A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.
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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
Kirk Douglas becomes yet another star to learn he ought to stay in front of the camera. His directorial debut lacks style, wit, pace, visual distinction, common sense—lacks even naïveté, which might have proved at least modestly winning. Indeed, the picture serves up some very ugly doses of casual death-dealing by a motley crew of constantly guffawing pirates who, with peglegged Douglas in the lead, scramble around Alta California in pursuit of treasure and G-rated good times. The suburban audience I saw Scalawag with had come mostly for the second-run cofeature, Charlotte’s Web, to judge by remarks overheard, but they responded to Douglas’s shambling efforts with that programmed laughter they learn from canned tracks on TV. As a performer, Douglas has usually fared best as some kind of scoundrel (his best performance, Lonely Are the Brave, is a conspicuous exception), especially such early triumphs as the malevolent, latently homosexual gangster in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) and the Machiavellian producer in Minnelli’s TheBad and the Beautiful (1952), as Howard Hawks observed in connection with TheBigSky (also ’52), when he tries to sell himself as a nice guy he is less than convincing. Scalawag asks us to delight in a nice scoundrel, but director Douglas leaves actor Douglas stranded. Keep Reading
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
This first version of the historical adventure / pirate movie (it was remade in 1958 by Anthony Quinn) stars Fredric March as Jean Lafitt, the flamboyant French-born privateer (he preferred the term over pirate) who fought side-by-side with General Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812.
Cecil B. DeMille plays fast and loose with his history, as usual, but he also has more fun with the story than in many of his big historical spectacles, making Lafitte both a sly scoundrel with a brazen defiance of authority and a patriot who sides with the Americans against the British even though they have put a price on his head. March’s Lafitte may have one of the worst French accents ever heard on screen, but he is a commanding and charismatic leader who rouses his men to the American cause even after they have been double-crossed by the Louisiana Governor. The obligatory romantic subplot has Lafitte courting a high society belle while a cute Dutch girl (Franciska Gaal) moons over Lafitte after he rescues her from a rogue pirate who defies orders and attacks an American ship, a breach that Lafitte ultimately must take responsibility for.
The rest is a paean to the multicultural collection of characters who make up the American melting pot, including Akim Tamiroff’s lovable, loyal rogue of a second-in-command to Lafitte and Walter Brennan as Jackson’s buckskin-clad aide-de-camp. DeMille’s films had a tendency to get bloated and starchy as his budgets and scope grew but this has a lively energy to it, thanks to a plot full of betrayals and battles, a cast of larger-than-life characters (including Hugh Sothern as a hearty, earthy Jackson), and a snappy script full of playful dialogue. It even, dramatic license and romantic fictions aside, keeps to the broad strokes of history. All of which makes for one of DeMille’s more rousing productions. The print shows some wear, mostly light vertical scratches, but no serious damage, and the sound is fine.
Girl on a Motorcycle (Kino/Redemption)
A very sixties portrayal of one woman’s sexual liberation. Girl on a Motorcycle could be the mod Euro answer to Easy Rider with a sexy young Marianne Faithfull in the saddle. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Naked Under Leather, which is not particularly poetic but is accurate: she climbs naked from the marriage bed and dons the skin-tight leather bodysuit in the opening scene. As she rides her Harley Davidson Electra Glide from her home in France, where she lives with her devoted but dull and unadventurous schoolteacher husband (Roger Mutton), across the border to visit her lover (Alain Delon), a seductive professor of literature who gave her the bike as a wedding gift, her story plays out in a succession of flashbacks, sexual fantasies, and kitschy psychedelic imagery. Those acid-drenched neon video shades of purple and orange and green take over whenever she makes love with Delon, which has the unintended effect of turning sex into a bad psychedelic trip. Stream-of-consciousness narration fills in the rest of her sexual vision quest across the border of conformity. Faithfull is not much of an actress but she is a marvelous presence, not classically pretty yet quite beautiful, slipping between coquettish girl and experienced woman in a matter of seconds.
[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 orWilder’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 Expressdid, 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.