A rare valentine’s day treat for me when Katy suggested (not just “went along with” – suggested!) a Powell/Pressburger double-feature. Maybe she was jealous after reading up on the good times I had watching the previous double-feature by myself, or maybe it’s because I’ve been complaining for three years that we never finished watching The Red Shoes last time, or maybe she just likes me.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Movie wastes no time, with David Niven (his post-war return to film, previously in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights and Dodsworth) mid-plane-crash having a smooth, romantic radio conversation with a visibly upset Kim Hunter (of The Seventh Victim, later A Streetcar Named Desire), each photographed in close-up with washes of color behind them. He turns up on a heavenly beach, safely alive sans parachute, then finds his radio girl and they fall in love, the end.
BUT WAIT, Niven was supposed to be dead, so a French-accented representative of heaven (Marius Goring of the Archers’ The Spy In Black) comes down to collect him. Niven argues that his situation has changed since he fell in love on his borrowed time and challenges the system to let him live. This is hardly precedented, but heaven agrees to give it a go. Niven consults with his new girl’s doctor friend Roger Livesey (star of I Know Where I’m Going!, and it’s nice to see him again) regarding which dead man Niven should employ as legal counsel in his heavenly trial versus the rabidly anti-British prosecuting attorney Raymond Massey (the soldier in the final scene of 49th Parallel). Movie has exquisite color, innovative production design and Roger Livesey, but it’s turning out to be another propagandistic (allied U.S./Britain need to get along) war story, and one with angels, no less. Angel movies are never good.
BUT WAIT, new layers are added, as Niven is suspected by the doctor of having brain damage from his fall and is rushed into operation, so the whole heaven business might be in his mind. The doctor, trying to summon an ambulance on his motorcycle, dies in a crash and becomes Niven’s attorney in angel-court. Not particularly nationalist, no theologian, just a very smart and logical man who helps Niven get out of heavenly trouble while the brain surgeon is saving him on earth, leading to the inevitable happy ending.
I ended up liking it an awful lot. Another movie, so soon after watching Magnificent Obsession, that hinges on the untimely death of a doctor. Niven’s painfully-British dead buddy, awaiting him in stark, black-and-white heaven, was played by Robert Coote (of The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and Welles’ Othello), all hanging out with the future Sister Ruth, Kathleen Byron. Somehow, even though I’ve seen his brother in a TV series 60 years later, I didn’t recognize Richard Attenborough.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Another glorious-looking film from the Archers and Technicolor pioneer Jack Cardiff. A student composer (hey, it’s a blond Marius Goring, the Frenchman from the last movie) whose work is being stolen by his teacher Austin Trevor (of Alexander Korda’s The Lion Has Wings) ends up on the same production as ballerina Moira Shearer under the tutelage of passionate and ruthless director Boris Lermontov (Ophuls fave Anton Walbrook, also in 49th Parallel). Composer and Dancer fall in love, but her true love is dancing. Torn between the two (she wouldn’t have to be torn if she could be married and dance, but it never works that way), a tragic finale! Wonderful sad conclusion with Lermontov announcing Shearer’s demise before the curtain, the play performed with only a spotlight where she should be. Echoes the end of The Golden Coach, another climactic love vs. art decision with a final curtain announcement.
Of course the highlight is the Red Shoes performance, 15 minutes of ballet tricks enhanced with film tricks, one of the most thrilling cinematic montages in history. Besides that one acclaimed scene, movie mostly plays it straight, with believable characterization and classy (but not stifling oscar-classy) filmmaking, until the one bit of fiction crossover at the end, when the red shoes seem to cause Shearer to run from the play and throw herself in front of a train. Close-up on her face, horrified (recalling the finale of Black Narcissus), then a focus on the shoes during the whole run without showing her face again.
Robert Helpmann, who was awesome in Tales of Hoffmann (and apparently made his own movie of Don Quixote in the 70’s) is awesome here as well, as the lead company dancer opposite Shearer. Movie won some oscars, including best music, but surprisingly the composer didn’t get much work except for other Powell/Pressburger films. Maybe he wasn’t looking for any.
Katy liked the movies, but didn’t love them, and especially disliked the ending of Red Shoes. When asked what she would’ve preferred, she mysteriously replied “I like when we watch classic movies,” as if the Archers films seemed too contemporary.