Our next screenings are Powell & Pressburger 'A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH' Sunday 8th Jan 15:30 & Thursday Jan 19:30 & Howard Hawks 'BRINGING UP BABY' Sunday 29th Jan 14:15 @ THE CASTLE CINEMA
Get your tickets: HERE
A Matter of Life and Death is the utterly unique, enduringly rich and strange romantic fantasia from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. You could put it in a double bill with It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz, though its pure English differentness would shine through. It was released in 1946, the same year that Winston Churchill coined the term “special relationship” – an idea that the film finds itself debating. With that concept now under pressure, 2017 is a good time for this classic to be rereleased in UK cinemas.
The film begins with a sensational flourish: a nuclear explosion that destroys a solar system. We start by drifting through outer space, accompanied by a droll narrative voice, commenting on its vastness and noticing a sudden supernova way in the distance: “Someone must have been messing about with the uranium atom.” The eerie casualness of that revelation sets the otherworldly tone for the rest of what follows. The starlit expanse, the intertitles, the distant detonation, the huge quasi-senatorial valhalla, all hint at where George Lucas got ideas for the Star Wars movies.
Then we find ourselves on Earth in 1945, where RAF pilot Peter Carter, played by David Niven, is flying back to Britain after a bombing raid, losing height, badly hit. He has presumably been attacking German cities, and it has to be noticed that Germans are not represented here, either in this world, or the next. Carter’s parachute has been damaged; he knows he is going to die, and with impossibly dashing flair, he radios his final position to an astonished American radio operator called June, played by Kim Hunter, asks her to contact his family and flirts with her. June and Peter fall in love at that moment.
The miracle is that Peter seems to survive, staggering out of the sea. He finds June, and with the help of a local doctor, Frank Reeves, played by the incomparable Powell/Pressburger stalwart Roger Livesey, he is gradually nursed back to health. Yet an emissary from heaven, in the form of a dandified pre-revolutionary French aristocrat played by Marius Goring, informs Peter that his survival is a mere clerical error and he is expected back in the afterlife right away. Peter complains that now he has fallen in love he is entitled to remain below. A huge trial is in prospect, and a prosecuting counsel is chosen: American revolutionary veteran Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), who intends to argue that this decadent Brit has no business with a good American girl. Frank believes that these heavenly visions are delusions caused by his brain injury and everything – or almost everything – is consistent with that rational explanation. But how did Peter survive the fall?
A Matter of Life and Death is a visually extraordinary film: a gorgeous artificiality is created by Alfred Junge’s production design and Jack Cardiff’s vivid Technicolor photography. Counterintuitively, the heaven scenes are in black and white and Earth is in colour. The modernist architecture of heaven is something to rival Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the “stairway to heaven” sequence (which gave this film its US title) is narcotically weird. Even down on Earth, and without the angelic visits, things have a distinct surreality. Frank likes nothing more than to keep the village under benign surveillance with his camera obscura device, evidently kept on a high rotating turret, which gives him live pictures of everything that’s happening in the village. He is like the voice and eye of an all-seeing God. And perhaps the most extraordinary moment comes when Peter encounters a naked young goatherd on the beach: it is this figure – like someone from a late Shakespeare play, such as The Tempest – who tells Peter that he is back on Earth. (The boy’s nakedness meant that this sequence was cut for TV transmission by prim US networks; Martin Scorsese has spoken entertainingly of his periodic exasperation at sitting down to watch and finding it is the bowdlerised version.)
So what does this film have to say about the special relationship? The speechifying on the subject of history and politics might disconcert some viewers who would rather hear and see more about Peter and June’s romantic adventure. But Powell and Pressburger are telling America and the world that just as Squadron Leader Peter Carter does not want go to heaven, so Britain itself is not dead; it does not deserve to be consigned to history along with those effete and irrelevant periwigged Frenchmen. Britain lives – in partnership with America.
I have watched this film many times, but it was only on sitting down to it again that I finally realised what Frank Reeves’s death reminded me of. Riding his motorbike fast in the rain, Dr Reeves had selflessly swerved in order to save the lives of the ambulancemen and their patient, conveying Peter to hospital. His sacrifice means that he can go to heaven to be Peter’s defending counsel. How should we feel about this terrible event? I had a flashback to a long-suppressed memory of reading CS Lewis’s The Last Battle, the final Narnia episode, in which Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Diggory and Polly are revealed to be killed in a train crash, along with the Pevensie parents, and so they can be admitted to eternal life. It was a profoundly strange happy-sad collision. So is this. - Peter Bradshaw, Guardian, 2017
A Matter of Life and Death Deserves a Place on Your Holiday Watch-list Alongside It’s A Wonderful Life
BRINGING UP BABY
Screwball comedy is defined by the eccentric characters, unconventional situations, slapstick, mishaps, sexual chemistry and snappy repartee of this landmark jape. Staples of the genre an absent-minded professor, a madcap heiress, a contrary animal (or three in this case), a large sum of money being sought, pratfalls, cocktails, false identity, a pursuit, a car crash, an unwanted fiancee, and absurd confusion are all present in mint condition in Howard Hawks' breakneck-paced, maniacally funny picture; written by one of the top screenwriters of the 30s, Dudley Nichols (an Oscar winner for the John Ford drama The Informer (1935).
The earnest, easily muddled palaeontologist in need of some fun, Dr. David Huxley (Grant) is awaiting the last bone to complete the brontosaurus he has laboured four years to reconstruct. It is to arrive on the morrow, his wedding day. Fiancee and assistant Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), a prim bluestocking scold, sends him off to play golf with the lawyer of a potential benefactor, to schmooze for a million dollar grant to continue his project at the natural history museum. But Huxley's efforts on the golf course become a shambles when he encounters blithe and playful, "conceited, spoiled little scatterbrain" Susan Vance (Hepburn). And that's just the first five minutes. Give her 24 hours and disaster instigator Susan is going to turn David's life upside down.
Baby is the tame leopard Susan's brother has shipped from his hunting expedition in Brazil (just the sort of thing the idle rich do in 30s films). The only information that comes with him is that Baby likes dogs (whether as food or for companionship poses a later relevant question) and music, particularly I Can't Give You Anything But Love. He also likes mauling the hapless professor Huxley, as does Susan, who is determined to have him and keep him near when she discovers how handsome he is without his academic specs on.
Thus he is shanghaied to convey Baby to Susan's aunt's farm in Connecticut where after the obligatory collision with a poultry truck, car theft and the swiping of David's clothes she is revealed as the wealthy philanthropist. Meanwhile, her fiendish fox terrier George steals and buries the brontosaurus clavicle (somewhere in a 26-acre garden), Susan frees a man-killing leopard she's mistaken for the missing Baby and most of the ensemble are jailed in noisy pandemonium.
Countless films have imitated Bringing Up Baby, most famously Peter Bogdanovich's homage What's Up, Doc? (1972), but it is
futile to look for its equal. Hawks, a master of any genre, was one of the innovators of deliriously frantic, overlapping dialogue; only His Girl Friday (1940 also Hawks) can claim faster talking. Hepburn and Grant, who made four films together, are a peerless partnership in the departments of good looks, charm and comic timing, throwing themselves down slopes, into water holes, atop a dinosaur and into love like no-one else. Highlights include Susan, unaware David's foot is on her hem, stomping off minus the back of her lame gown, forcing a tandem silly walk out of a club to cover her exposed drawers; Susan and David harmonizing I Can't Give You Anything But Love to a sulking Baby on the roof, over a Viennese psychiatrist who's already convinced they're insane; and the enraged David aggressively accosting stately Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) while he's wearing nothing but a marabou-trimmed negligee.
The special effects, devised by Linwood Dunn, deserve a mention since, even today, the interplay between Grant, Hepburn, the pooch, the recalcitrant Baby, and his deadly double, looks hilariously real. The leopard was filmed separately and put together with his co-stars by means of a travelling matte, blended split-screen technique. Look very closely when Hepburn drags the snarling beast into the police station (actually she was heaving a prop man tied to her rope), and you may just glimpse the ghost image of another rope (the underlay footage of the trainer pulling the leopard).
Bringing Up Baby, which cost about a million dollars to make, did not find favour with audiences on its first release and actually lost about $365,000. Hepburn's latest of several flops, it ended her work at RKO. She moved back to New York for two years, returning in possession of the rights to film The Philadelphia Story, for which she chose Grant to partner her in a triumphant comeback at MGM. Ironically, as RKO declined, Bringing Up Baby's popularity grew alongside its reknown as "the definitive screwball comedy". And so did Hepburn's fortune. The savvy star owned a piece of it.
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