by Mel Valentin
Produced, written, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (under their Archers aegis) to foster post-war American-Anglo relations, "A Matter of Life and Death" (retitled as "Stairway to Heaven" for American audiences), is one among several Powell/Pressburger productions that rightly deserves to be called a "classic" or "masterpiece." Some will see "A Matter of Life and Death" as a simple, and simple-minded romantic fantasy, elevated from other entries in the genre by memorably lush, inventive visual design and cinematography (not to mention a dose of British humor or whimsy). Digging further, however, reveals, if not a thoughtful, profound meditation on romantic love, then the perfect marriage of style and substance, of the visual medium of film and narrative form.After a literal God's-eye view of the universe (that voice you're hearing may be, in fact, the voice of the Almighty himself and yes, He has a British accent and a dry sense of humor), Powell and Pressburger introduce us to the ill-fated Peter Carter (David Niven), an RAF bomber pilot and sometime poet, in the last moments before his damaged bomber plane drops from the sky. Peter could jump from the stricken plane if, that is, he had a working parachute. He doesn't. Instead, he spends his last moments talking to an American born radio operator, June (Kim Hunter). In those last moments, Peter dictates a letter to his mother and sisters and exchanges rudimentary information with June. Before jumping from the plane (again, without a parachute), Peter says, "June, you're life, and I'm leaving you," a clear indication that, under different circumstances, Peter and June might pair off into heterosexual bliss.
"As good as it gets. And, yes, I know that title's already been used."
Peter is presumed dead, but awakens on a British beach, soaked through. Spotting a naked boy playing a flute and surrounded by goats (the god Pan, anyone?), Peter realizes that he hasn't passed to the Other Side, but instead miraculously survived the jump from the damaged plane. Obviously grateful, Peter makes his way toward June, finding her cycling back to her quarters. Within seconds, they recognize each other and ecstatically embrace. An impossible romance impossibly blooms between Peter and June. Unfortunately, not all is as it should be. A foppish French aristocrat, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) interrupts a cozy, nighttime picnic. Conductor 71 informs Peter that a grave mistake has occurred (thanks to the heavy English fog that allowed Peter to escape the conductor's grasp). Peter should be, in fact, dead, and a place in Heaven has been already reserved for him and where his fallen comrades await him. Peter refuses, claiming that Heaven's oversight has directly led to a material change in his circumstances (i.e., he's in love when he otherwise wouldn't have been).
Meanwhile, Peter's physical health has taken a turn for the worse. He's overcome with headaches (and the hallucinations don't help), forcing June to seek the medical advice of Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesay), the village doctor who also happens to have some expertise in neurology. Reeves diagnoses brain damage, damage that can be only repaired with surgery. Conductor 71 reappears, informing Peter that his request for a stay of his sentence has been granted, pending appeal to a celestial court. Peter, it seems, has to pick out a defense counsel (he can pick anyone, from any time period, as long as he's dead, of course). Increasingly obsessed and distraught over who to pick for his defense counsel, Peter's physical condition worsens.
As surgery begins, so too does his celestial trial presided over by a heavenly judge (Abraham Sofaer), with Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey, Shape of Things to Come) as the American-born prosecutor and a surprise defense attorney appearing at the last moment. Their argument circles around the presumed impossibility of romantic love between a Brit and an American (not to mention the relative brevity of their relationship), colonial history (Britain comes off poorly), a call for a new jury (made up of a cross-section of Americans from different social and ethnic groups) and, ultimately, on the redemptive power of romantic love.
Any discussion of A Matter of Life and Death begins not with the romantic storyline, but with its impressive, modernist visual design. Powell and Pressburger famously turned the representation of Heaven and Earth upside down, with the scenes set on Earth filmed in gorgeous, oversaturated Technicolor (which bears little relation to the real world's colors) and Heaven shot in steely monochrome. Heaven is a well-run, efficient bureaucracy, complete with an assembly line for the production of plastic-covered angel wings, an enormous Hall of Records (every person, living or dead, has a record detailing important dates, including birth and death dates). New arrivals are ushered into a waiting room, where an official-looking angel in uniform gives crisp instructions and sends the men (soldiers and airmen) on their way.
Heaven may be a bureaucracy, but as one officer learns to his displeasure and an enlisted man learns otherwise, it's also egalitarian (if, alas, still segregated). Heaven has one other, important feature, the celestial court (which sits inside a galaxy), a vast amphitheater that seemingly extends into infinity, with both the prosecutor and the defense counsel given rocky pulpits from which to address their audience (of various nationalities, ethnicities, races and both genders, all of them drawn from the armed services) and their jury, which sit in a semi-circle below the judge's magisterial position. Then too there is the "stairway to heaven," a brilliantly imagined moving marble staircase (each step was more than twenty feet wide) of marble that connects Heaven and Earth. Credit for the visual design go, at least in part, to frequent Archers collaborator, Alfred Junge, who supervised the production design and Jack Cardiff, who handled the gorgeous Technicolor (and monochrome) cinematography. Cardiff's won an Academy Award for his subsequent collaboration with Powell and Pressburger, Black Narcissus, a melodrama about repressed British nuns falling prey to the temptations of the local culture in the Himalayas.If Powell and Pressburger's film falters (and it does), it's in the long, dialogue-heavy, courtroom scene, where Abraham Farlan and Peter's defense counsel exchange speeches about the relative merits of the British Empire and American democracy (surprisingly, the British Empire comes out worse for wear at the conclusion of their argument). The scene turn into overly abstract, patriotic sermonizing (with a dash of history), losing sight of the vital, if mundane, issue before the celestial court: does romantic love nullify the laws of Heaven, particularly when that love results from a negligent act by Heaven itself? Luckily, Powell and Pressburger circle back to this question before losing their audience irrevocably, ultimately answering it in the only way possible for Peter and June (but not before Peter and June are given one last test of their love for one another).
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originally posted: 09/23/05 01:18:19