Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'A Matter of Life and Death' Open Thread

What did you think?


  1. I really like these guys, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. My favorite offering from them is, of course, I Know Where I'm Going which we reviewed here back in March. I also enjoyed The Red Shoes very much.

    My copy should arrive tomorrow. This should be good fun!

  2. I enjoyed the movie, but it is easily the oddest movie I've watched in a long time. I've started three different Comments, but none of them has gotten very far. I'll try again tomorrow!

  3. I had seen it in the 60s and it struck me as odd on several levels back then too. And very different from the other films of that era: There is a certain sense of "modernity" to it. Some of the dialogue could be from a film made today. I now know that it was commissioned by the British government to help improve--mend--British public opinion of the US following the rapid immersion of a huge number of American servicemen in British life as Allies prepared for the D-Day invasion. One particularly touchy area was contact with British women, so I think that's pretty much why they flipped the situation for the film with a Brit--Niven--winning the heart of an American servicewoman. The filmmakers moved farther afield from their mission by trying to address and give some comfort for the terrible loss that most people were feeling as the result of losing loved ones in the war with their view of an afterlife. One they tried to separate from established religious notions--unsuccessfully, I think. And more so when the American distributors decided to put "Heaven" in the release title for the US market (Stairway to Heaven.) As an aside, the large number of extras you see were real military personnel still in Britain at the time.
    As another aside, both David Niven and Raymond Massey died on the same day in 1983--perhaps another hint of God and His sense of humor.

  4. That next to last photo is rather disturbing.

  5. I thought this movie to be very creative, very imaginative, and very well done. I would offer that it is far different from most anything we see today in that the writer expects that the audience is able to follow the arguments, and that it presumes the arguments themselves are important and of interest to the audience. Some of the references are somewhat lost to us due to the passage of time, such as "He is Rafe's concern" referring to the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) and the presence of wrens about, with a wren actually being a member of the WRENs (Women's Royal Naval Service). None of that detracts from our enjoyment of the movie, but knowing some of those meanings of the phrases used can be fun in their ability to transport us to the world the film makers are living in.

    I just have a few thoughts here and there. I loved the scene where Flight Officer Trubeshawe (Bob) is waiting for his pilot to arrive, and in walks the whole flight crew for an American bomber. The music jumps up in its pace. There is a jauntiness and self assuredness to the US aviators that seems out of place, and when the skipper spots a Coke machine, they all march over to it and each in turn pulls a coke, pops the top and takes a long swig from the bottle. The pilot then goes over to sign in, and the whole crew is far more unruly than an English flight crew would be, with their gum chewing and cajoling of one another. Pausing before signing in, the captain asks "Do you have U.S.O. shows here?", and when she tells him no, he replies "Okay we'll sign". A little joke that I thought carried off great and went a long way in telling you about the lives of the US servicemen and their attitudes in general. Another great moment was the base camp preparing for their production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and a pretty young women overlooking the poster writers puts her shoe on the poster and declares "That's not the way you spell Shakespeare!", to which she receives the wisecrack "Who are you, his agent?" These clearly are not proper English girls. That is followed with a long take of the same girl chewing her gum and gazing up into a portrait of an Englishwoman, and the studied dubious measure she took of her went equally as far as the earlier air crew scene to set the stage for the conflict to unfold in.

    My favorite though followed the back and forth about each nations contributions to literature, and the notion of individual freedom and freedom of thought and of speech, at the end of which Abraham Farlan emphatically declared that the only place in the world where a man could reach his full potential and full maturity as a man was in America - to which the entire assembled group of WREN's broke out in emphatic applause! You've got to be thinking these guys were having a bit of fun making this show!

    That great care that is taken with minor characters, the willingness of the director to cut away so that we can see the reaction of groups of minor characters - it is foreign to any movie made today, and I very much appreciate the attention and interest placed in these small details. It leads to a fuller bodied world that the characters exist in.

    There is much to say about this movie, and I cannot really do it justice here. But it was a very fine show and I am glad, Darrell, that you brought it to our attention.

  6. Ilion, disturbing or reassuring?

    The idea of an afterlife gives me comfort. Although we learned at the last outing that there is no butter in Hell, I suspect there's plenty in other places.

    Btw, what you are seeing is an operation on Niven to remove a brain tumor--the plot device that the producers decided on using to keep from coming down unambiguously on the side of an afterlife. They took great pains to come up with a state-of-the-art medical diagnosis (for the time) that would explain the "delusions" of the pilot--Niven--after bailing out of his burning bomber without a parachute--and surviving. Of course then they would explain the "no parachute" part by saying he simply had one--no matter how badly it was damaged by flack.

  7. Jim, you recognized Flight Officer Trubeshawe (Bob) as Robert Coote, didn't you? From the wonderful TV series from the mid-60s, The Rogues? [Again with David Niven.] He was also in Nero Wolfe in the 80s.

  8. I can't tell you what's disturbing about the image. I don't mean "can't" as in "lack the ability."

    You'll have to notice it for yourself.

  9. Abraham Sofaer, the "Judge" assigned to adjudicate the bureaucratic mixup (and also plays the brain surgeon) does look coincidentally like the popular Image of Christ--right down to the ethereal glow.

    Btw, they were experimenting with Technicolor during the filming.When Technicolor first came out, the owners of the process had strict rules as to lighting and the filters required for the process (filmmakers had to sign a contract). [By this time, the process involved three negatives]. Wartime cinematographers (most notably the one for this film--Jack Cardiff) discovered that by leaving off the blue filter used to correct for incandescent lighting, they could create artificial sunlight (by over-exposing the negative and having the developers push the orange cast to blue during processing)--an especially handy trick to have up your sleeve with gray skies you always encounter in the Northern Atlantic when you are filming on a warship. As a result of these wartime experiments, Technicolor finally realized that these people were making their process more valuable and more usable and backed away from the restrictions. All kinds of new effects were tried for the first time with this movie--one of which you see in that photo.

    In the table-tennis scene (which experimented with stop action for some of the actors), Cardiff substituted a lemon-colored filter for the amber filter when the "Conductor" arrived to give it the "other-worldly" feel he wanted. The black-and-white sequences that simulate the "other-world" were shot on color stock to allows dissolves (transitions) to color while keeping the tonal ranges consistent (and eliminating splicing the two different film stocks for viewing prints--copies). That makes them a lot less fragile.

    We learned that there is no butter in Hell and now we learn (from The Conductor) that they are starved for Technicolor "up there" as he is viewing the over-ripe rhododendrons: Films are educational.

  10. This movie was remarkable in its depth and layers of significance. The use of the game of chess throughout as a backdrop to the conflict going on between this world and that, the reflex mirror Dr. Reeve used to view the village as a foreshadowing of heaven looking down upon the earth, the references to literature from Peter Carter's radio conversation with June and later echoed in the trial for Peter's life, and of course the insertion of subtle comedy throughout that kept the film's serious subject matter from becoming dark and grim - it really was remarkable.

    I loved Roger Livesey, of course. What a pleasant voice to listen to. And Niven was very good as the young aviator, though older and more tried by life than the young and courageous June. It was interesting to listen to the arguments made, the world created that we are asked to join in, the ties to actual medical science at the time ... there was an impressive amount of thought that went into the show. Excellent choice.

  11. OK. I finally concluded that the reason I felt as though I was missing something was because I was -- quite a few things, as it turns out. So I cheated and started reading some of the reviews and commentaries about the movie. I also started watching it again with the Commentary rather than the dialogue.

    Holy Hannah, they didn't try to do much, did they? We've got the love story; the comforting reassurance of a pleasant "next life"; a brain injury crisis to potentially explain away the scenes of the "next life"; the message, in several forms, including the phantasmagorical court of appeals, that in spite of their differences, there was much to be gained from the British and the Americans working together; and the philosophical question regarding the relative merits of love and bureaucratic consistency.

    Honestly, I think some elements were more successful than others. But it doesn't really matter -- they did so many creative and intriguing things throughout that they could have screwed up majorly and it would still be a fascinating movie. They were so meticulous about keeping everything plausible by having all the details of the story correct, from the housing of American servicewomen, to the latest findings in neuroscience. But then there were the elements of pure invention and whimsey for the fantasy/supernatural/hallucinatory scenes, from the enormous moving stairway, with statues of all the great thinkers every few feet, to the Coke machine which, I think, only appeared when the Americans arrived to check in. I loved those rows of white wings awaiting distribution, orderly, identical, the final bit of gear one can expect to be issued (at which time it will be protected in a clear garment bag). And Conductor 71. Glorious, fabulous, not to be underestimated, Conductor 71. (I finally have an opportunity to describe someone as "outré"!) I can't wait to see Marius Goring in anything else; I'm dying to see where Actor left off and Wardrobe began.

    And I loved the "next world" being filmed in black and white -- it seemed right, somehow, all the chaos of color stripped away, only shades of silvery light left -- but I suppose that the un-reality of those images is due at least partly to being so much more accustomed to seeing everything filmed in color.

    David Niven was dashing and charming, Kim Hunter sweet and sensible, and Roger Livesey, though not the leading man, the hero. (Now I want to watch I Know Where I'm Going again.) Raymond Massey just struck me as bizarre -- and I just saw him in Arsenic and Old Lace, so there you go. (He looked a lot better in this.) And I'm tempted to get Black Narcissus, just to see more of Kathleen Byron. Maybe it won't be the same in color, but there was something fascinating -- and not at all angelic -- about her face.

    This movie was remarkable in its depth and layers of significance

    Very true, and sounds so much better than "jam-packed with details." I like this movie very much, but I have to confess that, for whatever reason, it is the comical and fantastical elements that I like, and I realize I do not (yet) appreciate it properly.

  12. The thing is, Cathy, that a lot of those contemporary opinions are incorrect--or politically scewed, like so many things these days. I fear the Lefties may be taking over the education system and the cultural institutions. Oh? Am I thirty years too late with the warning?
    Take for instance "...that in spite of their differences, there was much to be gained from the British and the Americans working together..." The movie was commissioned after D-Day--essentially to repair relations after we had come in and shook two hundred years of coal dust off stuffy British life, hitting on every skirt in the process. Guys do those things when they are waiting to jump into the chipper/shredder they know is waiting at the beaches on the continent. The British, especially, already knew about there being much to gain with American assistance. I fear the other things said do necessarily ring true, either. But I don't exactly know, having seen the old version streamed, without access to a commentary track. From what I learned about the production team, they were not Bolsheviks looking for a revolution. They believed in self-determination, yes. And they wanted to avoid religious arguments about the details and denominational differeences and slights. The rest of their "vision" was more about getting it up on the screen and presenting a unique view, knowing what came before [like The Wizard of Oz and Korda's Things to Come (1936)--the latter also with Massey, btw]. The brain tumor business gave nonbelievers something to hang their hats on.

    The production team was given a job and as Nicholas said, they decided to have a little fun with it all. Some people dismiss this film because it began as "propaganda." That is unfair. Certain forums have rated this film as high as number 2 in the all-time list of British films. I don't know about that, either. I like the details and the real faces of the extras, and the quips of people that have lived through these terrible years and know that better things are on the horizon. This all begins with a bureaucratic SNAFU--something that everyone that lived through this time was familiar with. It ends with hope and potential for a happy future together. Let's just leave it at that.

  13. Of course it's "skewed" up there. Maybe I have a brain tumor as well.

    Something that just struck me--Niven is supposed to die in that May raid and his new love is named June. Intentional?

  14. Didn't you just love it when the court arrives at the OR and Abraham is just beginning to speak when off to the side Dr. Reeves begins to go over the findings of the case with Conductor 71, and has to be brought back to the legal case at hand by Mr. Falon, to which he says "Quite right, quite right." That struck me as so very funny! That the doctor would be so fascinated by the case and the elements that went into the diagnosis that even after he has died he still completely forgets what he is about and starts talking to... whomever might be about, people that have very little idea of what he was saying, it didn't matter, he just had to start talking about it. Or the delight on Trubeshawe's face when they hear the radio description of the cricket match, and he looks up with delight to the young angel, and she is completely unmoved by it... so he has to scoot back across the isle to sit with his fellow English aviators. Another fun moment was the cut away to the audience showing a group of 18th century nobleman passing around a touch of snuff. These small things took time and care, and I very much enjoyed them, and appreciate the care that went into them.

    Yes, I think the name June was no accident, but I believe it was intended to reflect early summer, youth, a promising future. Peter's May raid was intended to place the events nearly at the end of the war in Europe, and the question was what does the future hold.

    I did catch a bit of the commentary, Cathy, and it was very good. I don't recall his name, but he was speaking mainly of the movie being on several levels, a love story on the first and an allegory for the relationship between Britain and the United States on the second, and a general discussion between the conflict between bureaucracies, with the regimentation and restricting laws they entail verses the rights of the individual, the battle between law verses love, heavenly order verses earthly messiness, with the Archer's claiming that the individual must be protected from being crushed by the bureaucracy, and that love was the highest order.

    Good stuff.

  15. Conductor 71 was Marius Goring, whom I recall most for his portrayal of the young composer Julian Castor in the "Red Shoes", another very creative Powell Pressberger movie. A totally different role, and in truth I didn't even recognize him in this. That was very good, and if not for the dark finish I would put it right up there with these other two, A Matter of Life and Death and I Know Where I'm Going, but you know my favorite has got to be "I Know Where I'm Going".

  16. I was thinking about the etheral world created in "I Know Where I'm Going", and it strikes me there are many analgous features, the order and regimentation that Joan sought, the hazy, rules don't hold here quality to the Hebrides and Kiloran, the ultimate triumph of love...very good.

  17. After seeing Niven in this, I became curious about him and started reading what I could find. There were many dashing type actors manufactured in Hollywood, and I had assumed Niven was one of these. However, the more I read of him the more I impressed I became. His humble beginnings, his trouble in school, his somewhat flip attitude to superiors in his early stint in the British military, his "escape" from the base at Malta and resignation cable from aboard ship to America, his absolute lack of means, his willingness to work cleaning and servicing firearms for game hunters in northern Mexico, to his arrival in Hollywood and chance events getting himself onto productions as an extra, till he became a major feature player, all of which was given up when Britain went to war in 1939.

    He volunteered to be in the Commandos, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was active in the Battle of Normandy and later at the Battle of the Bulge. Stopped at a check point during that battle, some GI's looking for German infiltrators asked him to identify himself by asking him who won the World Series in 1943. He replied:

    "I haven't the foggiest idea... but I did co-star with Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother"

    That sounds just like him, doesn't it. The cheerful airiness, the confidence, the charm. That is one of the few stories of the war that we ever heard from Niven. A very ready speaker, he almost never spoke of the war, except to speak of when friends had asked him to find the remains of a son who had died, and recalling a graveyard there, he said

    "I will, however, tell you just one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others, and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war."

    If I read him right he was saying he had too much respect for the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers to go about trivializing the war with stories of his activities in it.

    His life was fret with some significant hardships, most strongly by the tragic loss of his beloved first wife in an accidental fall. This was clearly the darkest and hardest period of his life, the extent of his suffering never known till near the end of his life. Coming through this period, he remained a charming person.

    My first recollection of Niven was from the 1974 Academy Awards, when someone attempted to upstage him by streaking naked across the back of the stage. Not in the least bit thrown off, Niven brought the man up short, commenting effortlessly:

    "Isn't it fascinating to think, that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life, is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?"

    Niven was known as a very companionable person, always ready to like his company, he loved to tell stories and entertain, whether he was dining with a powerful producer or talking with the person seated next to him on a flight. After his death in 1983, perhaps the most telling epitaph came from the card attached to an enormous wreath sent to his funeral by the porters of Heathrow Airport. It read:

    “To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.”

    David Niven was a remarkable man. Matthew Coniam has a great post on him here.