Stairway to Heaven
****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter
written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
by Walter Chaw Watching 1946's A Matter of Life and Death while the end of the American experiment is upon us is an amazingly painful thing. The film was conceived in part by hyphenates Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as a way of cementing the postwar British-American alliance. Accordingly, it ends with a trial in which the United States is celebrated as an inspirational model: a paragon of idealism, humanism, truth. If it ever was those things, it isn't any of them today. The scales have fallen from my eyes, and the movie now plays as an elegy for everything we've lost since 1946--for everything I've lost as I bid goodbye to what remains of my innocence and my optimism that there's anything left in this country that resembles what I had been raised to believe about it. We are divided, hateful, unhealthy, selfish, stupid, and brutal. There's a line from Graham Baker's underestimated Alien Nation I think of often nowadays. Alien immigrant Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), drunk one night, tells his human friend:
You humans are very curious to us. You invite us to live among you in an atmosphere of equality that we've never known before. You give us ownership of our own lives for the first time and you ask no more of us than you do of yourselves. I hope you understand how special your world is, how unique a people you humans are. Which is why it is all the more painful and confusing to us that so few of you seem capable of living up to the ideals you set for yourselves.
It's over, you know. We never deserved this faith. It's over.
A Matter of Life and Death begins with a death. British airman Peter Carter (David Niven) is going down in an injured plane at the tail end of WWII. He's lost in the fog and he knows he's going to die; there's no saving him. He calls out on his radio and the RAF comptroller--a Yank, as it happens, June from Boston (Kim Hunter)--answers. They talk for a while, and it's the kind of conversation you have when you know you're going to die soon--intimacy blooms in terminal moments. The night before I tried to kill myself at age 16, I sat on the warm sidewalk in front of a friend's house and talked with her for hours about nothing. As I was leaving, she asked me to take care of her sister, who had died in a terrible accident a couple of years previous, and I promised I would. I can't say I've ever quite forgiven myself for surviving my attempt. But I was as close to her as I've been to anyone in those midnight hours, and I've only spoken to her once since in the last thirty years. In no time, in an eternity of time, Peter and June fall in love on May 6, 1945, the night before Germany's surrender. Then Peter jumps from his plane without a parachute, because all things considered, he'd rather fall to his death than burn up in his crippled craft.
But he doesn't die. At the moment of his annihilation, the supernatural being responsible for facilitating his transition to the afterlife, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), takes his eyes off his task and loses Peter in the fog. Peter's fine. He's confused, though, and as he's wandering around on the beach where he's washed up, he runs into June on her bike on the way home. She knows his voice and he knows hers, and they revel in this second chance to know each other--first chance, really. Conductor 71, guillotined during the French Revolution for being a bourgeois scumbag (he's much better now), explains the error to Peter, but Peter, well, he's in love, you see, and he demands a chance to make a case for himself. The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, so Conductor 71 is a victim, in a way, of an American ideal of, if not a classless state, at least a caste system based on merit rather than birth. Peter's defense for extended life is that it is through this celestial error that Peter has made this new connection and, well, why should he be punished for someone else's error? He cries out for justice. Because A Matter of Life and Death is a fantasy, he's going to get it.
This was Niven's return to features following a six-year stint in England's army, just as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was John Huston's post-military comeback and It's a Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart's. These films all share a hard-bitten wisdom compared to the kinds of movies the three men were making before the war. They were now steeped in death, stained by it, as were their fans. The world had changed, and these choices spoke to something like a survivor's responsibility to tell more mature stories with higher stakes. These pictures speak to survivor's guilt as well, something A Matter of Life and Death deals with elegantly when a doctor trying to help the addled Peter is himself killed while trying to summon an ambulance for Peter to convey him to an emergency operation on his brain. The death of Dr. Reeves (Colonel Blimp himself, Roger Livesey) is the type of brutal irony modern warfare has introduced into our collective psyche. Life is more precious when it's this cheap. For all its whimsy, the poetic tension of reconciling truths in polar opposition is the source of the film's immense and at times overwhelming melancholy. Reeves's passing serves a secondary (tertiary?) purpose in the film's narrative when the good doctor appears as...an angel? A Ghost? He's suddenly eligible to be Peter's counsel for the defense in an afterlife trial in which the jury consists of generations of Americans, nobly dead. Whatever the film's talk of eternal rewards, what it's really about is the exquisite brevity of life itself.
Accordingly, the film's terrestrial realm is shot in glorious Technicolor--hyper-saturated and the cause of an extended delay at the beginning of shooting as Powell & Pressburger had to wait for the equipment to become available from Olivier's Henry V, then filming in Ireland. Its non-denominational afterlife is also shot on Technicolor stock but left with the colour undeveloped so that what remains is a sort of glowing, metallic sheen of grey. Shot by Jack Cardiff in his first post-war picture, it's beautiful, of course--but it's in his collaborations with the Archers (he also photographed Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes for them after assisting DP Georges Perinal on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) that his work achieves ravishing sublimity. The films of Powell & Pressburger are unabashedly steeped in shining, holy, archetypal imagery--their images are infused with life and seem at any moment on the verge of stepping down off the screen into this world. The first thing Peter encounters post-"death" is a naked shepherd boy sitting among his goats, playing the lute. Later, a group of "Yank girls" decorate for a spring show of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as Mendelssohn's "Ye Spotted Snakes" (from his "A Midsummer Night's Dream") plays in the background; Reeves, testing for possible brain damage in Peter, asks him to describe a tableau being enacted in the space with a young woman in a Greek shift, holding a spear. Film is the bridge, the portal backwards and forwards to every image existing in every possible time, real and dreamed.
The extreme interest in the Natural in the Archers' pictures places them as Romantic poets: true ones, honorary ones, acolytes of a movement that, like Conductor 71, was created by the humanism of the French Revolution. The Romanticists saw nature as the first testament of God--more, as evidence of this notion of a sublime that surpasses human understanding yet binds us to one another. Nature in the P&P films is a reflection of the presence of divinity in our lives, and we are inextricably intertwined with it, a product of it, as subject to its arbitrariness as we are to its grace. If Terrence Malick has one true progenitor, it's these guys. Consider the scenes of nature in A Matter of Life and Death and the wild introduction of Catriona (Pamela Brown) in their previous film, I Know Where I'm Going, arriving as she does in a burst of giant dogs and a gust of wind and rain. Wind and rain are what claim Reeves at last, and when he goes, it's less a tragedy than it is part of a (literal) cycle. I can't say enough about how brilliantly (and seductively) this film is shot. The way that Cardiff's camera whips back and forth to follow the path of a ping-pong ball, the point-of-view shot from behind an eyelid slowly closing, a diaphanous network of capillaries as the after-image of lightning creasing the sky, the use of rear-projection and a notoriously-massive staircase set (the source of the movie's American title, "Stairway to Heaven")--all of it is so fucking good it beggars description. Note a small moment during Peter's brain surgery when time freezes and his "soul" is claimed for trial. As Peter and Conductor 71 talk, watch as Reeves, trailing behind, walks, like the phantom he is, effortlessly through a closed, paned-glass door. Not an easy trick to pull off in 1946. It's done here not only well, but also as a thing that happens in the background, barely drawing attention to itself.
A Matter of Life in Death is one of the great films about the idea that while there's no point to any of it, there is love and there is friendship and that's enough. Reeves says before his death that Jane is "lucky in her friends," and I've been moved more than once in my life to appreciate the quality of not the people I love, but the ones who love me. As Peter goes through his literal and figurative trials, he finds himself unbelievably loved. This is a film about gratefulness, then, and a particularly affecting one. It's worth considering, however, if only for a moment, how the audience assembled to witness the trial that ends the film is almost entirely segregated according to era and, yes, race. Is it by choice? Or is there something else happening in the afterlife we should know about? Yet when the literal jury of American citizens finally assembles for Peter's trial, find an Asian, a black soldier, an Italian chef, and an Irishman among them. Where the white nationalists who currently run the United States see homogeneity as the strength of the country, I see our strength exemplified by the bracing diversity of our parade of athletes marching to open the Olympics. Our diversity is what makes us novel, powerful. Two of the three high-ranking magistrates in the afterlife are women, incidentally: an angel played by Kathleen Byron (unforgettable here, immortal in Black Narcissus), and a Chief Recorder played by Joan Maude. And at the very end, it's Jane's willingness to sacrifice that saves Peter. She's the true hero of the piece. A Matter of Life and Death celebrates the idealism that drove American diversity, an idea of the world's most vulnerable assembling under the banner of what was, for a short while, the single most powerful coalition in modern history. This film from 1946 got it. Shame on us, shame on us for the egregiousness of our greedy, repulsive failure.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's Blu-ray release of A Matter of Life and Death presents the film in a gobsmacking 1.37:1, 1080p transfer. It's funny to look at these Archer productions--this one, in particular, at least for me--after some time away from them to discover they're not in ultra-wide CinemaScope, even though the mind reconstructs them as screen-filling epics. Liner notes credit Sony's mastering guru Grover Crisp for overseeing a 4K digital restoration from the original 35mm three-strip Technicolor negative, using as a colour reference the photochemical restoration Cardiff supervised prior to his death in 2009. Although the centre-channel, lossless mono soundtrack was sourced, the note continues, from a "35mm nitrate variable-density optical soundtrack print" rather than a magnetic master, it, too, has been revitalized and lacks any of the expected tinniness or distortion. (The thought of seeing this film on nitrate, by the way, made me immediately woozy in a good way.) Anyway, the image is gorgeous, with breathtaking dynamic range--June's eyes are no longer totally hidden under a visor of shadow in her radio chat with Peter (see final framegrab below)--and colours so saturated they're almost lurid. There's indisputably some softness to a few shots, but for the most part that registers as an artistic choice; the picture is geared towards maximum romance, and any gauziness only enhances the dreamlike quality of it. When Conductor 71 first appears, rose in his lapel, amidst a lush backdrop of purple flowers, green foliage, and midnight-blue sky, the old-school vibrancy of it is actually majestic.
Critic Ian Christie, who effectively wrote the book on Powell & Pressburger, Arrows of Desire, records a detailed and informative audio commentary that covers the picture's origin story while also providing a cogent analysis of major themes, not just of this film but of the Archers' catalogue overall. I learned a lot listening to this and had my memory jogged by his retelling of how Alfred Hitchcock recommended Kim Hunter for the role of June, having utilized her during the casting process on the same year's Notorious. I similarly appreciated the detail that the line about Heaven needing Technicolor was dubbed in post-production to enhance the self-knowing humour of the piece. Great stuff here, as worthy of a spin as Christie's own monograph on A Matter of Life and Death is of a read. A video intro from Martin Scorsese (9 mins., HD) speaks passionately about Powell & Pressburger, their love of England and their presentation of its history as mythic. Scorsese remains, of course, a persuasive, eloquent champion of cinema and the importance of its restoration and preservation. Scorsese's long-time editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker (who is, as it happens, the widow of Michael Powell), chimes in with her thoughts on A Matter of Life and Death in a 33-minute interview segment (HD) that really pulls back the curtain on the movie's creation. Niven's involvement as a product of his visiting the set of I Know Where I'm Going was something I'd never heard before, and it's absolutely charming. Her personal recollections, especially of how Powell loved Americans, are touching, and I just can't shake the feeling of dismay at what we have ultimately shown ourselves to be. Schoonmaker, one of the great editors of all-time, discusses several scenes from A Matter of Life and Death proper in depth, touching on the camera obscura effects and the inspiration for many of the film's indelible touches. She references Diane Friedman's exceptional book on the picture and its relationship to epilepsy; you should read it.
Craig McCall's 1998 short The Colour Merchant (11 mins., HD) finds Cardiff talking about his work on the film, his first in the role of cinematographer. Powell has said he needed someone to take off into the future with him after the drabness of the war period, and Cardiff was to be his co-pilot. The theme that recurs in all of these conversations about the Archers is their devotion to allowing artists the freedom to express themselves and how, in turn, they received the same amount of slack. The product of their artistic endeavours is what Scorsese has called the single most subversive period of filmmaking for a major studio in history (their distributor, The Rank Organisation, the studio in question), and who am I to argue with Scorsese? Cardiff recalls, among other things, how specific colour effects were achieved in the development of the negative and what "rushes" looked like at the time: just a 4"x3" card of slides. It's ridiculously informative and rare for special features in that I wish it were longer. Meanwhile, "Special Effects" (32 mins., HD) sees F/X artist Craig Barron and matte painter Harrison Ellenshaw reflecting on A Matter of Life and Death's showstoppers and the work of production designer Alfred Junge. It's an excellent overview, although it marks the point at which the disc's supplements risk becoming redundant. Still, it's worth it for a short clip from Richard Donner's Superman that's used for illustrative purposes. I had never connected the lush fantasy elements of the Archers to Christopher Reeve, but I'll never not now.
Hosted by Melvyn Bragg, a 1986 episode of "The South Bank Show" (55 mins.), upres'd to HD, features Powell reflecting on the breadth of his work. It's nice to hear from the man himself, although he's in large part rehashing what others have already said in these extras. I love it when he kisses a Bell & Howell camera, I confess, and it's moments like this that offer the best argument for the episode's inclusion. A Matter of Life and Death isn't addressed specifically until around the forty-minute mark, though the conversation fast transitions into Black Narcissus. What's not revisited is the furor around Powell's 1960 solo effort Peeping Tom, which effectively ended his career for reasons both obvious and maddening. A five-minute "Restoration Demonstration" is exactly that, wiping between restored and unrestored frames to show how this version of the film is a radical improvement. The slim insert booklet tucked in the keepcase houses an essay, "The Too-Muchness of It All," by critic Stephanie Zacharek, who places the film in the larger context of the Archers' output while delivering a decent primer for newcomers to the film. It's a solid gateway to the small library of studies devoted to these films and filmmakers.
104 minutes; Not Rated; 1.37:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion