed out;" Britons were bitter of the first American Invasion of the war—their own country, and of the havoc "the Yanks" caused creating their launch-point.*  The Case for Peter Carter becomes, in a deeper and richer sense, a debate centering on "Whither England," and whether the "special arrangement" between The Kingdom and The Colonies should be continued, unquestioned.  This odd and whimsical fantasy** becomes a propaganda piece for the very existence of Britain itself, God (or Whoever) Save the King.

The production values are top-notch and imaginative, including an ecumenical escalator that bridges the two worlds...and two photographic processes.  Reversing "The Wizard of Oz" schema, it is the worlds under the rainbow that glow with rich eye-dazzling Technicolor, while "the next world" is shown in black and pearly-white. 

And you thought "Led Zeppelin" made it up...

  It is rich in humor, rich in thought, and it stands right behind "Get Carter"(...?) in polls of the greatest British-made film.  This is one of those films you should see before you die...if only so you can get directions. And to make the journey until then...that much more enjoyable and precious.

* A fine film, too often overlooked, about this war on the home-front is John Schlesinger's unusually restrained (for him) "Yanks."

** This is one of those films that modern critics would sniff "is inconsistent in tone."  Hey, life is inconsistent, pal!

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