Saturday, 9 December 2017
#96 A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey and Marius Goring. Written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Running time 104 minutes. Budget £320,000.
Re-released and restored to all its glory, this is one of my all-time, top-ten favourite movies. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen it, although this was the first time on the big screen. God bless the NFT!
The story sees Peter D. Carter (David Niven), a R.A.F Squadron Leader forced to bail out of a burning Lancaster bomber over the English Channel without a parachute rather than burn to death. Before he jumps he dictates one last message of love for his family to a young American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) and in his final minutes the two connect, then leaps to his almost certain doom...
Meanwhile in heaven, his fellow Lancaster pilot Rob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) waits his chum's arrival, and 30 minutes after Peter fails to arrive, the alarm bell sounds and it is discovered that the angel sent to collect him, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) missed Peter thanks to a frightful pea-souper and so Peter accidentally avoided his own death.
Instead he awakes on a beach and discovers to his astonishment that he's still alive, more over he incredibly meets up with June and instantly they fall in love. 71 is sent to Earth to fetch Peter, but he refuses and demands the right to appeal the decision because in the allotted extra 20 hours he's had he's fallen in love with June. 71 informs him that he has three days to find a defence counsel to represent him.
But is Peter experiencing reality or is he suffering from traumatic head injury? June turns to her friend, noted brain specialist Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) for help, and intrigued by the young poet Peter's plight takes charge of him so he can get to the bottom of the situation. He realises the significance of Peter's hallucinations and the importance of Peter defending himself in the courts of Heaven, but Peter can't find a suitable candidate to be his Counsel and his physical condition worsens. As luck would have it on the day of his appeal, Peter is sent for life-threatening surgery and Dr. Frank is killed in a terrible motorcycle accident, thus giving Peter the Counsel he so desperately wanted and the chance to properly fight over the little matter of Life and Death.
This is a truly moving, wonderful and utterly beautiful film, it's charming, funny, perfectly balanced and utterly satisfying.
The performances are all divine, David Niven is that rare actor who simply shined in every film he made, and in this he is incandescent. Roger Livesey brings such intelligence and wit to his role as the hyper-vibrant Frank that his death makes you mourn his passing. And Kim Hunter's eyes convey with just simple tears the love she has for her dashing young pilot lover. With a staggering exquisite script, some simply perfect acting and excluding Britishness through every pore and fibre of its being, this is a perfect movie. Not one bum note, not one bad line. From the genius of filming heaven as a black and white galaxy-spanning modernist idyll to the technicolour wonder of a simple Dorest beach in summer. This is a film that fills you with awe and leaves you moist eyed with wonder.
If you've never seen this film, you must! It will resonate and sing to you in a way that no modern film will ever do. It is a fantastic slice of British life and shows us just what we can achieve when we are at our best.