Generally speaking, I’m a strong proponent for digital media. Making films cheaper and easier to access is of obvious benefit to us all. More people see more movies and are more fluent in film and storytelling, so they make better movies and like better movies than they might otherwise have done. But I’m looking at A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which I bought in a pair with Age of Consent (1969), and wonder if by losing the physical collections, there’s a danger that demand will be spread too thin. Can the Criterion Collection, with their excellent remasterings, survive with the price they have to pass on to consumers? And if not, how can I hope that the fantastic duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–who need their films to be physically rehabilitated to be adequately appreciated–to be as fully appreciated as someone like Alfred Hitchcock? People should feel as guilty of not having seen A Matter of Life and Death as they are of not having seen North by Northwest (1959). If only they had heard of it. In a digital world, there may be too much noise, too established a regime of “classics” that will relegate the best works to the transient interest of hipsters who may fool us into thinking something truly great is a “cult classic”.
Peter Carter (David Niven) is flying his burning plane back over the channel after a successful bombing raid. His radio man, Bob (Robert Coote), has bought it and the rest of the crew have parachuted out. His parachute has been ruined and he knows it. The signals operator on duty is a young American girl called June (Kim Hunter). They share what they both think is his final moment. Telegram my mother and sisters, you sound lovely, goodbye, and Carter jumps out rather than burn to death in the plane. But strangely, Carter doesn’t die. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the French Revolution, was supposed to escort Carter to the next world, but missed him because of the weather. Carter washes on shore and, by chance, runs into June on her way to work. They fall in love. But there is no power in the universe stronger than the law and Conductor 71 must bring Carter into the next world. But Carter pushes back and demands an appeal to try his case.
Before I fall into a self-indulgent take on the state of the media and ignorance, I’ll speak on the movie. It’s wonderful. The first thing you’ll notice about A Matter of Life and Death is the cinematography from Jack Cardiff which moves from black and white to beautiful technicolor as the story goes from one world to the next. I challenge anyone to watch these films and tell me they are not amazed they were made in the 1940s. They retain the wit and non-realist acting styles, but have a note of cynicism that challenges the perception of the past as naïve or simple. The story is both small and epic–life and death, after all–and Cardiff shoots it in a way that shows that the world is clearly the same as ours. The camera is moving easily inside and out of doors and uses little camera tricks that, while our jaded eyes can see what’s happening, are still effective.
These reviews usually double as list-making activities that show the reviewer hasn’t missed anything. Go see the movie and discover those for yourself *cough* stairs *cough*.
Powell and Pressburger, who I described in my review of The Red Shoes (1948), are particular icons for Martin Scorsese. I believe he is involved with every DVD and Blu-Ray production of their work. On this double feature and in the Criterion editions, he introduces them, giving some context and clearly showing his admiration. Going back to my first point, if a man like Scorsese cannot bring these films into popular knowledge, what chance is there when the corpus of film has expanded beyond recognition in just a few years? I don’t believe that I am projecting my own ignorance since The Red Shoes, their most popular film, has been rated 15,000 times on IMDb (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for comparison, has around 327,000). It’s a rough guide, but, I think, a reasonable one. When Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson reviewed Black Narcissus (1947) on their podcast Filmspotting, Robinson marveled at how he had gone his whole life in ignorance of Powell-Pressburger. Clearly, in the digital world, it is word of mouth rather than large, marketed events that will save old films from obscurity. How did he not know? No one told him.
Though these films are excellent, I have difficulty getting myself to write about them. The main reason I’m doing this is to be some small part of broadcasting the importance of these movies. The Red Shoes was such an amazing experience that I had plenty to say, but Black Narcissus (1947) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which I’ve seen recently for the first time, are just damn fine films and those don’t usually make interesting reviews. Perhaps when I have more time I’ll re-watch them and write something up for them. But what would I write about North by Northwest? It’s witty and visually stimulating and has Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Well, the Archers had David Niven, Kim Hunter, and Roger Livesey. Hardly the same thing, but that’s because Hollywood and London are very far apart. In the digital age, distance doesn’t mean very much and it shouldn’t mean anything to you.
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