Resurrecting a Cosmic Fantasy of Love and Death
In the magical, mystical cinematic world of Michael Powell, anything is possible. Time and space are boundless — and so is the imagination. That was his genius.
And Powell, who died in 1990, was never more imaginative with time and space than in ”A Matter of Life and Death,” the 1946 celestial fantasy starring David Niven and Kim Hunter as cosmically crossed lovers who thwart the natural laws of the universe with their passionate romance.
Squadron leader Niven, his aircraft going down in flames, shares his last conscious moments talking by radio with Kim Hunter, a pretty Yank he’s never met who works at the United States Air Force base in England. As a brain surgeon works feverishly to save his life after the crash, the film proceeds along two tracks: In silvery black-and-white, a heavenly court weighs whether Niven should be allowed to live; and in brilliant colors, visible once again on Thursday, when a new print of the film has its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, Niven and Hunter meet and fall in love amid the surreal horrors of World War II.
This film was Powell’s personal favorite, and it’s easy to see why. It not only paved the way for the British director’s best-known works, ”Black Narcissus” and ”The Red Shoes,” with its bold and dazzling use of color, but also revealed his heart, his belief in the power of love and its delirious effects on the mind.
According to Powell’s autobiography, ”A Life in Movies,” there was a more subversive reason the film was his favorite: its innovative form and content enabled him to challenge the austerity that had crept into post-war England’s social system and film industry.
The film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow, thinks ”A Matter of Life and Death” comes closest to expressing his personality. ”Living with him,” she says, ”I found he had no fear of death. ‘Love is sacrifice and sacrifice is love,’ he used to say. The real reason it was his favorite was he could be a magician with it. He could create heaven and earth and stop time.”
In a war-battered England coping with the loss of sons and husbands, Powell’s ability to stop time while a heavenly jury considers the fate of a downed airman struck an immediate chord. And the film’s popularity with British filmgoers has endured to this day: it ranked 20th on the British Film Institute’s recent 100-favorites-of-the-century poll, despite the dimmed versions in which it has been seen in recent years.
For decades audiences had to make do with prints that didn’t accurately reproduce the original three-strip Technicolor look, in which each primary color was encoded on a separate strip of film. Working from the original negative borrowed from the BFI, Grover Crisp, the film preservationist at Sony Pictures, has returned ”A Matter of Life and Death” to all its Technicolor and black-and-white glory.
It’s only fitting. After all, this is a film about the senses under siege: color and black and white, poetry and philosophy, music and movies, the smell of fried onions and the sight of a naked boy playing a reed pipe on a sand dune, a Coke machine in heaven and an aristocratic heavenly messenger come to earth to retrieve the unlucky Niven.
In fact, the film’s origin is as strange as its premise. The British Government commissioned a script to improve postwar Anglo-American relations, which Powell and his partner, Emeric Pressburger, incorporated into a whimsical story inspired by a real-life account of a Royal Air Force airman who miraculously survived a plane crash by bailing out without benefit of parachute.
The resulting film, released in the United States in a more saccharine, now-retired version called ”Stairway to Heaven,” daringly combined substance and escapism. Martin Scorsese, who controls the North American theatrical distribution rights, suggests the film is still provocative. ”It holds up, I think, because of the outrageousness of it,” he said by phone from his Manhattan office. ”It’s a real leap of faith — you either go with it or you don’t. And if you do, it’s both a fantasy and a love story that plays out in the mind of Niven. What happens to him is totally realistic. Powell’s vision is a place that’s so beautiful to be alive in. His use of Technicolor is so romantic and spiritual.”
Viewed today, in light of ”Pleasantville,” and as a fascinating reversal of ”The Wizard of Oz” (with the real world in color and the fantasy world in black-and-white), we can fully appreciate the film’s stylistic innovations, its ingenious ambiguity. Everything happens quickly and confusingly, as in a dream, where even a ping-pong match stops in mid-serve. And the improved color only intensifies the story.
Thus, when the ”conductor” assigned to escort Niven to the afterlife lands in a grove of red, pink and violet rhodedendron, his joke about heaven is much funnier: ”One is starved for Technicolor up there,” he says. Now, we can experience the sudden flood of color along with him.
THE film was rejuvenated at the behest of Ms. Schoonmaker, who has edited every Scorsese film since ”Raging Bull,” and Mr. Scorsese, who in 1979 introduced Powell to Ms. Schoonmaker. Printing from the original three-strip negative was not as troublesome as expected, Mr. Crisp said. ”The work was straightforward. There were some slight tears and two shots that are out of register that were the result of camera problems. Interestingly enough,” he added, ”it was the black and white sequences that gave us the most trouble. They had a lot of dirt and scratches and inherent problems because of the way they were optically printed. We’ve made some improvements and it looks a lot cleaner.”
The results of Mr. Crisp’s efforts are most apparent in the powerful first encounter between Niven and Hunter — a meeting of two minds and souls, if ever there was one. In the new print, the shots of Hunter are a revelation. Her rosy flesh, the scarlet in her lipstick and the eerie shadow around her face make her look like an enraptured angel.
With its heavenly colors on earth and its black-and-white view of heaven, ”A Matter of Life and Death” isn’t merely the model for a modern-day experiment like ”Pleasantville”; it’s the father of all surreal movies that transport film audiences from the humdrum reality of daily life to the heightened reality of the imagination.