Monday, 30 July 2018

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on the latest restoration, published so far only by Criterion, of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)

Kim Hunter
Kim Hunter as June (above top two screens), David Niven as Peter Carter (below), Marius Goring as Conductor 71 with far too much pancake and lippy (further below), muttering in this shot "one is starved for Technicolor up there". And Roger Livesey as Doctor Frank (lowest) in the new Criterion Blu-ray of Powell & Pressburger's first post-war movie, A Matter of Life and Death from 1946. 
David Niven
This gorgeous new transfer is taken from a brand new 4K restoration, taken itself from Sony's 2004 photochemical film restoration which itself was, in every video incarnation terribly weak and thin in that encode of the original elements. The new disc, so far only released in Region A stateside by Criterion with licencing from Sony and Park Circus is the first and only Blu so far. The disc is what can barely adequately be called a total killer. 
Marius Goring
The movie is held in huge regard by many P&P enthusiasts, although I have never cared for it nearly as much as several other works from their canon. The top of my own Powell pile sees I Know Where I'm Going and The Red Shoes, with Blimp and Peeping Tom close behind. But I won't bang on about that, although I do feel the sheer emotional weight of post-war drama and recovery, and the need for encouragement for Britain in the face of a forthcoming decade of austerity is what grounds, but also overwhelms AMOLAD's screenplay. 
Roger Livesey
One of the most interesting conceits in the film is, in fact, Powell and Presssburger's tactic of portraying the war torn here and now in near-delirious three-strip Technicolor, and the imaginary "after life" or " heaven" to which Niven as Peter Carter is being pulled back to as relatively Public Service black and white, furnished nonetheless with pre chromatic white telephone style art deco design. 
It's rarely mentioned, even in the context of this movie but Powell has been described politically, even by himself as a Tory in Labour clothing. God knows why after how many run-ins with Churchill during the war, not least the cuts Churchill demanded and got of "German-friendly" material from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. 
And thus does Powell accommodate his split social personality in AMOLAD, with a luscious present tense set in the domain of the high chromatic color movie, and a near future social order from incoming Labour socialist Clement Atlee, drawn in HG Wellsian Black and White for the new Prime Minister, who would take Britain beyond and away from both Churchill and the war. Along with Atlee of course came the beginnings of Welfare State Britain - one of the greatest of all social passages in modern history as it turns out, including the establishment of the NHS.
For the rest Pressburger's screenplay for AMOLAD feels to me unduly speechifying, and this tendency creates a very leaden last act with the dramatically porridgy Heavenly "courtroom" sequence in which Peter's fate is decided by a quasi-United Nations of figures, all long gone, in various layers of historical drag. Passages like this sit like dead weight when compared to so many other genuinely felicitous, even sublime passages written by Pressbuger over the years, such as the long single take with Anton Walbrook in Blimp during which he is interrogated by the immigration officials and explains what it is to be a "refugee". That five minutes of screen time never leaves a dry eye in the house, for very good reason. 
But for AMOLAD fans, and they are legion, this is a completely flawless new restoration of a very much adored movie that is going to make for very, very happy viewers.

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