A Matter of Life and Death
I’ve been cruising The Archers’ films because they’ve slipped way under my radar forever. A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable film on every level, but I’ll touch on only a few of the points that strike me as unusually clever, after making this single reference to the astonishing ability of these filmmakers to build even the simplest premise into a deeply moving, visceral experience that’s worlds of complexity apart from, yet very like I Know Where I’m Going!
The film opens in the midst of the cosmos with narration that gradually turns our attention to night on Earth, driving us slowly into a story that begins from an objective vantage very high over the English Channel and glides us into the belly of a severely wounded WWII British bomber; panning past the vacant cockpit as David Niven’s voice cheerily explains his dire situation to someone pleasantly female at the other end of his radio connection. Eventually Niven, the pilot, makes his appearance visual, wearily slouched beside the body of his dead friend, Bob, as he draws the noose of this very tense tale taut around the neck of these first few minutes, with technicolor flames licking boldly past new windows blown in the fuselage while he’s facing the tail of the plane. Then he jumps through a port in the floor of the burning aircraft, into the foggy night from an indeterminate altitude, prefering to drown, not fry. No parachute. Terse. Abrupt. Laconic. Poetic and cool!
All through this opening sequence, Niven varies his tone around the theme which his variations circle like giddy vultures in a kind of intoxicating gallows-cockiness, as he falls in love with the American girl who’s sharing his very last words. I found myself thrilling to the realization that the pilot was flying blind on autopilot, having lost his battle to save Bob’s life, he strikes up a final conversation with the nearest airfield, and gently passes a message for is mother into the shell-like ear of a real nice girl, before hurling himself into the abyss.
The kicker is that he survives the fall, meets the girl on her way home from work, and that still leaves unspoiled about 80 minutes of this darkly beautiful and deeply enthralling film.
Ian Christie’s commentary is informative and reverent, pointing to the Archers’ intent to soothe tattered British-American relations at war’s end by putting the Empire on show-trial for crimes against the races of the world, with no less formidable an American prosecutor than the fearsome and fiery Raymond Massey demanding the life of this aviator, who stands in for the British Empire, but then, so does his plane.
Christie mentions the initial critical disfavor for the inappropriate denunciation of Britain that’s neatly articulated in the climactic scenes of this so-called “dated” film. I’m amazed at the eloquent intelligence that an utterly (self)righteous American levels at England, as every scathing accusation he hurls fits post-1945 America at least as well as it fits Imperial Britain since the Battle of Cadiz, and even more especially well since 9/11.
Apart from (or in addition to) the bittersweet political irony, A Matter of Life and Death magically found its way into my gut and squeezed before it twisted; very much in keeping with the powerful emotional experience I found in I Know Where I’m Going! Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom…not so much, but there’s plenty more of Powell and Pressburger, so I too know where I’m going; straight to Helen Mirren (40 gorgeous years ago), Colonel Blimp and Canterbury.
FoE4 is a good deal glitchier than I’d ever imagined it would be — podcasts next week, if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise. Like I said, glitchy.