All the World’s a Stage
Julien Allen on A Matter of Life and Death

On seeing A Matter of Life and Death as a child, I was seized with the idea that there was some vast, dazzling eternity out there, and in the surface of ordinary reality one might find some narrow slit through which one could catch a glimpse of it.
—Jonathan Miller

The only thing I thought I knew about A Matter of Life and Death before I first saw it was that heaven would be in color and the world would be black and white. This turned out to be completely incorrect, as it’s the other way around: the film is in color, but the sequences set in the afterlife are monochrome. But the inversion of natural assumptions which led to the misunderstanding—surely the metaphysical realm is the one they would decorate most, as opposed to the familiar world, whose colors we all know—is typical of the sovereign approach of its makers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, for whom art only had value for the lessons it could teach us, and to whom easy choices would always be anathema.

It might seem bizarre to consider now that there was once a time when films by the Archers (the pseudonym for Powell and Pressburger’s collaboration, derived from the name of their production company) were not especially distinguished by their aesthetics. Their first eight projects together (from 1939’s The Spy in Black to 1945’s I Know Where Im Going) were completed during the second World War and could all—despite their exquisite visual idiosyncrasy—justifiably be classified as “political” war films, the majority of which were allegorical statements about Britain and its place in the world wherein, if the contemporary critical ink that flowed on their subject was to be believed, the substance regularly pulled focus from the style. But if they were constrained by their own sense of duty to the British war effort and the expectations of the British government for them to produce propaganda of various kinds, the artistic parameters of the Archers’ approach to filmmaking were arguably even more politicized, and entirely self-imposed. Chief among their declaration of principles—one so radical for the time that in hindsight it ought to have eclipsed any future controversy that would befall them—was: “No artist believes in escapism . . . and we secretly believe no audience does.”

Far from indicating a rejection of fantasy or entertainment, what this showed was that Powell and Pressburger were preoccupied primarily with truth—something their entire body of work, however fantastical it appeared, would live up to—and they were convinced that there was a demand for films which reflected, or cast new light on, the lives and times of their audience, however desperate or conflicted these may be. The depth of this engagement meant that the Archers’ ever-present aesthetic prowess would only be emancipated from this political commitment when the war was over, with the advent of three successive films marking their association with the legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. This relationship—unquestionably the apex of Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic output—culminated in the gothic convent drama Black Narcissus (1947) and the imperious Technicolor ballet fantasia The Red Shoes (1948).

The first film of this Jack Cardiff postwar troika was 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death (hereinafter referred to, for reasons of space, by its makers’ own abbreviation, AMOLAD). In its conception it clearly fit the pattern of its predecessors: it was informally commissioned, like their 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, to improve Anglo-American relations, with regard both to Britain’s war debt to America and the welfare of large numbers of GIs who had stayed in Britain as the war drew to a close. But in its execution it stands alone, not only in the Archers’ body of work but also in the entire spectrum of British cinema. It is hard to imagine another British film quite so consciously vulnerable to the charge of utter absurdity, yet which nonetheless succeeds triumphantly on its own terms—through its fierce intellect, its poetic confidence, and most of all, its unerring, consummate sincerity. Far from tempering the ambition that had previously been thrown back in their faces with the vilification of 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a film which has since been restored, both physically and critically, to its rightful glory), the Archers doubled down and drew on a myriad of artistic forms to assert an even greater myriad of ideas. Yet AMOLAD remains a sweet, ineffably lucid love story at heart: one that, while scoffed at critically at the time, retains its place amongst Britain’s most cherished films.

Quintessential Brit David Niven plays the poetry-loving hero, a downed Lancaster bomber pilot whose sanguine final moments are captured at the beginning of the film in an extraordinary conversation with a GI radio operator (Kim Hunter)—wherein he quotes Andrew Marvell and invokes Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus—which leads to their falling immediately in love with each other. Niven’s certain death is then temporarily interrupted by an administrative mix-up in the afterlife, allowing him the chance to appeal his fate in a celestial court. The afterlife is portrayed as a cold, bureaucratic agglomeration run by the redoubtably severe Kathleen Byron: a parody of the British civil service which recalls the totalitarian portents of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come and which suggests a degree of concern on Powell’s part about the advent of American New Deal-socialist ideals to Britain, in the shape of the NHS and the welfare state, and their potential impact on individual poets and dreamers such as Niven’s character. It contains the film’s most expressionistic imagery—ironically, given Cardiff’s massive inexperience in black and white; he had until that point been under contract with Technicolor.

Cardiff first came to Michael Powell’s attention while working as an assistant to the celebrated French cinematographer Georges Périnal on Blimp. Powell emerged silently in the background on the day when Cardiff was lighting Blimp’s trophy wall—a job Périnal rightly felt was too much like hard work, for a sequence he wrongly assumed was insignificant—and Cardiff so impressed the director with his meticulous yet unfussy innovation that he was given the DP’s job on AMOLAD on the spot. The exalted trio of AMOLAD, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes would, like Blimp, be shot in 1.37:1 Academy ratio, a reality of timing which surprises even people who have seen the films, so readily do audiences tend to equate Technicolor epics with widescreen (David Lean must carry some responsibility for this). Cardiff, who could never be mistaken for a conservative operator, would nevertheless be no fan of 1.85:1, and he positively deplored Cinemascope, for the simple reason that both formats severely damaged the cameraman’s ability to create what Cardiff considered to be “a strong close-up”; the space either side of the character felt to him like an awkward deficiency, rather than a framing device. In addition to the “portrait shape” of the frame, the narrowness of the Academy ratio would help Cardiff create in Black Narcissus striking compositions of rooms, in particular the doctor’s surgery and the prayer scenes in the narrow chapel of the Himalayan convent, a combination of devotion and crampedness which underlines the nobility of the nuns’ sacrifice.

With AMOLAD the most obvious asset of the Academy ratio is not portraiture or narrowness, but—in relative terms—height. The centerpiece of the film is the Jacob’s Ladder–like escalator which links the earth to the afterlife and which gave its name to the American title, Stairway to Heaven. (The distributors considered that Americans might not yet be ready to see a film with the word “Death” in the title, even preceded by “Life.”) This giant, completely silent mechanical installation, nicknamed “Ethel” by the AMOLAD crew, was built for the film at the exorbitant cost of £160,000 by the London Transport Board, and stretched right to the roof of the vast stage at Denham. Its effect on screen is both visually arresting and highly comical (Archers through and through), and, of course, impossible to reproduce in 1.85 or ’Scope. The notion of altitude—of looking up and looking down—is organically fundamental to AMOLAD: the first time we see Niven wake up on the shore, thinking he’s in heaven but actually in Devon, we are looking down at him from on high: from where he was supposed to have ended up. The waves are shown licking the beach from right to left, vertical lines on the screen, stretching for miles, then match cut with lines of shelved angels’ wings waiting to be claimed in the afterlife. If the shot had been essayed in Scope, these waves would have stretched horizontally across the screen, emerging in all probability from top to bottom. But the constraints of the Academy ratio in this case contribute to a permanent visual conceit, culminating in the shafts of light from the viewing areas of the afterlife and the most miraculously beautiful—and to this day, barely explicable—shot of the film: a dazzling vertical pan down a water-color matte painting of the pillars of the great entrance, as the people (emerging like bacteria under a microscope, suddenly fidgeting into life as the lens gets closer) file into the celestial courtroom.

But if there is one thing about the Academy ratio that perfectly accommodates the Archers’ visual and narrative philosophy (particularly when set against the formats which succeeded it) it is the allusive impact of the overall shape of the image on the screen. The 4:3 aspect ratio (from which the Academy ratio of 1.37:1 was derived in 1932 following the advent of sound) is often referred to as the shape of a conventional television screen, but when contemplating the work of Powell and Pressburger, there is a far more rewarding comparison to be made, which is with the shape of a traditional 19th-century Victorian theater stage.

A stage might immediately feel, in the mind’s eye, like widescreen: the width of the curtain and downstage area instinctively dominate, but a seat in the upper circle can make one truly realize the extent of the two other dimensions: the height (often remarkable, such as in the Royal Opera House, where sequences of The Red Shoes were filmed) and more pertinently to a cinematic context, its depth. As in a theater whose backdrops might be layered and stretch back further than initially thought, the narrower the horizontal axis of the image’s frame, the greater the impact on the audience of the depth of field. And AMOLAD makes eye-catching use of deep focus: witness a short pan from the camera obscura scene to an unshuttered window perfectly framed within 1.37:1 with a filmed backdrop from which Hunter appears; later, the library where Niven recuperates has four distinct layers all in focus: the foreground, the bay window, the ping-pong table, and a matte background. If The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman (1951) were explicitly theatrical, AMOLAD is no less preoccupied with theatrical imagery, allusion, and technique. Film professor and Archers expert Ian Christie wrote about AMOLAD and Blimp as “modern masques,” reinventions of the 16th and 17th century allegorical spectacles that combined elements of verse drama, dance, music, scenery, and costume. At the height of their popularity, practitioners such as the playwright Ben Jonson and the architect Inigo Jones introduced for the first time artificial lighting, moveable sets, and magical effects—to create “pictures with Light and Motion.” Powell clearly saw in this breed of Jacobean theater a natural, quintessentially British predecessor of cinema: by recapturing it, he would put British culture into the spotlight—with Shakespeare to the fore, but also John Bunyan, whose own allegory Pilgrims Progress got there first with Jacob’s Ladder—and bolster in British and American eyes Britain’s rightful claim to postwar restoration.

The first arresting example in AMOLAD of this approach is in the background of a key early sequence. After being visited by his designated envoy from the afterlife, “Conductor 71” (Marius Goring, offering an ostentatiously mannered representation of a French aristocrat whose magical powers carry undercurrents of Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest), Niven is committed to the care of a progressive psychiatrist (played by Roger Livesey, all polished British acumen and charm, in contrast to his red-letter characterization of the lummox Wynne-Candy in Blimp). The first examination of the patient occurs not in private, but in the drawing room of the care home where Livesey works, behind which, in deep focus, a performance of a play within a play—the “lamentable comedy” of Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Nights Dream—is being rehearsed by a group of young Americans, led by a plummy-voiced English vicar. Their incidental banter (which includes the chiding of one of the American actors for playing Bottom “like a gangster”) dovetails with the crucial foregrounded dialogue of the main characters. The hall is cavernous and deep, like an Elizabethan court; A Midsummer Nights Dream itself is a reminder of the culture shared between the two English-speaking nations and a play that contains, as Christie notes, undeniable elements of the seventeenth century wedding masque.

The Archers were not the only filmmakers to delve back into Britain’s theatrical and literary heritage to help promote a second, postwar renaissance (documentarian Humphrey Jennings was another), but their symbolic confluence of form and content sublimes itself during the final courtroom scene, wherein Niven’s love for Hunter, and Britain’s significance in the world, are both put on trial, with all the pomp and beadledom the audience has come to expect from this colorless, ultra-regulatory afterlife. Occupying the whole of a vast Denham Studios soundstage, the set was a nightmare for Cardiff to light freely, as he found himself in the role of the unschooled upstart embroiled in frequent disagreements with the brilliant but tyrannical set designer, Alfred Junge. In a contretemps which pleasingly encapsulated AMOLAD’s internationalism and its occasionally turbulent marriage of politics and aesthetics, the German Junge—designer of the stairway and arguably the greatest influence on AMOLADs visual reputation—demanded that Cardiff light the stage according to his specifications, which would ensure that the sets be shown off to maximum effect; the genteel Cardiff politely but firmly protested (in a tone Livesey’s defense counsel might have taken) that there were also characters that needed to be lit, and that these should take precedence. The argument was, according to Cardiff, who was unhappy with the results, resolved in Junge’s favor. The two would enjoy a happier collaboration working with Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, and Junge’s giant matte photographs on the wholly Technicolor Black Narcissus.

The more than twenty-minute courtroom sequence itself recalls U.S. founding father John Adams’s assertion that he always considered the Declaration of Independence “a theatrical show” (the staginess and glory of which Adams felt Thomas Jefferson had run away with). Livesey’s empathetic approach to Niven’s care (prescribing a pretense of total belief in the hallucinations themselves) reaches its apotheosis when he takes the stand in heaven as his counsel. He is opposed by a bigoted Boston colonial rebel (Raymond Massey), “who died from a British bullet in 1775” and who, despite ultimately losing the argument, is given a prominent and persuasive voice. The scene’s hand-wringing propaganda is as knowingly artificial and satirically cheeky as the film gets. It casts Britain as an evil autocratic empire by presenting an eyebrow-raisingly biased jury of downtrodden “American citizens” originating from all corners of the world, bearing grudges from the yoke of British rule. On first viewing this is, to say the least, a bit rich, considering America at the time had Britain over an economic barrel with the scrapping of Lend-Lease and Britain’s heavy reliance on U.S. aid (the Marshall Plan) to rebuild its shattered island. The British film industry, rocked by tax protectionism and Hollywood embargoes, was barely in better shape. The few films that had made their mark (Brief Encounter, Basil Dearden's The Captive Heart) were being mercilessly outgunned by the likes of Meet Me in St. Louis, Duel in the Sun, and The Jolson Story. William Wyler’s own wartime drama The Best Years of Our Lives would crush all before it the following year, giving a foretaste of the lopsided industrial cold war Britain struggles with to this day. But by choosing this counterintuitive angle on Anglo-American relations, AMOLAD does not seek to deny contemporary reality, merely to reassert the context. The purpose of Britain’s self-flagellation here is twofold and ingenious: first, to establish a tone of remorse, and second—by appearing to deliver this apology from a position of long-established strength—to inflate in both British and American eyes the historical importance of Britain in the framing of America and the World. Put simply, to “big Britain up” while pretending to knock it down.

But the Archers were ultimately less interested in the public narrative of a recuperated postwar Britain than they were in exploring purely subjective spaces—such as Niven’s trauma and the erotomania of Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. If Powell and Pressburger wanted to big Britain up, it was because of the things Britain could do which most deserved recognition and pride: writing books, not winning wars. So the film eventually rejects the whole political shooting match as an irrelevance, returning to an unabashedly romantic, existential conclusion to the story. As the rhetoric was flying in the afterlife, the surgeons were quietly battling to save Niven’s life. The celestial judge in AMOLAD turns out not to be a pompous lawyer, but the dutiful doctor who sweated on Niven’s behalf at the operating table. The focus lurches back onto the question of whether these events happened, or whether they were all part of Niven’s imagination (a question which in hindsight is explicitly resolved by the epigraph at the start of the film). Niven’s eventual survival ends up depending on Hunter’s unequivocal, unconditional love. (Of some comfort to the powers that be, the dismissive treatment of the geopolitical arguments of AMOLAD is like a judge demanding that a jury ignore something that’s been said in open court because it was subsequently found to be inadmissible—everyone knows this never works.)

From its cosmic opening, which resembles nothing so much as the beginning of a tongue-in-cheek version of The Tree of Life (“This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”), to its rhapsodic conclusion, AMOLAD is a uniquely peculiar monument to British artistry and quirk. To defend it is to defend Britain’s place in the history of cinema, which has always been something of a complex conundrum. But Powell and Pressburger’s ability to outshine themselves artistically whilst operating within parameters at once political, thematic, and aesthetic presents the case for the defense about as eloquently as it is possible to imagine.

A Matter of Life and Death played Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of See it Big! High and Wide, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.