A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Producer: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
by Jon Cvack
A Matter of Life and Death is a very weird film, keeping right in style with Powell’s other unique pictures. This disc actually had an interview with Scorsese who talks about how, given the year it was released, it was still very much a product of the World War 2 propaganda pieces released over the last five years. Yet sure enough, Powell is able to transcend the genre and produce something unique and unexpected.
It opens up in a shot up bomber returning from Germany. Royal Air Force pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) demands his crew bail out. He calls into base, and explains the situation to operator June (Kim Hunter), revealing that his parachute is damaged and he’ll be going down with the plane. Though over just seconds, the two develop a believable attraction, pulling of a miraculous love at first sight (or hear), causing Carter to make the foolish pledge that if he somehow survives the two will meet. The radio then breaks out and Carter decides to jump to his death in order to avoid the agony of a plane crash. Rather than dying, he’s sent the “Other world.”
Moments later, he wakes up on the beach, confused as to whether or not he’s conscious. A search plane finds him, and soon he’s back in the hospital with June where the two fall in love. A flamboyant man by the name Corridor 71 (Marius Goring) suddenly stops time, taking Carter back to the Other World where Carter learns he should have died in the accident; pleading for an appeal before a panel of angel judges and Carter granted a three day extension for his case; also requiring legal representation.
Back on Earth, Carter is revived by both June and the charming and decent Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey). When Carter explains his preternatural visions, Reeves suspects a serious brain injury. Soon Reeves dies, and Carter selects him as her lawyer at the trial for Peter’s resuscitation. So begins one of the most fascinating procedural films I’ve ever seen, which goes on for over twenty minutes.
The Prosecutor is a victim from the American Revolution, believing that Carter and June are in love due to circumstances and that Carter had used borrowed time he owes back. Neither could possibly have a spouse or relationship at home that they’re abandoning, unable to cope with the horrors of war, making the international affair exist on shaky ground. Reeves responds by saying that the time was not at all borrowed, but given, and that it should have no basis on matters of nationality.
The American further digs in, calling upon what he calls “Report on England” which I believe is now referred to as the “Famous Five” which was a bipartisan committee opposed to War in England. The American is bitter about how many Americans died fighting Britain, and essentially wants reparations in the form of Carter’s life (or so I surmised after having to watch this scene all over again, having to take careful notes for the first time in my life in order to discover the references).
Regardless of the intention, the American utilizes a barrage of metaphors to enforce his point, starting out by holding up a priceless glass from King George III and drops, asking if it breaks because it’s faulty or because it’s glass, somehow connecting this to the fact that our ancestors had a hand in shaping our national identities.
The conversation then evolves to Reeve’s asking the American about his heritage, then mentioning a bunch of English artists such as Wordsworth and Shakespeare, then playing American popular music while the prosecutor plays the BBC. Although I have little idea what it means, the American brings up a great quote by Benjamin Franklin, “For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, For the want of a shoe the horse was lost, For the want of a horse the rider was lost, For the want of a rider the battle was lost, For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.” I assume it has something to do with June and Carter marrying, or granting Carter an exception, either or both of which could lead to terrible consequences, I’m just not sure how exactly. Reeves responds with another great quote from Washington, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”; though again not sure of the relevance beyond letting Jane and Carter marry, as defined by Washington.
Reeves moves on to highlight the fact that the Jury fails to reflect the defendant (comprised of a Frenchman, a Boer War veteran, Crimean War veteran, a Chinese from an 1857 British attack, an Hindu man from subjugated India, and an Irishman). Reeves demands Englishmen, though is forced to settle on Americans, comprised of a French cook, Italian serviceman, a white collar Asian man, black serviceman, and a former Englishman. The former Englishman then stands and demands that Carter and June be heard. The Judge agrees, and Powell pulls the camera out into a wide, revealing not just a courtroom comprised of tens of thousands, but taking place in another galaxy altogether.
The jurors, lawyers, and judge all journey down a cosmic staircase, returning to the colorful world and to the operating room where Carter’s under anesthetic. They call June, and the American prosecutors ask June if she is willing to step upon the staircase and take Carter’s place. She does, sacrificing her own life for his, proving her love. The jurors rule in favor of Carter, pushing his date of death back (which we don’t learn) much to the disagreement of the administrators and prosecutor. The pair are then returned to Earth.
I’m reading another book from the Oxford History of the United States “Freedom from Fear” (a series I strongly recommend to anyone interested in American History; truly some of the best history books I’ve ever read). The book highlights the period from Hoover and the Great Depression through Roosevelt’s New Deal and WWII. Today I reached the point where Roosevelt is stuck between America and Britain’s isolationists, the latter led by Neville Chamberlain (and mentioned in last year’s Darkest House; he’s the man Churchill replaced). For those who don’t know (as I didn’t) Chamberlain is widely condemned in history books for how much of a coward he was - willing to cede Italy to Mussolini in order to gain neutrality for Britain. Roosevelt offered a conference to most Allied European countries in order to discuss possible sanctions, embargoes, sanctions, and how to deal with future aggression. Chamberlain rejected the offer, wanting England to handle it themselves. The book quotes Churchill who later said, “...no event could have been more likely to stave off, or even prevent, war than the arrival of the United States in the circle of European hates and fears. To Britain it was almost a matter of life and death… We must regardless its rejection… as the loss of the last frail chance to save the world from tyranny otherwise than war.”
Thus, although I can’t find anything about the “Famous Five”, the court case and overall story seems to reflect this fractured moment. Most - myself included - assume that Britain and America were allied from the start; a fallacy as shocking as learning about our Isolationism and reluctance to open our borders to the oppressed Jewry*. While I think the court proceedings get a bit muddled as to intention, including far too many undefined metaphors and quotes, it does demonstrate the power of love beyond the romantic. To love a neighbor should be as much other nations and people as close proximity; and it’s through that love that millions of needless deaths could be avoided. Perhaps that’s even the point of the garbled debate, in that, in the end, no amount of grandiloquence will ever take the place of compassion.
The film might have worked better if Powell integrated this debate earlier into the narrative; instead we’re introduced to a more or less traditional romantic ghost story, in which the intellectualism doesn’t come in until the closing twenty minutes. It could have worked better if the story explored these ideas sooner, threading the procedural earlier into story, injecting more cerebral throughout and allowing us to catch our breath, rather than dumping them onto for twenty minutes straight. It’s still a fascinating film, standing up with any of Powell’s other work.
*One heartbreaking anecdote from the book involves Jews who escaped aboard a ship, getting to Cuba, discovering they were unable to help them get to the states, forcing the Jews to return back to Europe, literally seeing Miami as they sailed back.
BELOW: Heck of an intro
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