A Matter of Life and Death

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

29 December

UK pays off Second World War debt, 2006

On this day in 2006, the last working day of the year, the British Government made the last of 50 payments to the US and Canada, money it had borrowed off them in 1945 at the end of the war, when the British economist John Maynard Keynes had been dispatched to Washington with the begging bowl. With the national debt standing at 180% of gross domestic product, the government had expected, or hoped for, a grant. Instead it was offered a loan, on terms of 2% interest annually, a rate that turned out to be quite advantageous to the UK in the long run. Britain had effectively bankrupted itself and its empire fighting the First World War, and at the end of the Second was so weakened that the empire simply started falling apart. Britain hastily divested itself of its colonies, granting independence almost as fast as members of the royal family could be despatched around the world to witness the lowering of the flag. Decades later, in 2006, the final payment of $83 million was paid from the UK to the US, and a loan which had initially been US$ 3.75 billion (plus US$1.19 billion from Canada) and grown to US$7.5 billion (US$2 billion for Canada) with interest was declared paid in full. The same cannot be said about loans made from the US to the UK after the First World War.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

Made when American GIs stationed in Britain were being portrayed as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, this film takes the American boy/English girl stereotype that was pissing off so many fighting British Tommies and reverses it. So in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s deliberate pouring of oil on troubled waters it’s a British fighting man, played by David Niven, who falls for the American girl (Kim Hunter). The complication, in a film full of them, being that they only meet as Niven’s plane is hurtling towards earth, and even then it’s not a meeting in person – she’s a radio controller forced to listen to the pilot as he bails out, without a parachute, but not before he’s told her “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving it.” But Peter Carter (Niven) doesn’t die. Miraculously. In fact he washes up on the beach just in time to catch June as she is cycling back to her billet, upset, at the end of her shift. And the two fall in love in earnest. But then Providence realises it has made a mistake – this man really should have died – sends an emissary to earth, who calls Peter to a court in heaven, where he has to go before a celestial court to plead his case. What will win out, divine bureaucracy or true love? The propagandistic intention of this film does declare itself a little over insistently in the third act, when Peter is being prosecuted by an American Revolutionary (Raymond Massey) and defended by the peruqued French Revolutionary emissary (Marius Goring) sent to earth to collect him. But in all other respects this film is a work of intellectual wit and technical brilliance – the way Heaven is in monochrome and Earth is in colour (“One is starved for Technicolor up there” says Goring on his arrival on this side of the eternal veil); the still incredibly impressive “stairway to heaven” (the film’s US title) that conveys people to you know where and back; the fabulously clipped and frightfully British attitudes on display; Powell and Pressburger’s evident love for their largely rural locations (always noticeable in their films); the freeze-frame sections; the strange “closing eye” special effect; the amazing modernist viewing portals from Heaven into its administrative heart below. If you have not seen it, you should. If you have seen it, you are probably now saying “but he’s forgotten the…”.

Why Watch?

  • In a brilliant career, this is one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films
  • Roger Livesey as bluff old cove Doctor Reeves
  • Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, one of the greats
  • Look out for Lois “Miss Moneypenny” Maxwell in a bit part

A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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