Archive for A Matter of Life and Death

Teardrops

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.

Lip Flap Revisited

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 5, 2021 by dcairns

As previously recorded here, the most famous line in Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, “One is starved of Technicolor up there,” was actually an improv, according to my late friend, third assistant director Lawrie Knight — the line as written was “colour,” and actor Marius Goring, bored of retakes, decided to goof things up. Powell decided to use the quip and was pleased to hear audiences laugh, thus proving to him that “there’s no such thing as realism.”

The line has always (?) been drastically out of sync, a radical case of “lip flap,” and my assumption was that Powell ended up using the picture from a take where Goring said the line as written, along with the soundtrack from the one where he said “Technicolor.” This caused some synchronization problems since there were two extra syllables to fit in somehow, and editor Reggie Mills’ solution always looked rather unconvincing to me.

Anyhow, I bought the Blu-ray at last and Goring is now acceptably synchronized. How was this done? The fact that there’s continuous music under the dialogue should have made it impossible to shift part of the line without throwing the rest out of whack, unless the restorers had access to the original unmixed audio recordings (the restoration note tells us they had access to the original soundtrack, but says nothing about separate voice and music tracks).

Possibly the line was thrown out of whack by a bad splice somewhere in the film’s post-release history, nothing to do with Goring’s improvisation, and the restoration has simply righted this? But if the line was always glaringly off, fixing it is a rather naughty bit of restoration, even if the result is a clear improvement. (The new synch isn’t perfect by any means, but is a heck of a lot better: Goring’s lips are always moving when he talks, and never moving when he doesn’t talk. They may not be mouthing the exact words we hear, but the divergence is now brief and subtle.)

I’d love to know more about this if anyone has the answer…

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)