Tag Archives: David Niven

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – also released as Stairway to Heaven

download (1)A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven) is a fantasy of whimsy, romance and a message. The message is a promotion of British and American harmony after WWII. I am curious  to know what the state of relations between American and Britain was that they felt they needed to make this movie. But whatever the political motivations for the film, it remains a lovely fantasy romance, somewhat in the vein of Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed their production company, The Archers, in 1939, and directed, wrote and produced some of Britain’s loveliest, most romantic, imaginative and powerful movies: Red ShoesI Know Where I’m Going!The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The latter two are especial favorites of mine, but A Matter of Life and Death could be right up there (interestingly, my favorites all have one thing in common, actor Roger Livesey). The movie also marked the return to movies of David Niven, who had left Hollywood for England and enlisted in the army in 1939.

But the film begins as the war was still going on in 1945. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is flying his bomber back to England. But the engine’s on fire and he’s lost his landing gear. He long since ordered his men to leave the plane, except Bob (Robert Coote), who died. He has two choices, fry or jump…even though he does not have a parachute. He chooses jumping. But an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), manages to contact him and they talk as his plane is flying down. She wants to find a way to help him, but he wants someone to talk to in his last minutes, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh, asking if she’ll send a telegram to his mother telling her that he always loved her, though he never expressed it, wanting to know where June was born (Boston) and so on. There’s no music; it’s one of those breathlessly poetic moments with two strangers making a human connection in the face of death.

David Niven and Kim Hunter

David Niven and Kim Hunter

Peter jumps from the plane and is sure that he’s dead. But in the afterlife (Powell and Pressburger were careful not to ever mention heaven; they felt it was too limited a definition for this film) Bob is waiting for Peter and when he doesn’t show up, the afterlife attendants must figure out what went wrong. As in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, there has been a mistake. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring – a French aristocrat who lost his head, though it seems to be back on now) lost sight of Peter in the fog and missed him. Instead of being conducted upwards, Peter is now wandering around on earth.

Peter and June soon meet and fall in love instantly (they really fell in love when they heard each other’s voice). But Peter keeps having what may be hallucinations. He sees Conductor 71, who asks him to kindly come with him to the afterlife. Peter refuses. He says his time may have been up, but through no fault of his own, a mistake was made and now he’s fallen in love. Things are different and he demands to be allowed to stay. Peter also has headaches and June is concerned. She asks Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to help, who diagnoses a brain injury.

But Peter has been granted a trial in the afterlife to justify his right to go on living. He will be prosecuted by Abraham Fallon (Raymond Massey), an American patriot from Boston who was the first man to be shot by a redcoat during the American Revolution. He hates the British and especially hates the fact that an Englishman has fallen in love with a girl from Boston. Peter is told that he can choose anyone he wants to defend him, as long as they are dead. But Peter cannot decide who he wants and Dr. Reeves is afraid that his time is running out and they need to operate soon.

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

The film culminates with a trial where the question at stake is whether or not Peter and June really love each other and should be allowed to be together. Is love stronger than the law of the universe? Powell and Pressburger seem to be going out of their way to show that Americans are all right…a little young, less educated, less poetic, and more energetic, but with values that aren’t so different from Britain’s. The directors are even quite willing to poke a little fun at themselves and point to some of their shortcomings, like colonialism. The jury is requested to be made of up Americans. Though good old fashioned British values are still very much in evidence with their rich literary history (represented by the erudite and imaginative Peter, who is a poet) and laws. The setting of the earth part of the film is in that very British country village that can be found in many a British movie and novel.

There is a funny parody of British and American culture when Fallon turns on a radio to demonstrate the state of British society. An extremely dry British voice comes on, commenting dully on the weather, cricket and how emblematic this scene is of England. Peter’s counsel responds by tuning into an American station, which features a somewhat juvenile American pop song.

But the film also goes out of its way to be inclusive, showing people in the afterlife from history and the present, from all parts of American and British life (blacks and whites, representatives of the British Empire, American immigrants from all around the world). It is left ambiguous if the afterlife sequences, Conductor 71 or the trial really happened, however. Dr. Reeves believes they are hallucinations and the product of an imaginative mind.

imagesAll the afterlife sequences are filmed in black and white, whereas the scenes on earth are in Technicolor. There is a lovely moment when Conductor 71 is looking at the rose on his coat in black and white and it gradually shades into vibrant color and Conductor 71 is now standing on earth, amidst a riot of flowers and colors where Peter and June are sitting. “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” he says. This works in reverse when Peter’s counsel capture a tear from June and store it on Conductor 71’s rose to use as evidence that June loves Peter. The rose goes from Technicolor back into black and white, with the tear on it.

The Technicolor is stunning and must have been even more so on a big screen. It does suggest, whether the afterlife sequences are real or not, that life on earth is where love, life, vibrancy and feeling are. It’s contrasted with the black and white bureaucratic other world, though it’s still a whimsical other world. And although the film begins with an exploration of the vast cosmos, demonstrating how small earth is, it still gives the sense that earth is more vibrantly alive than anything else. And although it was an accident that Peter didn’t die, it seems as if it were fated to be so, that he and June would fall in love.

The actors are fantastic. David Niven exactly embodies the RAF pilot, the Oxford student who interrupted his education to fight and faces danger sangfroid. Kim is warm as the American who has easily navigated the new environment of England. I’ve only seen Roger Livesey in a few movies, but loved him in everyone of them, representing in this film the wise and philosophic perspective. And Marius Goring is a hoot as Conductor 71, a whimsical figure, sentimental about love, likes chess and is engaged in a figurative match with Peter in his various attempts to trick or lure him into coming with him.


Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Movies


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Wuthering Heights (1939) – Obsessive, Destructive Love

2d12ebee08d87e1ad3836ff31ed48921I’ve wanted to see Wuthering Heights for a very long time. I’d heard about it and read about it and understood that it is one of those films that made 1939 the greatest year in film history. And because I like a good gothic tale (especially if it is a movie) I was predisposed to love the film.

So I was quite disappointed when I didn’t love it, though it had nothing to do with how the movie was made and everything to do with the story. It is a beautiful film, finely acted, but I could not view the film as a great romance, which seemed to be how the story was presented.

I have to admit here, however, that I have not yet read the book, so I cannot compare how well the movie follows Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel and don’t know if my difficulties with the story stem from her original book or from how it was adapted to film.

The movie is constructed as a flashback. A man named Lockwood (Miles Mander) has sought shelter at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm and is told the story of the ghost who haunts the house and particularly haunts the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The story is told by Ellen (Flora Robson) who now serves Heathcliff, but used to serve the young lady who haunts the house, Cathy (Merle Oberon).

Wuthering Heights 1

Heathcliff and Cathy

Before everything went to rack and ruin, she says, Wuthering Heights was a fine house that belonged to Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who had two children, Hindley and Cathy. He goes to London and when he returns he has a small gypsy boy who was starving in London. Mr. Earnshaw calls him Heathcliff and he and Cathy treat him like one of the family, but Hindley resents him and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the master of the home and relegates Heathcliff to stable boy.

As they grow up, Heathcliff puts up with all sorts of ill treatment and refuses to leave so he can remain near Cathy. The two of them are like flower children of the moor, retreating to their place on the moor called Peniston Crag, which they call their castle. However, as Cathy grows into a woman she becomes more interested in fine clothes and their elegant neighbors, the Lintons, especially Edgar Linton (David Niven).

As Cathy finds herself attracted to the world of Edgar, Heathcliff grows angry, possessive, and even physical, evening hitting Cathy several times when she insults him as being hired help with dirty hands (this man is definitely the type that would kill his wife in a rage of jealousy). However, they both tell Ellen at separate times that they need each other, that they are essentially one person. But Cathy comes to this realization a little too late, when Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune (which is what Cathy had been urging him to do all along so that he could come back and take her away). Convinced that he’ll never return, Cathy marries Edgar.

Cathy with Edgar

Cathy with Edgar

Ellen tells Lockwood that Cathy managed to forge a happy life for herself, not exciting or grandly passionate, but a good one. However, Heathcliff comes back a very wealthy man and acquires Wuthering Heights from the alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley by buying up all his debts. He also still wants Cathy, but Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls in love with him and pursues Heathcliff. Cathy begs Heathcliff not to marry Isabella because she knows he does not love her, but Heathcliff imagines that in doing so it will be revenge on Cathy, because, I guess, she will be jealous that she is not married to him.

The marriage is a tragedy, Isabella is so desperate for Heathcliff’s love that she welcomes the news that Cathy is dying. Hindley continues to drink himself into an early grave and the doctor (Donald Crisp) can only look on while people he helped bring into the world self-destruct, with Heathcliff the self-destructor-in-chief.

If it had been presented as being about destructive love, than I might have enjoyed it more. I don’t mind having a character like Heathcliff; I just mind being told he’s our romantic lead. He’s a narcissistic, jealous, obsessive stalker. If the movie acknowledged that, I’d be fine. But he comes back, like the Count of Monte Cristo, fabulously wealthy to wreak revenge on all people who did him harm in the past. And he blames Cathy for having rejected him and she even agrees with him when she is on her deathbed.

Even his love is narcissistic. When Cathy dies at the end, he says that now she is his. He says that she broke his heart, she’s a part of him, he can’t live without her. And because no one else, apparently, has even a fraction of the feeling, love and passion that he has, those people don’t count. Heathcliff has no sense of personhood, that perhaps people exist apart from him with their own feelings, motivations and lives. He doesn’t even see Cathy as a real person who exists apart from him, but just someone who’s one with him, who rejected herself when she rejected him and instead chose Edgar and society over Heathcliff and the moor.

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

I watched the film with my sister, who has read the book, and she tells me that there are children in the book. Cathy and Edgar have a daughter, Hindley has a son and Heathcliff and Isabella have a son. Cathy apparently dies in the middle of the book and the rest is taken up quite prominently with Cathy’s daughter. My sister felt that with removing the children, it changed the story significantly. Now, the story is just about Heathcliff and Cathy and not about Heathcliff’s attempts to control and destroy the second-generation, and how, despite his attempts, the second generation does achieve a kind of redemption at the end.

According to the critic John Sutherland the 1939 movie is largely responsible for the romantic interpretation of the book and that people in Brontë’s time might not have been likely to see Cathy as haunting Heathcliff because she was waiting for him to join her, but because she was angry and didn’t want him to steal her daughter’s inheritance. Interestingly, the director William Wyler did not want to include the famous ending with the ghost of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off towards Peniston Crag (I guess so they can be perpetual flower children with their heather), which cements the film’s romantic status. It is a rather upbeat ending for a man who destroyed everyone else’s lives.

I’m ranting a bit. As I said, it’s really not a bad movie; I was simply frustrated. Perhaps I will be able to enjoy it more on a second viewing now that I have gotten my rant out of my system. I am really curious, though, to read the book and see how Brontë portrays Heathcliff. I have it coming now from the library!

thCKCSG6YONotes: The score by Alfred Newman is simply lovely and haunting, with his theme for Cathy being especially notable. Here is a link to the violinist Itzhak Perlam performing the theme with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Olivier credited Wyler with showing him him how to adapt his acting style for the stage to that of the screen. He helped him tone down some of the expansiveness of his acting and also to get over his initial contempt for the movies, as opposed to the stage. Wyler thought that making movies was a wonderful art form and Olivier apparently came to agree with him.

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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Movies


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