Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Matter of Life and Death

a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven
Michael Powell, Emric Pressburger, 1946 (9.2*)
Not exactly your average war story: while returning to England from a bombing in 1945, pilot Peter Carter, played by David Niven, is too damaged to make it back, and his parachute is also destroyed. He has his crew bail out, and as what he assumes is his last act, he talks on the radio to an operator named June (Kim Hunter), a young American woman, who is touched by his situation.

Then he jumps out over the ocean, and instead of dying, he wakes up in the surf, walking to shore. It was his time to die, but his death angel (a 'conductor') couldn't find him in all that fog (see quote below). Of course, having already fallen for her, he soon meets June in person, and naturally they fall in love for real. When his angel finds him and tells him of the error, Peter argues that it's not his fault he's still alive, now he's in love, so just leave him in peace. The celestial beings who run heaven agree to a trial to decide his fate, so the trial becomes a matter of life and death for Peter.

He is sent back to earth to prepare for his trial, and continue his life there for a day anyway. There are some very innovative sequences when the angel appears, all the action freezes, but Peter and the angel continue in real-time, once during a ping-pong game with the ball in mid-air. The colors are sumptuous, Powell's attention to color details in small props like chess sets places his films a level above all others in their cinematic artistry. The heavenly trial and corporal earth-time are woven together flawlessly in the story.

This is another beautiful film from Michael Powell and Emric Pressburger, known as The Archers. It's generally assumed that Powell was the director and Pressburger the writer, but they shared each credit. Powell began as a Technicolor® specialist, a color film advisor trained by that company in the late 30's. This is one of their best collaborations, the others being Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. All are beautiful to look at, among the most artistic in the history of film.

The title was changed to Stairway to Heaven in the U.S., because they thought America wasn't ready for a film with 'death' in the title the year after the war was over. (That's so funny, the U.S. being the top homicide nation of all time). A Matter of Life and Death was Powell's own personal favorite of all his works. IF this had more ratings from viewers (only 7k so far), it would be in the IMDB top 250, the average of 8.1 is high enough to be ranked around 190-200.

Quote: The fog was so thick I could've stepped out of the plane and walked back to England.

Note: Martin Scorsese was heavily influenced by Powell and flew to England to meet him and he brought him back to the U.S. to meet all the other directors, like Coppola and Spielberg, that were also students of his films. Powell was surprised to find that he was this well-respected by the next generation of filmmakers.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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