A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death is showing at the BFI until tomorrow. I went to see it on Friday. It’s one of my favourite films but Friday was the first time I’ve seen it on a cinema screen. The print wasn’t great but the film remains amazing. The camera work is extraordinary, the special effects are ingenious and the story, though twee, must have been deeply affecting to 1946 audiences. Oh, and there’s a great performance from David Niven’s mustache, playing itself.

Reading up on the film afterwards I discovered a few interesting facts from the wealth of sources offered on this page.

The neurological condition suffered by Peter Carter, Niven’s character, is portrayed with extraordinary detail, much of which would pass unnoticed by anyone but an expert. According to Diane Broadbent Friedman, "this film depicts clinical details in such an accurate way that a clinician might diagnose the probable site of the lesion".

The film was commissioned by the British Government to build Anglo-American relations. Many Britons resented the American troops, who turned up late to the war, arriving well-heeled and well-fed in country brought to its knees by war. Powell and Pressburger’s script inverts this - something Todd Alcott mentions a lot as a key screenwriting trick - and the only prejudice in the film comes from an American aghast that the British hero has fallen for a Boston girl.

In attempting to bridge the gap between the two cultures, the film operates with great subtlety, as this review from Henry Coombs notes:

"Consider the scene in which Abraham Farlan (Heaven's prosecuting lawyer) plays a radio broadcast of a cricket match, and contemptuously says, `The voice of England, 1945.' Dr. Reeves (the defence) acknowledges the exhibit with a great deal of embarrassment, and then produces one of his own: a blues song from America, which Farlan listens to as though he's got a lemon in his mouth. Reeves looks smug.

"Snobbery? Well, I don't see why it's snobbish to condemn blues music - and that's not what Powell and Pressburger are doing, anyway. As the song is being played, we get a shot of the American soldiers listening to it: several of them nod their heads to the rhythm, perfectly at home. THEY don't find it incomprehensible. There's something valuable about the song and neither Reeves nor Farlan knows what it is. Reeves probably realises as much. All English audiences (and all Australian, Indian, etc. audiences as well) know without being told that there is something of value in the cricket broadcast, too; and that while Reeves understands THAT, he is unable to explain it to Farlan - hence the blues broadcast, which shows that people can understand each other without sharing an understanding of everything else. It's a clever scene."

Finally, the page also points to this funny sketch from Big Train: