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Between Fantasy and Reality: A Matter of Life and Death (1946) from the Criterion Collection

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By Tony Williams.

One can never have too much of a good thing and the successful works of The Archers defines this cinematically. After the long overdue recognition delivered to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger while they were still around to receive it, acclaim by a later generation of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Romero, and Martin Scorsese, the restoration and reissues of their films theatrically, and prolific availability on new forms of spectatorship such as VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, the work of these two pioneers never fails to impress. Working against the grain of the traditional British cinema of their era, both men produced films that blurred boundaries and allowed expression for new ideas, both technically and thematically during their most productive eras. While contemporaries such as Alfred Hitchcock went to Hollywood to develop their creativity, Powell and Pressburger were exiles in different ways. They fought against the grain of a critical and commercial status quo in trying to deliver their own unique visions as Orson Welles tried to do in his Hollywood ventures and Robert Aldrich throughout his Hollywood career.

Despite the appearance of autobiographies, biographies, and critical studies, it would be easy to say that the last words have been said, so why re-release another DVD of their most well-known films? Yet, the last word is never said and the development of new technologies allows the viewer to become closer to the original visual creation – as long as such changes do not distort what the original creators and collaborators attempted to do initially. It goes without saying that the Criterion team have done another excellent job in their new 4k digital restoration in a two DVD Special Edition. That alone would be sufficient reason for its appearance. But what else occurs to make another purchase of a film many of us have in our own collections worthwhile?

Matter 02The 2009 audio-commentary by Ian Christie treads familiar ground. He is, after all, one of the key Archers scholars in the world having been involved in this field for more decades than even he would wish to count. However, it does appear that critical work is at a hiatus at present until more fresh interpretations can occur, and the familiar often provides an ideal launching ground for those looking for new directions. As a foundation is necessary, Christie is the ideal person to supply it. Noting the beautiful Technicolor photography of Jack Cardiff, Christie refers to the Archer’s perennial investigation of the rich interrogation of Englishness in their films and how this concept will fare in a brave, new, post-war world in which old suspicions are again affecting the wartime Anglo-American alliance. The Archers were asked to consider such problems in 1943, but it took several years for them to accomplish it. Beginning five days before the German surrender in May 7, 1945, the film eschews the fictional documentary realism of Anthony Asquith’s The Way to the Stars (1945) and the now grating and unwatchable Welcome Mr. Washington (1944), whose only claim to posterity now lies in the fact of convincing viewers that Barbara Mullen’s Janet of the BBC TV series Dr. Finlay’s Casebook (1962-1970) was once a young woman!

The Archers were made of more creative and resilient material and directed an artistic and challenging film that blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy in the best manner of pre-war European cinema by using techniques, especially Technicolor, that competed with Hollywood in a unique manner. Noting the confluence between a “realistic” interpretation of Peter’s condition as due to brain damage following his miraculous fall from his damaged Lancaster bomber and the role of the heavenly realm, Christie not only notes significant features, such as chess uniting both realms of existence, the piano motif during the Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsal echoing the “staircase” theme, the 1937 medical book Journey Round My Skull that Powell may have known about from his medical brother-in-law, and defining the film as “A Modern Masque” for the Forties and Britain. This is an interesting interpretation especially since Asquith’s Demi-Paradise (1943) also employs the motif in one scene featuring Margaret Rutherford in a wartime romantic comedy promoting the virtues of the British-Soviet alliance. The wartime alliance between Britain and America also appears in Lance Comfort’s Great Day (1945) with the disturbing aspects of its World War veteran played by Eric Portman posing as a much as a threat as the Anglo-British romantic union of Peter and June does to Abraham Farlan.

A 2008 interview with Martin Scorsese supplies little that is not already known but the recent March 2018 one with Thelma Schoonmaker contains significant material, such as noting that David Niven’s appearance on the studio set during the whirlpool sequence in I Know Where I’m Going (1945) stimulated Powell to cast him in the role of Peter rather than Marius Goring who wanted the role. Niven was a well-known British Hollywood actor who had returned to England to enlist in its hour of need. Aware of the contemporary state of British cinema and social conflict at the end of the war, she recounts a charming story about her newly-wed husband’s response to an anti-American British taxi driver in 1986 realizing that the post-war feelings against her country were still alive. When the driver complained about American tourists and the nation in general – “They’re so damn enthusiastic” – Powell replied, “Yes, that’s why I married one of them!”

Matter 01Schoonmaker not only mentions Diane Broadbent Freidman’s medical study of the film (also referred to by Christie), but also the fact that Peter’s condition was due to epilepsy that was one stigmatized at the time and could not be mentioned in the film. She also comments that the operation scene involving the depiction of Peter’s eye merging into the cosmos resembled a scene in a Stan Brakhage film. Working with actors who functioned at high levels since they shot the film by day and appeared in theater at night, Powell and his collaborators usually used one take on each scene thus enabling them to work at economical levels of production. She also notes the economical manner of filming Reeves’s death that would be unheard of in today’s cinema, yet is nevertheless highly effective. Naturally, Schoonmaker regards editing as an essential background for any good director as it was for David Lean and Powell himself. She mentions that Roger Livesey represented her late husband’s alter ego due to his bouncy, energetic, and optimistic character.

Despite Alfred Junge’s involvement on set design, Hein Heckroth actually supervised the costumes, and Powell’s love of poetry that he gained from his mother appears in Peter’s quotes during his first appearance in the doomed Lancaster bomber. Thus, the film is both literate and cinematic in its own way.

The Colour Merchant is a short nine-minute 1998 documentary on Jack Cardiff directed by film historian Craig McCall containing many shots placing the now older cinematographer in recreated images referring to original shots. Another featurette features visual effects expert and film historian Craig Barron who, along with Harrison Ellenshaw, deliver a detailed 30-minute analysis of the work of Percy Day and Alfred Junge. The features conclude with the 1986 tribute to Powell on The South Bank Show hosted by Melvyn Bragg originally shown on UK independent television. An essay by Stephanie Zacharek, “The Too-Muchness of it All” complements the extras material on this DVD with restoration notes supplying technical information already noted by Cardiff and other participants in the features as well as new observations concerning this version. Three stills appear on the cover of Zacharek’s essay. Two feature Niven and Hunter, and one with Marius Goring are in color but Kathleen Byron’s “Angel” is in black and white, her image resembling a frigid Anne Crawford (1920-1956). Could not a nicer color or even b/w image be found of the future “Sister Ruth”? Although she achieved her best performances in Archers films The Gambler and the Lady (1952) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) revealing how badly she could be used by the wrong director, before I had ever seen any of her Powell/Pressburger performances I remember her striking television roles as the alcoholic Mrs. De La Roux, wife of the chief surgeon, in the 1959-1963 episodes of ITV’s Emergency Ward Ten and the malicious Alva in “The Court of Love” episode of the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965) directed by Peter Hammond. Both are now sadly lost.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international.

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