A Special Relationship
It's not often I get a note from the boss regarding what to put in upcoming columns, but when I do it's best to take heed. 'Next week it will be our Valentine Edition - so perhaps a little romance?' came the words of fire. Hum, well, as attentive masochists and other regular readers will probably have guessed, the Awix tape collection is a little thin on properly romantic movies, possibly because in my own experience the merest fluttering of finer feelings is inevitably the precursor to a donkey ride to Hell. But on the other hand the current crop of new movies are a singularly unprepossessing bunch.
And it's equally rare that I get to review a film that I know is already guaranteed a place on the list of all-time greats. So I thought we would take a jaunt back to 1946 and cast an eye over the immortal classic A Matter Of Life And Death, just one of many great films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Set during the last days of the Second World War, A Matter Of Life And Death opens with an RAF bomber on fire over the North Sea. Its sole remaining crewman, Peter Carter (David Niven, playing it almost entirely straight) is making what he believes will be his final radio report. Not surprisingly, the rather intense circumstances of the call results in Carter forming a strong bond with June, the radio operator on the ground, a girl he's never met (played by Kim Hunter, who's probably best known for her sterling work under a chimp mask in the first three Planet of the Apes movies). Believing himself to be doomed, Carter jumps from the crashing plane into a dark and foggy night sky...
...and survives, finding himself washed ashore the next morning. He seeks June out, and their happiness seems predestined. But the authorities of the afterlife have other plans. Carter was supposed to die, but his 'conductor' to the next world (a very theatrical Marius Goring) missed him in the fog. The heavenly bureaucracy insists that Carter must shuffle off his mortal coil in order for the books to balance - but he, quite understandably, wants to stay with his new love, whom he would never have met were it not for someone else's error. It seems he must prove his case before the highest judge of all...
Or is all this only the hallucination of an airman more badly injured than he thinks himself to be? Certainly his doctor (the inimitable Roger Livesey) seems to believe so. Whichever is the case, this really is a matter of life and death...
To watch A Matter Of Life And Death now is to enter a different world - not simply in that this is a film made during a period of global upheaval almost unimaginable now, but in that it has a theatricality and lightness of touch films made these days simply don't possess. But above all else this is a film of tremendous ambition and audacity.
The tone is set by the very first line of dialogue: 'This is the universe. Big, isn't it?' remarks an unseen narrator over a shot of an immense starfield. And the rest of the film lives up to this conceit, happily covering issues such as love, the afterlife, the Anglo-American relationship, the difference between fantasy and reality, and British colonial history, and welding them to startling visuals like an amphitheatre the size of a galaxy, the reception area of the afterlife (where angel's wings are handed out, wrapped in polythene), and - most famously - an vast escalator between this world and the next.
For all that they're the central characters, Niven and Hunter don't get a huge amount to do beyond gazing lovingly at each other and simply being immensely decent and likeable. To an actor of Niven's natural charisma this is a walk in the park, and Hunter (suggested for the role by Alfred Hitchcock) is also quite acceptable. The meat of the script goes to Livesey and Raymond Massey, who are respectively defence and prosecution counsels in the famous 'trial in heaven' sequence at the end of the film. They spar to great effect as the script covers a startling array of topics in quick succession, with wit and charm. But this is a very well-cast film - it is, of course, traditional to mention Richard Attenborough's one-line cameo as a young airman.
Powell and Pressburger were apparently commissioned to make a fairly straightforward propaganda film supporting the Anglo-American alliance, and it's not surprisng that (not for the first time) their film was greeted with raised hackles. For all that the final outcome is broadly in favour of the (ahem) 'special relationship', along the way there are rather a lot of pro-American and anti-British jibes, mostly given to Massey's character (the first American casualty of the war of independence).
But these days it's impossible to see A Matter Of Life And Death as a particularly political film, or indeed one with any great message to deliver - certainly compared to the equally classic, but obviously desperate-to-make-its-point The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, another brilliant Powell and Pressburger film made a few years earlier. This is simply a marvellous and surreal fantasy, playing games with pictures and ideas. It's so bubbling over with wit and charm and inventiveness that it somehow doesn't matter that a major character is casually bumped off to advance the plot (no-one seems that bothered about it, certainly not the deceased), or that the film-makers really don't seem to care whether Carter's visions are 'real' or not (they seem to try to have their cake and eat it). One is simply swept along, something facilitated no end by the eerie score, Jack Cardiff's photography (richly and vibrantly technicolor on Earth, and in pristine black-and-white in Heaven) and some very impressive (for their time) special effects.
All right, so it isn't really a full-on proper romance, as most of the actual a-wooing happens inside the first half hour (and most of that off-screen). But it is a masterpiece from this country's greatest film-making partnership, and hopefully that will excuse some of the shortfall in the hearts and flowers department. If there is such a place as Heaven, A Matter Of Life And Death will be playing in the multiplexes there.