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David Niven

Blu-ray: A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.

Criterion Collection

The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

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Review: Death on the Nile

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

If your friendly neighbourhood TV station or film society is tonight showing an uncut print of  Clair’s And Then There Were None or Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, you need not miss such delights in favour of Death on the Nile. But if not, you could do worse than attend. Made by the same producers as Sidney Lumet’s  1974 Murder on the Orient Express, it has, however, a different screenwriter, a different director and a different Hercule Poirot; and the difference shows. Although Jack Cardiff – who seems finally to have realized that it’s better to be a good cameraman than a bad director – gives us plenty of tourist-spot imagery up and down the banks of the Nile, with romance at the Sphinx, romantic torment at Abu Simbel and derring-do elsewhere, the film as a whole doesn’t slam gloss into the viewer’s eye the way Orient Express did, and if the starpower on display is of a marginally lower voltage than previously, the leading lights certainly give off enough energy to keep us all bright. Above all, Peter Ustinov as Hercule P. floats along in the Agatha Christie mystery soup quite serenely, whereas Albert Finney, padded and beeswaxed to the nines, felt obliged to attack the material with a funambulistic gusto.

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Review: Rough Cut

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

A gas burner fills a huge balloon with hot air, sending it adrift above a palatial estate, whose lawn mills with partying rich folk: a suitable image to begin Rough Cut, a lightweight entertainment that insists on consorting with only the richest tastes. Don Siegel is poaching on Blake Edwards territory here, and we don’t need Burt Reynolds imitating Cary Grant, or David Niven imitating himself, to remind us that the line that links To Catch a Thief with Rough Cut cuts straight through The Pink Panther. Counterpointing the Big Caper—which really doesn’t get underway until past midfilm—is the burgeoning love of Reynolds’s Jack Rhodes (even the name implies a kinship with Hitchcock—Grant’s John Robie) for rich kleptomaniac Gillian Bromley (Lesley-Anne Down). The film is at pains to make her as icy and unpredictable as her Grace Kelly/Claudia Cardinale counterparts, but the effort is strained by a script bankrupt for new ideas. Gillian says, “I steal things … because it’s exciting and dangerous,” and Jack proceeds to assure her that it’s “to fill a void in your life.” They don’t imply that she’s sexually unfulfilled, they just say so; and the sex motif is carried through with a string of double entendres that are hopelessly lame, not because they aren’t appropriate to the characters and the situation, but simply because they are so old and unfunny. A line like “I have to go now, something just came up” no longer draws snickers or even hohums, but dumbfound amazement that someone would still think it clever. The plot itself so slavishly follows genre formula that the “surprise” ending is tipped off well in advance, even though its justification is confined to a single comment on the part of … well, the operative character.

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Review: The Sea Wolves

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Time was when people talked (pretty foolishly) about Andrew V. McLaglen as heir to the mantle of John Ford, and the name of Howard Hawks has been known to surface as a reference point, too. The Sea Wolves, however, demonstrates an affinity with the world of British hackdom, with J. Lee Thompson and Terence Young at their ropiest. Remove from the film a dash of sex and one naughty cussword (“shit”, exclaimed twice) and you have a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. A successor to action-packed yawn-provokers such as Young’s The Red Beret (American title: Paratrooper) or Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone, it finds room for more cliches than any war film since Where Eagles Dare; but unlike that film, it lacks any sense of redeeming self-mockery. Its gall stimulates first a sort of glazed disbelief, then a kind of punch-drunk regression to the cinemagoing attitudes of one’s childhood, so that the sheer ineptitude of the film on all kinds of levels becomes almost soothing. Certainly it hands us a large number of unintended laughs, though one has to wait until the end credits for the richest, when card after card iterates desperately that what we’ve just seen was a true story, when no child over ten will believe that a single frame of it. Just to rub it in, three of the actors get their photos juxtaposed with those of the  dissimilar real-life people they portray.

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