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Tag Archives: Bonar Colleano

A Matter of Life and Death (Dec. 25, 1946)

Stairway to Heaven
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Archers / Eagle-Lion / Universal Pictures

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s brilliant fantasy A Matter of Life and Death premiered in the United Kingdom on November 1, 1946, and later that year in New York City, on Christmas day, retitled Stairway to Heaven. (After World War II, the word “death” was verboten in film titles for awhile in the United States.)

The film begins with the following statement: “This is a story of two worlds — the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world, known or unknown, is purely coincidental.” It’s a playful opening, and can be interpreted in more than one way. “The Archers” (the name Powell and Pressburger used for their partnership) had a light touch, and were able to weave magical realism into their stories without ever seeming childish or silly.

After a cheeky narrated tour through the cosmos, we see Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven), his Lancaster bomber in flames and about to crash. Peter’s parachute is shot too full of holes to function properly, and he is desperately trying to reach someone on the radio. Next to him lies the body of Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote). Peter manages to get in touch with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and pours out his heart to her. Finally, he professes his love before leaping out of the bomber without a parachute.

The scene in which Niven wakes up in the pounding surf and believes himself in the afterlife is a masterpiece of subtle humor. He stands, breathes deeply, and walks toward the beach with a beatific gaze, shedding his earthly raiments. The first person he sees is a boy playing a pipe, tending sheep, so why wouldn’t he think he’s passed on to his final reward?

Meanwhile, his mate Bob finds himself in the “other place,” an otherworldly bureacracy in which angel wings arrive en masse on long runners, ready to be attached to newly arrived bodies, and businesslike clerks take names and hand out assignments. Bob is told that there was a clerical error that caused Peter to fall through the cracks, and that he’ll need to be collected forthwith.

The scenes on terra firma are filmed in beautiful Technicolor, while the scenes in the afterlife are filmed in black and white. (Technically it’s “monochrome Technicolor,” not proper black and white, but since I’m not as big of a film nerd as Martin Scorsese, I couldn’t tell the difference.) It’s a simple but brilliant stylistic choice, and it’s way ahead of its time. Films in the ’30s or ’40s that mixed black and white with color film invariably depicted the fantastical world in color and the prosaic world in black and white. To do it the other way around looks forward to the ’80s, when black and white was coming back into vogue, and filmmakers like Scorsese and David Lynch showed just how surreal and otherworldly black and white film could look.

Kim Hunter and David Niven

June and Peter fall in love, but for Peter, time occasionally stops all around him while a ridiculous French aristocrat from the other world known as “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring), pays him visits.

June’s friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) believes that Peter’s visions aren’t supernatural, but symptoms of a brain injury. Eventually this “matter of life and death” comes to a head as Peter is operated on in our world while simultaneously facing trial in the other.

A Matter of Life and Death is a fantastic film that is satisfying on both a technical level and an emotional level. The performances are all wonderful, and Powell and Pressburger are masterful filmmakers.

Incidentally, in a 2004 poll of 25 film critics in Britain’s Total Film magazine, A Matter of Life and Death was named the second greatest British film of all time, sandwiched between Get Carter (#1) and Trainspotting (#3).

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Wanted for Murder (Nov. 2, 1946)

Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder, which was originally released on June 17, 1946, in the U.K., premiered in the United States on November 2, 1946. It’s an effective chiller with a dependable cast and an excellent screenplay by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger, based on the stage play by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney.

The film boasts a terrific sense of place, with scenes filmed in Hampstead Fairground, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and the center of London (which, when necessary, appears as rear screen projection stock footage, a technique that can be distractingly fake-looking but here is done fairly skillfully). There are also several atmospheric nighttime murder sequences in Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, and Hyde Park.

Particularly effective is the music by Mischa Spoliansky, whose pop-orchestral tune “A Voice in the Night” is a motif that follows the murderer around like his shadow, and which you’ll be hard-pressed not to hum after seeing this picture.

Eric Portman plays middle-class mummy’s boy Victor James Colebrooke, a man who feels haunted by the specter of his late father, William Colebrooke, an executioner to Queen Victoria whose eerie likeness stands in Madame Tussaud’s.

Colebrooke is a handsome, superficially charming gentleman who drink Hendrick’s Gin, lives at home with his mother and a servant, and whose single-breasted suits often sport a white boutonniere and a pocket square. He’s the embodiment of the British fascination with “the murderer next door” — the outwardly ordinary man whose wife’s remains are bricked up in the basement or who strangles working girls on the weekend.

Wispy brunette Dulcie Gray plays Anne Fielding, a young woman who works in a gramophone shop and is dating Colebrooke. A starry-eyed young bus conductor named Jack Williams (Derek Farr) finds her waiting at the fairgrounds and mashes her as hard as he can. She’s attracted to him, but Colebrooke is manipulative and possessive.

Rounding out the fine cast are Roland Culver as Chief Insp. Conway and Stanley Holloway as Sgt. Sullivan, the two Scotland Yard detectives who are on the trail of the killer. Their scenes are some of the film’s most light-hearted, but they are never less than professional, and are dogged in their pursuit of the strangler.

When the first murder occurs, the audience doesn’t know who the killer is, but we strongly suspect Colebrooke. It’s not long before the film removes any doubt about his guilt, which allows for a more interesting and creepy character study than in a whodunnit, where the murderer’s identity is a secret up until the climax.

Most of the film is a game of cat and mouse, with the detectives fairly certain Colebrooke is guilty, but unable to gather anything but circumstantial evidence.

Meanwhile, Colebrooke goes about his dastardly business at night in the parks, telling young women he takes out on dates and strangles that his name is “Tom Mahon.”

Colebrooke blames his sickness on his father, whose killings were all committed in the course of his duty, but whose grim pride in his work earned him the nickname “The Happy Hangman.” The Freudian-minded viewer might blame his overbearing, possessive mother, but the film itself doesn’t draw any such trite conclusions. His father is just a picture on the wall or — in one scene — a disturbingly realistic wax figure, and his mother isn’t a bad person, even encouraging him to find a nice girl and marry her.

Wanted for Murder is a first-rate thriller. Although the adjective hadn’t been invented when it was made, I’d go so far as to call it “Hitchcockian.”