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Tag Archives: Roger Livesey

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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I Know Where I’m Going (Nov. 16, 1945)

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the talented pair of writers, producers, and directors whose early collaborations included One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944), worked together under the name “The Archers” throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and produced some of the most enduring films in British history. Powell was a native-born Englishman. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who found refuge in London and who prided himself on being “more English than the English.”

I Know Where I’m Going, which premiered in London on November 16, 1945, is a warm, romantic drama. The film stars Wendy Hiller as Joan Webster, a stubborn young woman who, according the narrator, “always knew where she was going.” After a montage that shows Joan’s growth from headstrong toddler to headstrong teenager to headstrong 25-year-old, we see her dressed in smart clothes, meeting her father (played by George Carney) at a nightclub, where she blithely informs him that she plans to travel to Kiloran island in Scotland to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy, middle-aged industrialist whom she has never met. Her father is aghast, but, as always, Joan knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s doing.

Handled differently, this setup could lead to a grim, Victorian melodrama, but I Know Where I’m Going is a playful film with touches of magical realism. On her trek to the Hebrides, Powell and Pressburger delight in each leg of her long journey (and there are many), and pepper the montage with fanciful touches, such as a map with hills made of tartan plaid, a dream sequence in which Joan’s father marries her to the chemical company owned by Bellinger (literally), and an old man’s top hat that becomes the whistling chimney of a steam engine.

On the last leg of her journey, she is forced to put up in the Isle of Mull, as weather conditions do not permit water travel to Kiloran. Joan stays in touch with Bellinger, who is never seen, only heard (as a stuffy voice on the other end of a telephone). While cooling her heels in Mull, Joan meets a charming, soft-spoken serviceman named Torquil MacNeil, who is on an eight-day leave. (Torquil is played by Roger Livesey, in a role originally intended for James Mason.)

The joke implicit in the title becomes more and more clear as Joan and Torquil begin to fall for each other. The closer they become, the more determined she is to reach Kiloran. Eventually willing to risk life and limb to get there, it becomes clear that at least when it comes to love, she has no idea where she is going, and is too hard-headed to see anything clearly.

Livesey, who was in his late thirties when this film was made, was originally told that he was too old and too heavy to play the role of the 33-year-old Torquil, but he very quickly slimmed down to get the part, and he cuts a dashing figure, although not a classically handsome one. Interestingly, Livesey never set foot in the Western Isles of Scotland, where most of the film’s exteriors were shot. He was starring in a play in the West End during filming, so Powell and Pressburger made clever use of a body double for long shots, and filmed all of Livesey’s interior scenes at Denham Studios, in England.

Besides its fine performances and its involving love story, I Know Where I’m Going is enjoyable to watch simply because Powell and Pressburger show such incredible attention to detail. The interiors may be shot on a soundstage, but it’s easy to forget that with effects that perfectly marry them to the location footage, such as rain lashing the windows, subtle lighting, and the shadows of tree branches moving back and forth on the walls of the houses and cottages on the island. There are no short cuts or cut corners in this film. Joan’s dreams don’t appear in a cloud of dry ice or in soft focus, they swirl kaleidoscopically around her head. And elements that might seem silly in another film, such as an ancient curse hanging over Torquil’s head, seem palpably real when they’re embodied by shadowy, decrepit, and glorious real-world locations like Moy Castle.