Friday, April 1, 2011

Links: A Matter of Life and Death

This week's film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the third of their many classics we've played, after The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus) seems to have been greeted with less than acclaim on its premiere in England as the first Royal Command Film Performance back in the fall of 1946.  Most seem to have taken it for a lame bit of pro-American propaganda, as can be seen in this collection of original reviews at

"Love wins, but only after a fatuous trial in which America and Britain become symbols of the love-clash and in which Britain makes all the concessions (for box-office purposes in America), I take it.

     The film is thin and pretentious, though possessing certain technical ingenuities." - The Daily Worker

"Old feuds, old grudges, old hatreds are revived in one scene of this film in a manner which is entirely unnecessary and irrelevant to the development of the plot. Ancient charges against British "imperialism" which, for the most part, never had any real substance, are paraded - and no defence is offered. So an impression is conveyed well calculated to confirm and strengthen whatever false ideas of this country and its history Isolationist propaganda may already have implanted in American minds.

     We believe that the great majority of Americans will, like the British people, be able to assess the picture suggested by this part of the film at its true worth. But there are in the United States to-day certain elements which will be only too eager to exploit it. A film of this kind can contribute nothing to international understanding. It is a pity that it should cross the Atlantic carrying the cachet which comes from its showing on such an occasion as last night's." -- The Daily Graphic

The Sunday Dispatch, though, managed to appreciate it:

"The trial is really a Matter-of-Life-and-Death operation. Watch for the shot of the patient's eye closing under the anaesthetic as he lies watching the ceiling of the operating theatre. You'll swear it's your own eye and that you are succumbing to that anaesthetic.

     The technique used in this, and many other shots, are a real step forward in screen photography. Kim Hunter plays the opposite lead with quiet but telling effect.

     This film was well worthy of their Majesties patronage; it is well worthy of yours."

Regardless of its status as pro-American propaganda, or perhaps because of it, Bosley Crowther at the New York Times loved the film when it was released in the US as Stairway to Heaven a few weeks later, though his headline writer gave it only second billing behind The Beast with Five Fingers, in which a severed hand chases Peter Lorre around an Italian villa.

"If you wished to be literal about it you might call it romantic fantasy with psychological tie-ins. But literally is not the way to take this deliciously sophisticated frolic in imagination's realm. For this is a fluid contemplation of a man's odd experiences in two worlds, one the world of the living and the other the world of his fantasies—which, in this particular instance, happens to be the great beyond. . . .

"That gives you a slight indication of the substance and flavor of this film—and we haven't space at this writing to give you any more, except to say that the wit and agility of the producers, who also wrote and directed the job, is given range through the picture in countless delightful ways: in the use, for instance, of Technicolor to photograph the earthly scenes and sepia in which to vision the hygienic regions of the Beyond (so that the heavenly "messenger," descending, is prompted to remark, "Ah, how one is starved for Technicolor up there!"). . . .

"But we'll have much, more to say later, when we've got Christmas out of our hair. Till then, take this recommendation; see "Stairway to Heaven." It's a delight!"

Here in the present, we get our movie reviews from podcasts, and last October Filmspotting reviewed A Matter of Life and Death as part of their Powell & Pressburger marathon.  Needless to say, they too found it to be a delight.

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