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February 2009: Theme of Love > MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Powell and Pressburger, 1941)

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message 1: by Tom (last edited Feb 10, 2009 09:38AM) (new)

Tom | 4889 comments Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic wartime fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH centers on a romance between a British fighter pilot (David Niven) and a young American WAC (Kim Hunter) stationed in England. The pair have bonded over the radio one night, when the pilot's badly damaged plane gets lost in a fog and he has to bail out, and she is the last voice he hears over his radio headset. His survival after bailing out minus parachute is, it turns out accidental. The heavenly spirit sent to collect him also got lost in the fog, causing all kinds of problems with the Celestial Bureaucracy, when the pilot declines to correct the error by dying, especially now that he has found love.

I don't want to give away too much, as a good deal of the fun of the movie is watching the story unfold. Make no mistake, there's a lot to like and admire about the movie, especially the really fine performances and the really delicious use of Technicolor. God this film is gorgeous to look at. Your TV isn't used to showing you pictures like this. The greens are greener, and those reds are really red: you've never seen fire like you see it in this film. The pictures just jump off the screen.

There's also certain playfulness to the film that is really engaging. The story may not feel entirely fresh to 21st Century audiences, but there are lots of neat little details to keep the attention engaged. At one point in the film time stops short, and a table tennis game is halted with the ball hanging in space.

I'll admit though that I can't quite make up my mind about the film. I have to say that I find the love relationship to be rather unconvincing, there doesn't really seem to be a lot of chemistry there between David Niven and Kim Hunter. And the overt propaganda elements of the film get frankly tiresome. A big scene toward the end about British/American relations (you'll know what I mean when you see it) just brings the film to a screeching halt, and the love conquers all ending (not a spoiler, trust me, there's never any doubt where the story is heading) feels kind of tacked on, somehow. I'm not sure I believe it. Bureaucracies, celestial or otherwise, aren't known for being accommodating.

This is either a serious flaw or a niggling complaint, as you please. I'm feeling kind of churlish bringing it up. I guess I'm saying that the film bites off more than it can really chew: the filmmakers expect a charming romantic wartime fantasy about the Power Of Love to carry more metaphoric and thematic propaganda weight than it can really bear. It doesn't really detract from the movie, I guess, but it doesn't exactly help either.

So see it! Make up your own mind, I'd be interested to hear what others think.




message 2: by Phillip (last edited Feb 09, 2009 05:41PM) (new)

Phillip | 9958 comments wow, i don't know this one, but thanks for the words. i love their work in general, and am surprised i've never heard of this one. it seems to me that they don't always know how to frame passion and romance. not surprised by your assessment, but nonetheless, i'll check it out.


message 3: by Alex DeLarge (new)

Alex DeLarge | 851 comments Thanks Tom, I'll queue it! The only Powell & Pressberger film I've seen is BLACK NARCISSUS and my review is floating around these archives: I thought it a great film. Definately interested to see more of their cinema!


message 4: by Phillip (last edited Feb 09, 2009 05:42PM) (new)

Phillip | 9958 comments you guys should also check out powell and pressburger's "small back room", which was recently released on criterion. it's a radically different film in tone and scope than the red shoes or black narcissus. for one thing, i believe it is one of their rare efforts in black and white...but they may have done some earlier stuff in that medium that i don't know about.


message 5: by Tom (new)

Tom | 4889 comments Philip, I've been meaning to see SMALL BACK ROOM. I'm also going to add I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING to my netflix queue, one of their earlier efforts with the great Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey.

Alex, you've got to see THE RED SHOES. The other Powell/Pressburgers I can take or leave (I'll admit to never having seen BLACK NARCISSUS, the DVD was defective and anyway I'd really only want to see it on a big screen) but THE RED SHOES is just great, a great mad delirious treat of a movie.



message 6: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 304 comments This film is also known as Stairway to Heaven, I think. I rather liked it. You made a slight error in your description, it was an English pilot and an American WAC. The sequence you refer to at the end about British/American relations is the stagiest part of the movie, kind of stiff. I had no objection to the ending. Since love does conquer all, the bureaucracy's hand is sort of forced. 4 out of 5, perhaps.


message 7: by Phillip (last edited Feb 10, 2009 09:35AM) (new)

Phillip | 9958 comments i forgot about i know where i'm going. i have seen that in the video store and was interested. i thought wendy hiller was amazing in pygmalion, so any chance to see more of her is welcomed.

alex, listen to tom. red shoes is a must. i have friends that have seen it more than 20 times.


message 8: by Tom (last edited Feb 10, 2009 09:39AM) (new)

Tom | 4889 comments Marc, thanks for pointing that out. DOH! You're quite right. Silly error, fixed.

Yes, the film was released in this country as STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. It isn't the ending as such that bothered me, I think itis just the Vast Metaphorical Weight that was being brought to bear upon it, the Entire Machinery Of The Universe was made to stop and all that.


message 9: by Alex DeLarge (new)

Alex DeLarge | 851 comments RED SHOES is now going to top of my list, Thanks Tom & Phillip!!


message 10: by Phillip (new)

Phillip | 9958 comments sweet.


message 11: by Alex DeLarge (new)

Alex DeLarge | 851 comments Just read that RED SHOES is being released in the UK on Blu-Ray later this year!!! The BFI has remastered this gem and should be on parr with their other P&P release BLACK NARCISSUS in quality:) Now we need A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH in high-definition...


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