Two Michael Powell Films, One Great, the Other Minor
The three greatest British film directors have arguably been Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Michael Powell. Powell's most memorable work was done in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger. Together, Powell and Pressburger co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced about 19 movies, most famously Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
One of Powell and Pressburger's best films was A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which became known in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, apparently reflecting the insistence of American distributors on a more upbeat title. However, this movie has been difficult to see in the US under either title for many years. But that is changing now that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing it on DVD.
Actually, the Sony DVD version of A Matter of Life and Death is part of a two-disc set that also contains a film directed solo by Powell titled Age of Consent (1969), which has also been difficult to see for many years. Unlike A Matter of Life and Death, Age of Consent is not a great movie, but it is an entertaining one. And in its own right, it is noteworthy for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's the first feature film for actress Helen Mirren. The Sony DVD version is a director's cut with all the nudity, as well as the Bali-influenced musical score, that Powell intended.
The title on the box containing the two-disc DVD set is The Films of Michael Powell — The Collector's Choice. But the set is sometimes billed as Michael Powell Double Feature.
A Great Film From Powell and Pressburger
A Matter of Life and Death is a clever, inventive, playful tale told with visual panache. It's both amusing and thought-provoking.
The film's central character is the victim of a life-threatening brain injury that causes him to have visions of an afterlife. In his mind's eye, the world of the afterlife is reached by ascending a monumental moving staircase. Hence, the movie's catchy American title Stairway to Heaven, though the protagonist's version of the afterlife doesn't involve religiosity and is actually quite bureaucratic. The film's scenes that take place in the world of the afterlife are in crisp black and white, while the scenes set in the Earthly realm are in lush Technicolor.
One of the story's main theses is that if one is in love, it is better to be living the Earthly life than to go on to the afterlife. A Matter of Life and Death is quite life-affirming.
The movie is set in England at the end of World War II when RAF officer Peter Carter (David Niven) meets and falls in love with American enlisted woman June (Kim Hunter). But Peter envisions that there is an attempt to conduct him to the afterlife by the spirit of an aristocrat (Marius Goring) who was beheaded during the French Revolution. However, a neurology expert (Roger Livesey) diagnoses the British officer as suffering from a rare brain condition. While surgery is performed on Peter, he fantasizes a legal proceeding is taking place in the afterlife that will determine his fate. The prosecutor (Raymond Massey) is the spirit of an American revolutionary soldier killed in 1775 by the British.
Martin Scorsese's Intro and Ian Christie's Scholarly Commentary
The DVD set contains a worthwhile eight-minute introduction to A Matter of Life and Death by Martin Scorsese, who says that he, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg are among the American directors who were influenced by Powell and Pressburger. Scorsese identifies the sense of renewal as the power behind A Matter of Life and Death. He states that the film "was propaganda, but in the best sense." What he's referring to here is that the movie was suggested by the Ministry of Information as a means of improving relations between Great Britain and the United States.
This point is elaborated upon in the outstanding audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie. He covers all aspects of the movie, but perhaps his most helpful insight is his discussion of it as an allegory with Peter representing Britain and June representing America. He claims the principal question being investigated is: Where, in the post-World War II milieu, does battered, impoverished Britain stand in relation to its former colony, the now mighty and prosperous United States? Christie illuminates some of the film's many references to politics, history and culture.
Both Scorsese and Christie observe that the starting point for the story in A Matter of Life and Death derives from a real-life incident where a British pilot jumped without a parachute from a badly damaged airplane and miraculously survived.
A Minor, but Enjoyable Film Starring James Mason and Helen Mirren
Disc 2 of the DVD set contains the 1969 film Age of Consent, directed by Michael Powell and starring James Mason and Helen Mirren. Basically a low-keyed comedy, the movie has some unconvincing characters and is sometimes corny, but is nonetheless entertaining. It's a beautiful film, shot on an island on the Great Barrier Reef and featuring some lyrical nude scenes by Mirren, who was then about 23. The story centers on a jaded New York painter (Mason) who tries to rejuvenate his creativity by relocating to Australia, where he finds his muse when he meets a local young woman (Mirren).
Critic Kent Jones provides an informative audio commentary for Age of Consent. He places the film within Powell's body of work, and he compares the movie with its source material, a semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, a beloved Australian painter, sculptor and writer.
The DVD contains 43 minutes of reasonably interesting video bonus materials. The most engaging is Dame Helen Mirren looking back 40 years later on making her first film. Also, Martin Scorsese talks for a few minutes about Michael Powell. Three of the people, including Powell's son, who worked on the movie's crew discuss their experiences in "Making Age of Consent." Finally, there's an interview of Australian underwater photographers Ron and Valerie Taylor.
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