Combustible Celluloid
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With: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, James Mason, Helen Mirren
Written by: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, Peter Yeldham
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 210
Date: 18/03/2013

The Films of Michael Powell (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Perfect Archer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released two "lost" gems on a new DVD set. Released in America as Stairway to Heaven, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is one of the most enchanting movies you'll ever have the pleasure to see. The imagination of the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the men behind such brilliant classics as I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) and The Red Shoes (1948) -- knew no bounds. A Matter of Life and Death can finally tingle the synapses once again, now that it's available on DVD. The British Ministry of Information commissioned Powell and Pressburger, also known as the Archers, to make this miraculous movie in an attempt to beef up Anglo-American relations, so it has a strange nationalist slant, with certain characters preaching the superiority of one nation over another. But it is so plainly human that it crosses all boundaries.

Nosediving in a malfunctioning plane, a British pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), speaks to a sweet sounding American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), and they fall instantly in love. In the morning, he inexplicably walks out of the ocean, alive, and meets the girl in the flesh. An angel turns up, claiming that Peter was supposed to have died and gone to heaven. But Peter argues that because of their mistake, he's now fallen in love and that he has a right to stay. Eventually, Peter's fate falls in the hands of his earthly doctor (Archers regular Roger Livesey) and the decision of a heavenly court. Powell and Pressburger paint their cinematic Heaven in black and white and Earth in lovely Technicolor in an attempt to throw intellectuals off their guard, but also to show the joy of life itself. The film also features astonishing visual effects, none more memorable than a "stairway to heaven," which escalates itself infinitely through the heavens, past giant statues of philosophers and other great thinkers.

After the scandal created by his Peeping Tom (1960), the great British director Michael Powell was forced to eke out a living for the rest of his life. He made Age of Consent, his final film, in Australia. And though it lacks the vivid touch from his earlier days, it has a surprisingly comfortable, relaxed feel, still vigorous but also at peace. James Mason stars as famous artist Bradley Morahan, who gets tired of big city life, gallery shows and his annoying friend Nat (think "gnat") (Jack MacGowran) and retreats to a remote island to paint. There he meets the sensual island girl Cora (Helen Mirren), who dreams of leaving the island and must swindle money to do it; she lives with her shrewish, drunk grandmother (Neva Carr-Glynn) who keeps a tight leash on the girl. Bradley begins to paint Cora, and though the outcome is fairly obvious, Powell luxuriates in the time it takes to get there. The film is more sun-baked than studio-set, but Powell manages to get brilliant colors in through Bradley's paintings (actually painted by Paul Delprat). Mason was about 60 at the time, and Mirren a ripe, gorgeous 24, but they somehow click -- two outsiders in a tired old world.

DVD Details: A Matter of Life and Death comes with a commentary track by Ian Christie, and Age of Consent features one by Kent Jones. Martin Scorsese provides introductions for both films, and there are various interviews and other featurettes. I can't say it's the world's most perfect double feature, but it's wonderful to have both films available on Region 1 DVD at last.

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