Archive for A Matter of Life and Death

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…


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


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.


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.


(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…)

A Curious Dream

Posted in FILM with tags , on December 18, 2015 by dcairns


We’ve got an amazing location for THE NORTHLEACH HORROR, the short film I’m prepping. The only problem was we couldn’t get into it until last Monday. This was causing me to lose sleep. The night before we started building our set, I had a curious dream.

I was walking on a dark street. A crescent on a hill. As I walked, things became darker and darker. Eventually, clinging to a railing, I realized I could see nothing at all. Despite this, I remained unafraid.

Out of the darkness, the sound of a colossal dog, padding up the pavement to meet me. Its nose snuffled at my face — it was as tall as I was. Apparently happy, it trotted off. I was still not alarmed. But I began to suspect I was blind, since no trace of the outside world was now visible to me.


I had a flashlight in my pocket. Clicking it on made no difference, so I shone it right in my eye. I got a strange view of my eyelids, FROM THE INSIDE, as if I were watching from far back in my own skull. Somehow this satisfied me that I was not blind. But I had never actually been worried when this seemed a possibility.

The horizon began to be pinked by the light of dawn, and the world came back.

Upon awakening, I realized that the dream had taken place on Regent Road, outside our location. I’ve never previously had the experience of placing a dream after waking from it.

Later in the day, boring someone at lunchtime by recounting this tale, I realized I had put a flashlight in my pocket that morning without thinking of the connection.

Choosing an image for this post, I grabbed the shot in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH where David Niven, in subjective camera, goes under the ether. I had forgotten that what he’s looking at is an enormous light which resembles my LED flashlight in extreme closeup…

I suspect the Baskerville dog part may of the dream have been triggered by our aged Siamese cat, Tasha, standing on my chest like Fuselli’s nightmare and sniffing my face, which she does in a rather canine way. Such an experience, occurring during the depths of REM, might easily superimpose upon the dreamer’s imagination the sensations of a man-sized hound.

Though the dream was kind of an anxiety dream, I’m cheered by the high quality of its cinematic references.