Look up any list of “Greatest British Films of All Time” and, alongside names like David Lean and Nicholas Roeg, you’ll most certainly find a good number of titles produced by The Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
When The Archers are great – Black Narcissus, ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – they are nearly unmatched. When they’re merely good – A Matter of Life and Death, Tales of Hoffman – their penchant for experimentation still hurtles them past most other films that would be commonplace when using a similar narrative.
I associate The Archers with a few specific elements: saturated Technicolor (though their classic 49th Parallel, among other earlier works, are black and white), painted landscape backdrops, a prescient use of process shots, and narratives that merge sultry, whimsical, and romantic elements. Even at their most dystopic – Black Narcissus or Tales of Hoffman – director and screenwriter still include enough of the ephemerally fantastic so as to avoid any purely despondent reads. Ironic (maybe?) that Powell would go on to direct the masterful, horrifying, and particularly dystopic Peeping Tom (sans Pressburger) in 1960, an excellent Psycho companion piece.
A Matter of Life and Death, also called Stairway to Heaven, features David Niven as Peter Carter, a pilot who dies in a plane crash and is accidentally given a second chance from heaven, thus the title. Having fallen in love with the radio operator whom he contacted during his fateful freefall, Carter fully intends to stay alive and well on earth, rules of the afterlife-be-damned. His beau June (Kim Hunter) worries about Carter’s claims that he is being followed by a (very French) ward of heaven. Soon a trial is set up to determine whether Carter must ascend or stay on earth and in love. The subject of the trial: is Carter’s love true?
The performances in A Matter of Life and Death, though presented in the affected British way of the pre-Angry Young Man films, are still quite good. That this film only falls into the category of “good Archers film” is due to a few qualities that make it age poorly.
First, the idea of love is overly, Hollywood-idealized. Carter and June fall in love over the radio. It’s in the heat of the moment. He thinks he’s about to die. She is enamored with his calmness in the face of certain death. It’s a romantic moment to be sure, but the idea that upon their first face-to-face meeting this initial interaction would still hold enough power to lead to true love is outdated and old-world. As this is the set-up and inciting incident of the film wrapped into one, and what the entire story hinges on, it’s rather difficult to believe the remainder of the narrative, particularly as there is little relationship developing done aside from Carter and June’s initial conversation.
Second, the writing and presentation of heaven is one-note and stereotypical. There’s a female “god” which for 1946 is rather progressive, but the rest of heaven is made up of every cultural stereotype possible – the “good ‘ol” American boys, Indians stroking long mustaches and wearing turbans, etc. A good joke at first – racial identity follows you to the afterlife – it eventually becomes tired and feels limiting. This is as much Pressburger (screenwriter) as Powell (director). Surely the words are there in the script, but rather than deviating during the shoot, Powell has every section of people sit in clearly distinct sections of the heavenly courtroom as though this is a racially segregated area.
Third, the spirit that follows Carter around – though appearing and reappearing with some neat photographic tricks – is one of the rare Archers performers who doesn’t carry it off. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) is a French angel who stops time and emerges in front of Carter while others stand frozen. The character is over-written in his attempted jokes, and Goring’s acting is subpar. He’s easily shown up by his counterparts and, as he’s given a large amount of screentime, he quickly becomes tiresome.
Luckily, there are redeeming qualities. The famous Jack Cardiff’s photography is gorgeous, and the aforementioned photographic tricks – freeze frames, composite shots – show an overwhelming glee in the form by all involved. Powell shoots many scenes fluidly. As Carter is wheeled into surgery to have a last-minute operation that, happening alongside the heavenly courtroom proceedings, is to save him from insanity, Powell’s camera dollies after and with him. The smooth, mobile camera, in opposition to the static, cutty freeze-frame moments, points to a climactic transitionary point in the narrative.
Pressburger’s script has its own impressive elements, foremost of which may be the ambiguity of reality. As Carter’s own doctor and ally, Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) orders the surgery. When he dies unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident, Frank is also Carter’s attorney in the hearing above. Do Carter and June stay together because of a successful operation, a successful argument in the court of the vaults, or both?