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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Collector’s Choice: The Films of Michael Powell

After what has seemed like an eternity, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s outstanding 1946 wartime fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death, which played theatrically in Death-allergic America asStairway to Heaven, has been made available on home video, released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a two-platter The Collector’s Choice DVD set, The Films of Michael Powell, accompanied by Powell’s Age of Consent. Each film appears on a separate platter, and both have optional English and French subtitles.

Running 104 minutes, A Matter of Life and Death is a brilliantly Jungian adventure about a bomber pilot who survives a deadly crash, falls in love, and must then appeal for his right to continue to live at a tribunal in Heaven, because the angel who was originally supposed to grab him from the plane got lost in the English Channel fog. The film is riveting for several reasons, but firstly because the romance is established like lightning in the opening 20 minutes.David Niven is the pilot, and Kim Hunter is the traffic controller speaking to him on the wireless, as intense close-ups convey the immediate, unreserved sympathy they exchange with one another. Characters fall in love all of the time in the movies, but it is rare that you see and feel it happening so vividly. Then, there is the film’s design. The Heaven sequences contain a number of striking special effects, such as the indelible and often imitated ‘endless stairway,’ and are presented, deviously, in black and white, while the earthbound segments are in scrumptious, otherworldly Technicolor. There is another plot twist, best left to be discovered, that serves to give the story a legitimate foundation, and there is also a lengthy but wholly welcome digression into the political, social and moral differences between England and America (which also parallel the ‘Heaven and Earth’ dichotomy). While never lessening the power of the romance, then, the film compiles philosophical exploration, phantasmagorical stimulation, visual glorification, comical respites and a transcendent patriotism, which equates loving one’s country to loving mankind. Despite components that would be the downfall of almost any other movie-along with everything else, one effete male character wears lipstick-the film is not only utterly captivating from beginning to end, it is also endlessly rewatchable and, having already proven to entertain viewers well beyond its own wartime era, will endure, thanks to its preservation and celebration upon DVD, for time immemorial.

The picture is presented as it was shot, in full screen format only. The color sequences are eye-popping. Some of the black-and-white segments have minor background flaws, but the impurities do not interfere with a viewer’s concentration. The monophonic sound is reasonably solid and clear. Martin Scorsese supplies an 8-minute introduction to the film and to Powell and Pressburger’s work as a whole. There is also a commentary track by film historian Ian Christie, who focuses on the movie’s artistic meanings and says less about the production and how some of the effects were staged, although he does touch upon those matters from time to time. The talk works as a decent introduction to the film and its complexities, and also explains its historical context. Christie points out that the death of a key character is followed by a scene of ‘optimism and enthusiasm.’ “It’s really part of the film’s great success that it completely persuades us that we should see this as something which all the characters want to happen. It’s an affirmation of the importance of the continuity between life and death. It’s something which probably owes a lot to the experience of the war, when many experienced violent death around them, and often took comfort from the idea that those who had physically died were somehow not lost, their sacrifice had not been in vain. I think that A Matter of Life and Death is taking that idea and using it to breathe new life into what could have been a rather banal idea, the idea that America and Britain should build upon wartime sacrifices to create a new alliance, a new understanding in the post-war world.”

If you intend to watch the movies together, it is probably best to put on Age of Consent first, and to take a healthy intermission before going on to a masterpiece such as A Matter of Life and Death. In many ways, the two films are exact opposites of one another except that Powell made both of them (one, of course, in collaboration with Pressburger, and one without). The 1969 Consent was shot on location on the other side of the world, in tropical islands off the coast of Australia, and the cinematography, although attractive, is always at the partial mercy of available light and other uncontrollable conditions. Its natural graininess is pointedly contrasted to the studio smoothness of Life and Death, just as is its wandering narrative stands in contrast to the tightly structured Life and Death plot. James Mason stars as an artist whose creativity is renewed when he moves to a sparsely inhabited island (there are apparently just three other people on it, all women) and meets a nubile teenager played, in one of her first feature film appearances, by Helen Mirren. Running 106 minutes, the film’s appeal also differs from the attractions of Life and Death. To be philosophical about it, although Life and Death is about the infinite, it has a very finite narrative and artistic design, while Consent, which is about the finite, has an open-ended story (its freeze-frame conclusion is a surprise because you assume the plot is going to continue for another act) and loose design. One is about Heaven and the other is about heaven on earth. One is about romance, and one is about lust. Where Life and Death comes from an era of strict moral guidelines, Consent comes from the ‘free love’ era and contains substantial nudity. Hence, while there is enough narrative to keep a viewer involved, what really makes Age of Consent enjoyable is simply its ability to transport the viewer, emotionally, to its realistic fantasy locale (even today, we wouldn’t mind getting stuck on a deserted island with Mirren, but back when she was in her early twenties?-oo-la-la!). Just as Mason’s character finds his muse in the placement of Mirren’s character, naked, amid paradisiacal surroundings, so does Powell achieve the same inspiration placing the naked Mirren in the same environment, thus doubling the power of the spiritual requiescence the film can instill with receptive viewers.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. As is mentioned above, some of the shots are a little grainy and the cinematography, in general, has a makeshift, natural feel, but the picture transfer is lovely, with bright, fresh hues and crisp details. The monophonic sound can seem distorted if it is amplified too much, but works fine at a modest volume. Along with a passable 5-minute introduction by Scorsese, there is a terrific 12-minute interview with Mirren, an excellent 10-minute interview with Ron and Valerie Taylor, who did the underwater footage (with Mirren swimming cringe-inducingly naked amid the sharp coral), and a fine 17-minute retrospective featurette that contains interviews with other artists who participated in creating the film.

Additionally, there is an excellent commentary track by film historian Kent Jones, who may not have actually been on the shoot, but seems to know every detail of every day of the film’s creation. Interestingly, he sometimes infers that Mirren was as youthful and naïve as her character, although clearly she was not, and both he and Mirren claim that Age of Consentwas her first film, even though she had appeared in a couple of other shows previously, including Peter Hall’s outstanding Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although he does not draw similarities between the film and Mason’s other movies where he played an older man involved with a younger woman-Lolita and Georgy Girl come to mind immediately-he does place the film effectively in the context of Powell’s other works and explains the thematic links to Powell’s general artistic concerns. Most importantly, however, Jones serves as a tour guide, sharing stories, pointing out details and allowing the viewer to re-visit the film with a purpose, and then leaving the viewer enlightened, and ready to go back and experience it yet again.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh

I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke,’ something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de HeilbronnHe developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.”
~ Dan Sallitt