Michael Powell

Kim Hunter and David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) - 1946

Kim Hunter and David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) - 1946

  • Born:  1905
  • Died:  1990
  • Rank:  78
  • Score:  525.60
  • Feature Films:  38
  • Best:  A Matter of Life and Death
  • Worst:  Black Narcissus

Top 5 Films:

  1. A Matter of Life and Death – 1946
  2. A Canterbury Tale – 1944
  3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – 1943
  4. Peeping Tom – 1960
  5. I Know Where I’m Going – 1945

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1945 – 4th – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • 1947 – 3rd – A Matter of Life and Death
  • 1949 – 2nd – A Canterbury Tale
  • 1962 – 9th – Peeping Tom

My introduction to the career of Michael Powell was all wrong.  My first love of film has always come from an obsessive compulsion to view all the Academy Award nominated films.  And in the 40’s, Powell was a big hit, with Best Picture nominations for The 49th Parallel and The Red Shoes.  But I wasn’t impressed with either (and disliked Red Shoes for a long time before re-watching it last year to get a new perspective).  Even the Oscar nominations for Thief of Baghdad, One of Our Aircraft is Missing and Tales of Hoffmann didn’t help as those are all good films, but not great (and of all these nominations only one – the Screenplay nomination for Aircraft actually went to Powell himself).  Of course, through all of this I thought of him as the person who had made Stairway to Heaven (as A Matter of Life and Death is titled in the states), so I knew there must be more.  And it was up to Roger Ebert and the Criterion Collection to help me find it.

Michael Powell in death is much as he was in life.  He made many films in Britain in the 30’s, but none of them are considered important films and today they are all hard to find.  In the 50’s and 60’s, he declined and after Peeping Tom, a film widely panned at the time but today held up as an important, brilliant film (including by Ebert) he found it hard to get financing.  His last full length feature film, Age of Consent, made in 1969 has until recently been hard to find in spite of a fine performance by James Mason and a most naked, very young Helen Mirren.

But in the 40’s, the heyday of the Archers, he was a very big deal.  Together with his artistic partner, Emile Pressburger (they called their company The Archers), Powell made a number of very important films, received the aforementioned Oscar nominations and was very highly regarded.  And these are the films that can be found.  I have only seen one film he made prior to 1940 and three films made after, but I have seen all 11 of his feature films made during the 40’s.

And of course, there are those who love his films.  Martin Scorsese worships at the altar of The Red Shoes and his longtime friend and editor Thelma Schoonmaker was married to Powell for the last six years of his life.  Roger Ebert has included The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom in his Great Movies books (the reason I first saw both) and Blimp and Canterbury Tale have both been released on DVD by Criterion.  And Age of Consent and A Matter of Life and Death have finally been released on DVD.  Which is good, because Matter, Blimp and Canterbury all made my list of the 100 Best Films Not Nominated for an Oscar.  Because the Academy doesn’t always get things right.

A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) – #2 film of 1947

This film has never gotten the laurels it deserves.  It was originally released in Britain in 1946 as A Matter of Life and Death, then retitled Stairway to Heaven for its 1947 release in the U.S..  It received 0 Academy Award nominations in spite of a brilliant script, great performances and fantastic technical aspects.  In my Not Nominated post I said it deserved nominations for Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Editing and Sound and deserved to win both Best Original Story and Best Original Screenplay (different categories at the time).

Then it disappeared.  No video.  No television.  Nothing until 1995, when it was re-released in theaters.  I got lucky at saw it at Cinema 21, the most important theater in Portland, OR to anyone who loves film (alas, also the most uncomfortable theater for anyone at all).  I remembered it vividly, which is good, because it then became hard to find again.  It had been released on video, but wasn’t that easy to track down and when I started watching Powell films in 2007, had a hard time tracking it down.  And it still hadn’t been released on DVD.  That error was finally corrected earlier this year as it was released in a 2 DVD set with Age of Consent, so people finally have a chance to own this great film.

And it is great.  It is a fantasy film.  It is a war film.  It is a romance.  It is a comedy.  And it combines all of these with an effortless grace.

In the final days of World War II, a pilot, the last survivor on his plane, makes radio contact with a young American nurse stationed in Britain.  The plane is doomed and there are no parachutes and this is his last contact with life and their conversation is beautiful and heartbreaking.  And then the pilot jumps from his place towards the Channel below.

Only he doesn’t die because the angel sent to retrieve him to heaven misses him in the clouds and by the time the mistake can be rectified, he has met the young nurse in person on the beach and they have fallen in love.  So now heaven must do something, but the pilot wants to fight for his life.  And soon this is involve a trial in heaven, a trial about worthiness of life and about the very differences between a Brit and an American.

I am not a David Niven fan, but something about his personality made him perfect for this role.  And Kim Hunter, in the days before she was Stella is young and lovely as the nurse.  Powell regular Roger Livesy is the perfect choice for the doctor who befriends them both and must act as Niven’s defense attorney during the trial.  In heaven.  In glorious black and white.

For perhaps the most important aspect of this film is that it pulls a reverse Wizard of Oz.  The scenes on earth are all in color while the scenes in heaven are in black and white.  And perhaps this is what connects Powell and Matter with Jeunet and Amelie (the previous director).  Both films are about the importance of life, of embracing life, or never letting it go.  That’s why the scenes on earth are in color.  Because it’s important to embrace the very colors of life.

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