Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Five

I Walked With A Zombie - continued (part three)

The rest of the film is essentially a working out of the consequences of this visit, which is really also the catalyst to finish the story which had been frozen in an uneasy stasis for some time. The completion of Sir Lancelot’s calypso (‘now you must see that my song is sung’) as well as a working out of historical forces long contained, but whose pressure has steadily built up. Back at the Holland Fort, Paul is there to meet Betsy and there is a recommencement of the romantic piano music which reminds us of the evening of their brief moment of connection. Paul tells her that he has no desire to have Jessica back, but that it’s like her to see things in such simple and goodhearted way; as near to a declaration of love as he can muster. This moment of elliptical tenderness is inevitably cut short once more by the intervention of the drums.

The following morning, Alma lets slip to Betsy that the voodoo sword priest is ‘making trouble’. As Paul puts it, the islanders want her back for their ‘ritual tests’. They have a doll dressed like Jessica at the ready. The island commissioner is also closing in on the Hollands, suggesting Jessica be sent to an asylum for her own safety. Carrefour is meanwhile given the doll by the sabreman and instructed to bring her back. His big dumb eyes are wide with programmed need. The sound of the drums now forms a direct connection between hounfort and Fort Holland.

Paul meanwhile confesses to Betsy that he has tried to destroy her feeling of enchantment, from the moment on the boat taking them to the island onwards. ‘I was trying to hurt you’, he confesses. He has seen that love can be ‘fine and sweet’ and fears destroying it, and thus wants her to leave ‘so long as I have this fear of myself’. This again leaves a huge gulf of ambiguity. Is his perverse attitude towards love and feelings of attachment a result of his having been hurt by Jessica and Wes, or was the presence of such a twisted outlook what caused them to turn to each other in the first place? The fact that Lewton tended to cast Tom Conway in the role of characters attracted towards the darker side of love (notably his Dr Judds in Cat People and The Seventh Victim) merely adds to the uncertainty.

Betsy sleeps in Jessica’s room this night, keeping guard underneath Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead. Once again, Lewton and Tourneur create a beautiful sense of a night infused with the atmospheres of the uncanny and otherworldly. A curtain sweeps against the harp, the wind reaching in to play a chord as it had blown hollow notes through the occarina earlier. The dry, hot wind is, as noted earlier, like an embodiment of emotions and buried histories which remain unspoken by human voice. Its playing of chords on these different instruments from separate cultures also serves to link the interiors of Fort Holland with the world of the islanders. The shadow of Carrefour is cast against Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead painting in a wonderful poetic image (it makes a great still) which once again serves to link separate cultures, as well as highlighting their different approaches to death. Carrefour’s shadow blends with those cast by the curlicued ironwork of the gates. This furthers the idea of the play of shadows being an intimation of a world beyond, a parallel reality tenuously glimpsed through its reflections. Jessica will later pass through the real gates which cast these shadows to walk to her death.

When Betsy goes out into the garden to investigate, and the nocturnal mood is created by the silence and the light on the paving stones leading to the deep blackness of the entrance to the tower, which is open. Night creatures look on dispassionately; an owl and a frog, which plops into the pond. Carrefour appears from the tower, his shuffling feet sounding loud in the deathly quiet. As Paul appears, he stumbles towards him, arms held out in an almost imploring manner. It takes Mrs Rand’s appearance to dismiss him by commandingly addressing him by his true name. A close up of his face reveals a look of blankly despairing hunger before he disappears into the night.

The next morning brings the news that the Commissioner is to instigate a legal investigation. This forces the hand of events and causes Mrs Rand to make her confession. Her statement that Jessica is dead and that she was responsible is an admission that for her voodoo is more than a set of primitive beliefs which she employs to achieve her benevolent ends. If you take on the integuments of a culture and religion, you cannot remain wholly apart from it; it will affect your way of being in the world. Mrs Rand claims that she asked the houngun to make Jessica a zombie because she ‘was beautiful and used that to tear her family apart’. Again, we get a highly coloured and subjective view of Jessica as a femme fatale, but from a mother who will obviously tend to favour her sons. Besides, her moral authority and objectivity is somewhat undermined by her admission that her unconscious was so filled with hate for her that it prompted this murderous impulse. Her mendacity in using the power of the houngun for her own purposes, no matter how well intended, also muddy the waters of truth and further serves to indicate the complex moral universe which Lewton depicts.

Back at the hounfort, the sabreman draws Jessica’s doll towards him on a thread, and Jessica correspondingly moves outwards towards the gates. Again, the reality of the supernatural seems to be confirmed. Wesley is on the outside of the gates which bar Jessica’s way and seems lost in a zombie-like reverie himself. ‘They have charms that can draw a man half way around the world’ he intones, clearly now a believer. Paul calls it ‘cheap mummery’, but as the drums stop and Jessica can once more be controlled, his words seem to have been instantly mocked. But he will not depart from his cold rationality, his remark that ‘I saw nothing that would convince a sober man’ acting as denial and putdown in one.

After another use of the Saint Sebastian statue as punctuation and signifier of sorrow and suffering, Betsy comes into the garden to comfort a disconsolate Wesley, who tries to convince her to commit euthanasia on Jessica. She refuses, because ‘her heart beats, she breathes’. She doesn’t go as far as to say ‘she lives’. A shadowy screenwipe (a blackout?) reveals Wes alone at a table. The drums start up again and Jessica comes out of her tower and drifts over to the gate. Wes opens it for her and deliberately walks over to the statue of Saint Sebastian, pulling one of the arrows out of it with some effort. We cut to the sabreman skewering Jessica’s doll, before Wes is seen rising from Jessica’s corpse on the sands, arrow in hand. It is as if his actions have been directed, predetermined. He seems as much a puppeteered figure as Jessica. He carries her out into the sea as Carrefour approaches, and the pitiful zombie is left with open arms empty, hunger unfulfilled, outlined against the horizon and then the sand as the waves crash against his bare feet. His story is unresolved. The closing of the circle which his seeking of Jessica represented has not been completed. The failure seems to be as much on the part on the voodoo priest as on Wesley. The symbolism of the use of Ti-Misery/Saint Sebastian’s arrow to kill Jessica seems to be not so much to put an end to the sorrow as to mark its continuation. After all, there are arrows left, and the statue still gushes its watery tears.

As the fishermen bear the corpses of Jessica and Wesley into the courtyard in a very religiose procession, a solemn preacher’s voice intones a summation of their fall in terms of old testamentary moral absolutism; ‘she was dead in the selfishness of her spirit - the man followed her – her steps led him down to evil’. But what we have seen leads us to reject such a crassly spelled out interpretation, which stands as an ironically inappropriate summation. As the unknown preacher utters his final prayer, asking the lord to ‘forgive them who are dead and give peace and happiness to the living’, we focus on Betsy and Paul embracing. But the camera then zooms in on the statue of Saint Sebastian, and this is the image with which we are left. It’s body is still pierced by two arrows (Betsy and Paul?) and the water still pours over it. The water which reminds us that this was the figurehead at the prow of a slave ship. Sorrow and unhappiness still prevail.

This takes us back to the beginning. Unconnected as the opening scene of Betsy walking with Carrefour seemed at the time, in retrospect it seems to offer some kind of resolution which offers a counterbalance to the pessimism of the actual ending. The ease with which Betsy strolls along the tideline with this shambling giant seems to suggest a genuine engagement with island culture. It is an engagement which it was hinted that Jessica also enjoyed and to which Mrs Rand had also partly committed herself. But Mrs Rand had maintained a distance measured by her assumed superiority. Betsy came to the island essentially as another household servant, with no moral agenda for ‘saving’ the souls of the islanders as Mrs Rand, the wife of a missionary, had done. Betsy’s openness and lack of social pretensions or ambitions make her a figure who offers the possibility of rapprochement, of reconciliation on both a personal and historical level. She is another of Lewton’s strong female figures, who both act decisively for their own part, and galvanise the male characters to rise from their melancholic stupour. It is perhaps significant that she comes from the neutral country of Canada, rather than from the Old or New Worlds of England or America, both of whom are seen as tainted with the blood of colonialists using slave labour. In a sense, her romantic viewpoint, delusionary though it may often be, also marks a determination to see the world in the best light possible. In so far as we set about creating the ideal worlds which our imaginations envisage, this is preferable to the fatalistic acceptance of decay and decadence (in the style of French writers like Baudelaire) which Paul has adopted, and which excuses him from the need to act . He has shown signs of being drawn into the orbit of Betsy’s world-view, of resigning his need to control all the elements of his world. In the beginning lies the ending, then, and the hope for a closing of the circular retelling of a sorrowful story.

next...The Leopard Man

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Best British Film Ever Made - Part Five

5. A Universal Scale
The opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death finds us drifting calmly through the gulfs of interstellar space. A soothing, amiable English voice says ‘this is the Universe. Big, isn’t it?’ From the very first time I saw it, this overwhelmingly reminded me of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ Indeed, I feel certain that Douglas Adams paid homage to these lines in the rather more prolix introduction to his fictional encyclopaedia: ‘Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’ just peanuts to space. Listen….’

Opening a film in the furthest reaches of space is clearly not usual (unless you follow it with a giant spaceship roaring overhead) and immediately sets what is to follow in the widest possible context. Our interstellar tour guide shows us points of interest as our journey continues, including a star which explodes because people ‘must have been messing about with the uranium atom’. The feel is of a lighter-toned version of Olaf Stapledon’s overarching, disembodied tours of human and cosmological evolution and decline, ‘Last and First Men’ and ‘Star Maker’. These books were written as war was looming, necessitating in his mind an apologia and justification for such flights of speculative fantasy, which could also be applied to A Matter of Life and Death. The tour spirals in past the moon towards the Earth, plunging in through the cloud layer and into an English fog, before rooting itself to very particular specifics of date, time, place and historical moment. Thus we’ve been introduced in the most brilliantly imaginative way to the themes of universality and particularity which run through the film. The war seen from the god’s-eye view which we are granted seems as uninvolvingly tragic as the unknown planetary civilisation whose destruction we have passingly witnessed in the blink of an eye. But then we are in the cockpit of a flame-filled bomber, and listening to the distressed voice of a young American servicewoman. Suddenly it becomes personal and we start to care.

The use of immense scale is paradoxically employed to emphasise the importance of individual, ordinary lives. By showing us the vast and impersonal spaces of the universe, Powell and Pressburger show how precious and rare the personal and particular really are. In the court scene, we pull back from the massed ranks of the heavenly amphitheatre and as it grows more distant in perspective, we see that it is the retina in the eye of a spiral nebula.

The stairway which the court has taken to see the defendant (Peter) is a thin filament linking the impersonal level of celestial justice with the world of individual events, in this case Peter’s operation. One can almost imagine this staircase being cast like a fishing line across the cosmos, connecting with any of a myriad individuals or events. It is also like a perilously tenuous thread, at the end of which can be found three nurses, the fates who are attendant upon Peter’s life or death operation. When the court arrives at the operating theatre, colour in their cheeks for the first time, they tower over Peter, who stands at the foot of the staircase in RAF uniform once more, with poses of regal authority. And yet the power which they represent, which is the power of the universe we have been shown in all its immensity, is matched by the power of the individual here on earth. June’s gesture of self-sacrifice as she takes Peter’s place on the staircase at Dr Reeve’s behest (and with a stirring upsweep of Allan Gray’s score) brings the escalator to a juddering halt. The power of the heart, the tear on the rose, can counter the power of the law, the unerring mechanisms of the universe, as we knew all along in our own hearts.

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Four

I Walked With A Zombie - part two

Betsy’s first glimpse of her patient, Mrs Holland, the wife of Paul, comes when she sees her drifting through the night garden, white gown wafting behind her in the breeze in a spectral fashion. The tower to which she glides is a classic gothic folly, which looks like it has been uprooted from the gardens of some early 19th century aristocrat’s house. It’s another artefact of the Old World which serves to root this home in an ineradicable past. As Betsy returns to her bed, there is a punctuating shot of the Ti Misery/Saint Sebastian statue. As with the drums, this will serve as a constant reminder of the realities which underpin the romance which is overwritten on the Holland home. They are the foundations which will give the form of tragedy to any attempt at creating something new.

In the first of the film’s atmospheric night walks, in which people move in a balletic way as if blown on otherwordly nocturnal breezes, Betsy follows the sound of sobbing into the dark tower. Here she comes face to face with the ghostly figure of Mrs Holland, who follows her up into the inky blackness of the stairwell. Again, the classic gothic elements are incongruously superimposed on the tropical setting, creating an effective counterpoint of cultural backdrops; Haunted ruins of ancient stone and the drums of voodoo ritual. In this environment, in which both have collided, they each inform each other. The ghost of the tower is a product of voodoo and voodoo itself is a reconfiguration of African beliefs with Catholic elements. The film itself is a stew of differing generic ingredients too, of course. The sense of an inverted world is underlined by Betsy’s discovery of the source of the sobbing. It is the maid Alma, who is crying for the birth of her sister’s child. She makes it plain what the statue of Saint Sebastian means for her and the island’s inhabitants: ‘our people came from the misery and pain of slavery. For generations they found life a burden. That’s why they still weep when a child is born and make merry at a burial.’

Betsy is awoken by Alma the following morning, and the following exchange shows the film at its most Rebecca-like. Alma brings breakfast just as she used to for Jessica (Mrs Holland) and her tone suggests that a closeness existed between the two. Alma is no Mrs Danvers, though, and is a friendly and warm presence. Her cheerful reference to Mrs Holland as ‘a great big doll’ shows an acceptance of tragedy as an everyday reality, to be accommodated into the daily routine.

Betsy meets Paul in her nurses uniform and stands up to him as expresses his doubts in a dismissive manner. She points out to him that if she were the terrified creature he is implying she is, she wouldn’t have gone alone into the dark tower. He warns her against the contagion of superstition, adding that ‘some people might let it get the better of them – I don’t think you will’. Clearly he has been won over.

We are introduced to Dr Maxwell, a genial and self-effacing character, who was a friend of Jessica’s. It is he who first utters the ‘z’ word, when he says ‘she makes a beautiful zombie’. His explanation gives us the rational diagnosis of her condition, a physician’s perspective which prefers to locate physical causes rather than metaphysical ailments. As Irena pointed out in Cat People, doctors don’t know how to treat illnesses of the soul. So Jessica has succumbed to a fever which burned out parts of her spinal cord. Our first glimpse into Jessica’s room also gives us a hint as to her personality. A rather opulent bed and neat dressing table, along with a harp. This latter could be merely ornamental or indicative of a thwarted artistic temperament. It is a traditionally female instrument synonymous with airy romanticism and music summoning up dreamily bucolic worlds of afternoon sun or moonlit waters. On the wall is a copy of Arnold Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead, perhaps indicating the morbid flipside of the Romantic personality, the preoccupation with mortality. It is another indication of the influence of the visual arts on Lewton’s imagination (we have already seen a Goya picture on Irena’s wall in Cat People) and will indeed lend its title and suggest the set design for his later film ‘Isle of the Dead’.

Having met her patient, Betsy has another encounter with Paul, who will evasively admit of his wife that ‘many people found her beautiful’. He asks Betsy whether she considers herself charming, and when she modestly replies that ‘I’ve never given it much thought’, he replies ‘don’t’ with cynical curtness. This is his elliptical way of suggesting that he feels his wife was full of narcissistic self-regard. But as ever in this repressed, claustrophobic family environment, nothing is ever directly stated.

Betsy takes time off in the town square, where she meets Wes. It becomes evident from his consumption of rum, which she is able to measure with her nurse’s eye for dosages, that he has a drink problem. Another unspoken family issue which she immediately addresses. It is here that we first hear of the tale behind the bitter sibling rivalry of the Holland brothers, as conveyed through the calypso sung by Sir Lancelot, an actor who will also appear in The Ghost Ship and The Curse of the Cat People (Lewton had something of a repertory company). His beautiful lilting and light-toned voice tells the story of Wes, Paul and Jessica. When he is informed that one of the subjects of his song is present, he stops and is terribly apologetic, but as Wes slumps into an alcoholic stupour and the evening shadows draw in, he resumes the tail in a faintly aggressive manner, apparently for Betsy’s benefit. The way it is evidently told by the islanders (through Alma?) Wes was seduced by Jessica ‘from up in her tower’, they wanted to leave the island together but Paul prevented them, and then the fever came which ‘burned her mind’. The last verses bring the story up to date with Betsy’s arrival; thus she is drawn into the story, and into the world of island gossip. The insistence of the calypso singer on finishing his song also indicates once more the way in which stories and histories, personal and collective, cannot be suppressed or erased from memory. It is also another subjective point of view. Our perspective on Jessica is warped by the fact that she is now absent from her own narrative. As with Welles’ Citizen Kane, we can only see her through other’s eyes, and the views we get are infused with the complex (multiplex?) cross-currents of personal and historical experience.

It is at this point that Mrs Rand, Paul and Wes’s mother, intervenes and saves Betsy from this song attack. She is an immediately sympathetic character, but we are beginning to sense that this is a world in which appearances and alliances are carefully cultivated. She asks Betsy to ‘use her influence’ over Paul to get the whisky decanter removed from the table, which suggests both that she has been keeping a close if remote eye on developments at the Fort, and that she can see beyond her elder son’s surface cynicism.

Paul’s immediate reaction to this request is to reply that ‘it’s always stood there’, a reflexive response which once more reveals the dead weight of tradition which hangs heavily over the house. Betsy once more refuses to acquiesce with the family in maintaining a stoic silence about any problems and directly addresses Wesley’s incipient alcoholism. Paul refuses to move the decanter, but nonetheless, come the next mealtime it is not there. Again, actions have to be taken by indirect routes in an a surreptitious fashion.

At the evening meal for which the whisky has been removed, tensions threaten to erupt. This emotionally charged scene is underpinned by the sound of the drums. These act once more as the underlying ground of reality which threatens to break through the effortfully maintained surface of repression and wilful blindness. The hot dry wind also acts as an externalised metaphor for the passions which Betsy’s presence is catalysing into action in the two brothers. As Sir Lancelot’s calypso suggested, the story which they had previously played out is a recurrent one, like a cyclical myth, and she is now enmeshed in it. The subject of voodoo is brought up for the first time here. Again, it is demystified and portrayed as a part of everyday life, as functional and almost banal. Betsy observes that ‘I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of’, to which Paul dismissively (and regretfully?) replies ‘I’m afraid it’s not very frightening’; Fear arising from cultural ignorance as much as from superstition.

Later that evening, Betsy watches Paul playing piano through the slats of the door. There seems to be little real privacy here, perhaps another reason behind the guarded nature of all the exchanges in the house. As Betsy enters the room, the piano music gains strings and becomes lushly romantic. Again, Betsy’s perspective seems to affect the atmosphere of the scene, and infuse it with her own fantasies. This time, Paul begins to comply, however. He reveals some of his inner torment, his fears that he drove his wife mad with his efforts to control her. In reply to Betsy’s attempts to comfort him, he darkly hints at his wife’s nature (or his perception of it) by saying ‘you never knew Jessica as she was’. The mood of intimacy is broken by the re-introduction of the drums, which occlude the romantic strings. The reality of the island replaces the hazy romanticism of Betsy’s projected fantasy, and Paul immediately snaps back into his former icy mode.

Betsy’s voiceover returns as she stands dramatically silhouetted on a wild shore at night. The hazy view of the rocks and sea, is seen as if through a romantic mist. It is distorted view through a fogged lens, and her determination to restore Jessica to Paul is based on the misconception which arises from this tendency to give romance priority over reality. This cure is first attempted scientifically, with Dr Maxwell’s kill or cure insulin shock treatment (it does neither) before Betsy hears from Alma of the doctors, or houngan, at the Houmfort, which is the voodoo central which is the island analogue of Fort Holland. Betsy’s ease as she joins with the islanders in admiring Alma’s sister’s baby is in contrast with the aloofness of the Holland brothers from all local life. Alma’s evident affection for Jessica displayed earlier indicates that she too may have stepped beyond the confines of the Holland compound and taken an interest in the lives of those amongst whom she lived. This failure to observe the required aristocratic hauteur may have been another element which added to the perception of her as being wild and uncontrolled.

Having gained Mrs Rand’s equivocal blessing (Betsy states that ‘I’m not easily frightened’ to which she replies ‘that may be the pity of it’) the film embarks on its central night walk scene. The night walk is an important feature of all Lewton’s horror films. They are as much sustained exercises in creating an atmosphere of the uncanny as of inspiring terror. Betsy leaves Fort Holland with Jessica, evading the attentions of the brothers, who are occupied in their own characteristic ways (Paul working busily at his table, Wes lounging and smoking). They meet Alma, who draws them a map in sugar which she spills onto the earth, a neat reminder of the economic staple which underpins all of their destinies and upon which their fates are drawn. She issues them with the voodoo patches which will act as their badges of entry and enable them to pass Maitre Carrefour, the guardian of the crossroads. These tokens look very flimsy things to pin your fate on. The trip to the hounfort is really the central scene of the film.

The otherwordly feel which Lewton and Tourneur conjure is created from a mixture of elements. There are a number of ominous tokenistic objects which they pass, which could be signposts or gateways; an animal skull on a stick, a hanging dog, a human skull surrounded by a circle of stones. The roads they travel are avenues cut through swaying walls of sugar cane. Their journey is accompanied by an eerie soundscape; the wind through the cane, the sound of a conch shell being blown, and a hanging ocarina acting as a stringless version of a wind harp (a music made by no human agency). The ominous and yet strangely beautiful atmosphere is intensified by the fact that Betsy unwittingly loses her voodoo patch on a protruding piece of cane.

When they come across Carrefour, we first see only his feet in the beam of Betsy’s torchlight. This is an old horror film staple, the use of a limited field of vision or partially glimpsed form (often a hand rather than feet) to create a sense of dread over what may be about to be revealed. And as the light plays upwards, we see that Carrefour is big, a statuesque giant, standing as still as a statue at his guard position. He is catatonic, unseeing. Indeed, his demeanour, despite his size, is far from frightening. It is calm, pacific, completely vacant. Betsy passes unmolested with Jessica, despite her loss of her token. And then, Carrefour becomes animated. But he turns and takes another path, as if called on for some other duty.

At the Hounfort, Betsy looks on fascinated at the rituals being enacted, the invocations of Papa Legba and the sword dancing. As the drums kick in and things really liven up, Jessica looks into the distance with her dreamily catatonic stare, a still counterpoint to the animation of the scene unfolding around her. Betsy takes her turn to consult the houngun through the hole in the wall of the central hut, which is located in the middle of a painted web; another symbol of entrapment which parallels the everpresent shadowed bars of Fort Holland. She is dragged inside and discovers that Mrs Rand is playing the role of the houngun. An essentially humane person, she has realised the uses to which religion and superstition can be put. She can dispense good medical advice under the guise of holy pronouncements. As she says, ‘it seemed so simple to let the gods speak to them’. Admitting the need for moral relativism as well as religious ecumenicalism in a complex and varied world, she concludes that ‘there’s no easy way to do good’. This is a pragmatic and yet not a dismissive view of religion, or of the people who follow its creeds. It sees it as a way of embodying knowledge in a mythos which imbues it with greater meaning and coherence; Giving objective and empirically tested knowledge form and context within the story of the world.

Jessica’s state, her non-participation in the spirit of the moment, causes a reaction amongst the voodoo celebrants outside. The voodoo priest sticks his sword in her arm and she doesn’t bleed, thus seemingly giving physical creedence to her zombie state. Lewton always blends the objective and rational world with the supernatural, giving hints that the latter is an actuality, not an illusion or imaginative projection. We have already seen in Cat People that Irena’s problems are not merely psychological; she really does turn into a leopard. Here, we seem to be presented with the incontrovertible truth that Jessica is a zombie.

Ten Reasons Why a Matter of Life and Death is the Best British Film Ever Made - Part Four

4. Cinematic Playfulness

As A Matter of Life and Death presents itself from the outset as a story of two worlds, one of which ‘exists only in the mind of a young airman’ (it doesn’t say which one though) Powell and Pressburger allow themselves to delight in the visual trickery of the cinema in order to present this inner vision. The division of the two worlds into black and white and Technicolor is the most obvious device and one which allows them (and cameraman Jack Cardiff) to display the merits of two very different approaches to cinematography.

This is set up right from the pre-credits sequence, as we see the Rank gong being struck in black and white followed by Powell and Pressburger’s traditional Archers logo, also in black and white, which unfades into the bright colours of the target as the arrow thuds into the bullseye inside a circle of radiantly vibrant red. The act of seeing is represented in several self-referential scenes. Dr Reeves is first encountered viewing the activities of the villagers on his tabletop camera obscura. He is like the benevolent directorial god of this small realm, guiding the movements of the camera with his overhead handlebars whilst giving a commentary to his two attentive spaniels (a type of dog which Michael Powell himself was fond of).

Later, the camera takes on the subjective point of view of Peter as he is wheeled semi-conscious through the hospital corridors towards the operating room where his life will either be saved or lost. Our immersion in his subjective perspective is such that we even see his eyelids slowly closing shut after he has been given anaesthetic, and we drift downwards into a red haze of blood and nerve-endings. We have entered an inner landscape which slowly resolves, as the camera eye floats downwards and fades to gray, into the celestial courtroom. This view from behind the drawn curtains of the eyelids, inviting us onto a different stage, tells us visually what Dr Reeves has already made clear in his forceful assertion of the vital importance of what goes on in this subjective world. The inner eye of the imagination is equally as important as the outer eye of objective vision.

The construction of a giant eyelid to accomplish this extraordinary moment of visual symbolism points to a pleasingly traditional British element of ‘let’s see what we can knock together’ garden shed inventiveness. Thus it partakes of a noble lineage of make do and create which manifests itself in Joe Meek, the Radiophonic Workshop and the late-lamented Oliver Postgate, with his Smallfilms workshop quite literally located in the garden shed. It may appear a little clumsy and papier-mached by the digital standards of today, but it serves the symbolism perfectly and it is noticeably a real construct, which somehow makes it more magical. A giant eye of a different sort is seen when we pull back from the celestial courtroom as Peter’s trial nears its culmination. As we gain a godlike view, we see that the courtroom is centred in the core of a spiral nebula, the remote, impassive eye of heavenly justice – and of the director.

The Films of Val Lewton Part Three


I Walked With A Zombie (1943) was the film which Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur made after Cat People, once again using a market-tested title provided by the head of production at RKO Studios Charles Koerner, a man of some aesthetic bluntness for whom lurid overstatement was a quality to be encouraged. The topic of zombie-ism and voodoo in general was quite in vogue at the time, and the subject had been suggested to Koerner by an article called ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ by Inez Wallace in the American Weekly. Needless to say, Lewton proceeded to make the material his own.

The opening sets the scene, with romantic music accompanying the gentle sweep of the waves. Betsy, the film’s heroine, is seen walking in silhouette along the sea’s edge with the towering figure of Darby Jones, who plays the zombie (or god?) Carre-Four. As has been pointed out by Kim Newman and others, this scene has no place in the narrative. But, in retrospect, it does have an important thematic resonance which I’ll return to. It is above all else a splendid visual image to open with, also letting us know that the zombies in this film are not necessarily threatening creatures. The languid pace with which the two stroll through the Caribbean night suggests a relaxed ease in each other’s company.

We hear the first of Betsy's voiceovers during this scene. Throughout the film these give us access to her diaristic thoughts, a glimpse of an inner world which seems to have the carefully articulated quality of experience recollected in retrospect. It is also a voice which tends towards a romanticised view of the world, which is sometimes at odds with what we see. As we have seen in Cat People, Lewton’s characters can be unconsciously self-deluding, recasting the world according to their own desires and needs. The opening voiceover also gives Lewton the opportunity to cast scorn on the film’s title. Betsy first words are indeed ‘I walked with a zombie’, but they are immediately followed by a self-deprecating laugh and the apologetic coda ‘it does sound an odd thing to say’.

From the title sequence, we experience a marked shift in climate, from evening tropical balm to a snowy day in Canada outside the sugar company’s offices. The fact that the administrative heart of this company whose operations are in the tropics is sited in such chilly climes is the first indication of the notion of colonialism which plays such a dominant underlying part in the story. This is clearly an industry managed from afar. Betsy has come to the offices for an interview for a nursing position. The first question we hear her being asked is ‘are you single?’ which comes before questions about her training, which might seem more pertinent to the matter at hand. It foreshadows the tangled web of relationships which she will encounter on the island, however, and suggests that this situation is well-known, as well as hinting at a certain reputation amongst the Hollands which might cause concern for a single woman.

The question about witchcraft, as well as serving to pique our interest, also suggests that the situation of the household is common knowledge. Betsy dismissal of such a question with a laugh and a quip contrasts with the picture we’ve seen of her in the title sequence, and suggests a disparity between attitudes which are affected by the atmosphere of particular environments. The question seems ridiculous in an office in a snowy Canadian city, but in the soft wind of a Caribbean night, such beliefs may appear more seductive. Betsy doesn’t seem to know where this job will be located, and is taken aback when the employer tells her it will be on the (invented) Caribbean island of St Sebastian. But he erodes her doubts with a seductive picture of palm trees, swimming and sunbathing, a outsider’s fantasy which is always in danger of overwhelming a clear perception of the actualities of the island’s culture and history.
When we see Betsy on the boat, the backdrop does seem to conform to the romantic reverie of her voiceover; the lulling song of the sailors, the star-speckled sky, the calm, moon-limned sea. ‘Every bit of me inside myself said how beautiful’, she dreamily intones. But this romanticism,the idea of the connection of the human spirit with a harmonious nature, is savagely repudiated by Mr Holland. Up until this point, he has been standing with his back to the viewer, and also by implication to the beauty of the night and to Betsy herself. His introduction to us is through his conflicting world-view, expressed without prompting. The fact that he is providing a direct answer to Betsy’s thoughts suggests both an immediate connection between the two and, once more, a degree of retrospection about her inner voice. He systematically de-romanticises the scene in a manner which suggests a very Darwinian belief system, or in more contemporary terms, a Richard Dawkins reductionism which expresses everything in terms of the physically quantifiable. ‘Everything seems beautiful because you don’t understand’, he asserts. The flying fish are jumping in terror from their predators, the luminosity of the water comes from dead bodies, and as if the cosmos conspires to underline his point, a shooting star burns across the night sky.

The linguistic relish with which he declares that the oceanic glow is ‘the glitter of putrescence’ suggests that he is a necromantic, someone with an affinity for Poe and the French decadent writers maybe. He is not as far removed from Betsy’s romanticism as might at first be supposed, then. It's just that his romanticicm has a different emphasis. Both adapt the world of outer appearances to fit the mood of their inner world. The amalgamation of belief systems which at first appear implacably opposed will be a recurring feature of the film. No one entirely relinquishes their own world-view, but it does become reshaped as it incorporates elements from those of others. Nell recommences her interrupted inward musings, immediately incorporating Mr Holland into her romantic narrative as a Mr Rochester/Maxim de Winter figure, someone who revealed ‘something clean and honest, but hurt’. This is more a figure of her conjuring than the character which we have just encountered.

From the enchanted night on the sea, we switch to the bustling daytime port at which the boat has docked. This is the reality of the island. Its inhabitants are no longer strumming lulling songs on their guitars, but lugging heavy sacks of cane on and off the ship. The juxtaposition of night and day scenes underlines the disparity between Betsy’s outsider’s dream of an island paradise and the quotidian economic reality for those who live there. This is further illustrated during the ride to Fort Holland. Her Caribbean driver gives a potted history of the island which emphasises the misery whose lineage is the familial birthright of all on the island. It was the Holland family which ‘brought coloured folks to the island’, who are referred to as ‘the long ago mothers and the long ago fathers of us all, chained to the bottom of a boat’.

There is a feeling that the whole island is somehow related, then, the destinies of its inhabitants inescapably intertwined. Its emblem is the statue of Ti Misery, the figurehead of the Holland’s slave ship, which is ‘a man with arrows stuck in him and a sorrowful weeping look on his black face’. This conflation of two cultures, the black Saint Sebastian, is a symbolic figure which recurs throughout the film and is infused with all manner of suggestive meanings, which we shall return to. The driver’s relation of his ancestors’ journey in a slave ship fails to break through Betsy’s mood of dreamy reverie, however, and her comment that ‘they brought you to a beautiful place’ receives the indulgently sardonic response ‘if you say so, miss’.

The arrival at Fort Holland prompts the resumption of Betsy’s voiceover narration, this time definitely in retrospective mode as she anticipates events to come as the camera shows us the different sets upon which they will unfold. They are like empty stages awaiting the actors of the play. Betsy tells us that she will fall in love and hear a strange confession, which, whilst obviously serving to create a sense of narrative anticipation, also once more suggests her tendency towards shaping reality into the forms of romantic fiction. The oft-cited view of I Walked With a Zombie as being an adaptation of Jane Eyre (although there are also parallels with Rebecca) give this vocalised layering of romantic conventions over the events depicted an extra dimension; it is as if it is Betsy as much as Val Lewton who is drawing the parallel with the classic romantic tale.

The interiors of Fort Holland are barred with shadows from the slatted windows. This atmospheric cinematography, in which large areas of rich darkness are fore-grounded, is reminiscent of the lighting of the classic film noirs, although it could be said that Lewton and his directors got there first. The darkness in film noirs betokens the murky waters its characters have to navigate, as well as being an externalisation of the shady, manipulative moral continuum which these movies present to us. Here, the shadows resemble the bars of a prison, and suggest a self-imposed confinement, a jail whose walls are as much those of the skull as the Fort. They also set the Fort apart from the rest of the island, making it almost like a modern-day ‘gated community’. Shadows in Lewton’s films also have a spiritual quality. They suggest a world beyond that of surface reality, a shadow realm which operates according to its own ineffable laws.

The players who will act out their roles upon these stages are introduced by Wesley, who introduces himself to Betsy and whose bearing and conventional good looks immediately put him forward as the romantic hero. Lewton is not interested in conventional romance, however, and this is soon revealed to be a bit of misdirection. He introduces the major characters through indicating the empty chairs which they occupy at the table. Having already seen the rooms of the Fort silent and empty, this re-inforces the sense of absence, of a house haunted by the living. Wesley’s short character sketches economically set up the tensions which exist between the members of this family. His half-brother is Paul, who Wes declares with undisguised bile to be ‘quite the Byronic character’ (just as Mr Rochester is in Jane Eyre). Their mother is Mrs Rand, who is ‘mother to both of us and much too good for either of us’. Wes was educated in the USA and Paul in England, setting up another contrast between Old and New Worlds, and perhaps also suggesting a continuity between the two in the exercise of colonial power.

We first hear the voodoo drums beating here. Their sound will punctuate the action throughout the film, serving as a force of gravity which weighs down any attempt at personal happiness or freedom. They are the sounds of guilt. Here, however, Wesley demystifies them, saying that they are the ‘equivalent of the factory whistle’. The exotic becomes the everyday once its meaning is understood. With the entry of Paul, Wesley’s attempts at suave charm are swiftly set aside, along with the whisky decanter. It is immediately apparent who is the figure of authority here, and Wesley’s guilty assertion that ‘I was just going to the mill’ makes it evident that his role in the family business is somewhat notional. By now, we are fairly thoroughly disabused of the notion that this might be our hero.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Boats, Berets and Bullies

Our Hidden Cinema presentation this Sunday at 3 o'clock in The Hourglass is a terrific double-bill of classic cinema. Appropriately for a pub just round the corner from Exeter's quayside, these both have dockside settings - and a lot of bar-side action. Here are the notes from the programme, with added pics:

To Have and Have Not (1944) and Quai Des Brumes (1938)

Two films, two ports, separated by ocean and language. One just precedes the war, the other comes towards its end. One takes place in the cold mists of Le Havre, the other in the tropical Caribbean heat of Martinique. And yet these stories share many qualities and mirror each other in many aspects. Both have impeccable literary pedigrees. To Have and Have Not takes a bit of Hemingway, mixes it with script input by William Faulkner, and is refined by director Howard Hawks with on-set revisions tailored to fit the dynamic of a dynamite cast. Quai des Brumes marks the zenith of the collaboration between director Marcel Carne and poet of the streets Jacques Prevert, who you might know from the lyrics of the song Les Feuilles Mortes, more prosaically translated as Autumn Leaves. The film is perhaps the definitive example of what came to be known as poetic realism, although Carne preferred the term le fantastique social (same difference).

Both films nurtured romances between the leads which blossomed offset and manifested themselves in the intensity of their interaction onscreen. Bogart and Bacall were an item by the time the film wrapped, whereas Gabin and Morgan let things simmer a little longer before finally getting together.

The male stars Jean Gabin and Humphrey Bogart are quite stocky actors of a similar frame and bearing, and both came to epitomise the figure of the tough romantic. They had played gangsters in their time, but their screen personae tended to take the form of the loner whose espousal of an ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ code is eroded by love and reveals a sentimentality and idealism lying just beneath the rough carapace formed by hard experience. Both came to be embodiments of a certain nationalistic ideal in their countries, icons of individualism who stand up to the forces of oppression and intimidation. They were stylish, too. Here, Bogie, as Harry Morgan, wears honest workman’s garb, with denim trousers, white shirt with neck bandana, a blazer for lounging around in the bar in the evening, and a jauntily cocked sailor’s flat cap to top it all off. Gabin, as Jean, begins in his deserter’s naval uniform, brass buttons gleaming, pill-box peaked cap set to a jauntily cocked angle, before switching to the casual attire of the bohemian casual.

The heroines of the films are Marie Browning, played by Lauren Bacall, and Nelly, played by Michele Morgan. They are both young women running away from poisonous domestic prisons. Bacall’s Marie has been more successful thus far, having made her way from America to Martinique, whereas Nelly has as yet only managed to cross town to the other side of the docks of Le Havre. Both their escapes are still fragile and notional at this stage. Both women sport berets, Nelly like a native (naturellement). Bacall wears a chequered two piece in a classic 40s style, whilst Morgan’s Nelly anticipates 60s fabness with her plastic seethrough raincoat, which looks almost as if the fog she has walked in from has wrapped itself around her.

The port settings of the films offer the hope of escape, of running from troubles which dog your heels, or of simply casting aside the old self and setting sail to a new life. Martinique holds the promise of an easeful Caribbean paradise, but the old patterns remain in place. Bogie is beholden to the whims of the rich fools with money and the attitude which accompanies it who hire out his boat, and is obliged to negotiate with the bullying fascist powers of the collaborative Vichy regime. Le Havre is a dead end for both Jean and Nelly, but it’s ships offer new possibilities, new worlds, leaving France behind. Many have retrospectively viewed this as a tacit admission of France’s hopeless position in the years immediately preceding the war, but this is judging with the benefit of hindsight, and Carne was not really interested in matters of politics. The fogbound streets of his studio-created world which hold the characters in an inertia-bound stasis glow with a pearlescent light (you might detect a similarity to the light in the exterior scenes of Vampyr, Hidden Cinemagoers). This luminescence also shines from Nelly’s eyes as they look into Jean’s and offer the hope of salvation through love, a spiritual rebirth which once more gives reason and motivation for action.

Our heroes and heroines meet in bars, the dockside hubs where criminals and artists, tourists and hustlers mingle. In Quai des Brumes the locale is a wooden shack which resembles a pitifully jerrybuilt junk, its asymmetric prow pointing hopefully towards the docks from the vulnerable spit of shingle upon which it lies. It is presided over by a kind but decrepit character called Panama, seemingly after his headwear of choice, whose crumpled and stained white suit betokens the weary fate of such an attempt at goodhearted community in this venal world. His attempts at providing a musical backdrop with his battered guitar are half-hearted at best.

In To Have and Have Not the bar is on the ground floor of a hotel run by a friendly proprietor named Renard but called Frenchy by Bogart, on account of his being French. The bar’s music is provided with somewhat greater aplomb than Panama by Hoagy Carmichael’s Cricket, whose loose-limbed frame has been shaped by hours spent with arms suspended over the piano keyboard, playing or writing. These places are refuges from the world into which incursions from the forces of law are not welcome and are held at bay to a large degree. They have their established denizens, characters whose quirks are as settled in as the whisky stains which pattern the aged wooden tables. Here, new beginnings are planned with exhalations of liquor fumes, new lives to be projected beyond the smoke-choked interiors into the wider world beyond. Harry and Marie rechristen each other immediately upon meeting, Bogart’s character becoming Steve and Bacall’s Slim, Hawks’ nickname for his own wife. It is as if they are creating new characters for each other, allowing them to shed old, worn selves. Jean sheds his own identity with his uniform, taking on a fresh one with a new set of clothes and a soul renewed by love.

Other characters find their doppelgangers in each film. Bogie has his old rummy pal Eddie, characterfully portrayed by Walter Brennan, with his obsession with the possibility of apian post-mortem harm. Gabin has the winsome stray mutt which attaches it to himself with dogged eagerness, recognising a fellow lost soul. Bacall is pestered by a slimy Vichy inspector, whilst Morgan has to contend with the attentions of a seedily lascivious guardian (legendary French actor Michel Simon taking on an unenviable role) as well as a petty local hood who asserts his claim on her affections with a conspicuous lack of subtlety. He and his matchstick-chewing goons ape tough-guy American Cagneyisms, but Gabin later reveals his true nature as a provincial bumper-car bully.

Ultimately, the differences in the films are manifested in their outlooks on life as much as in their climates. In Quai des Brumes, the characters emerge from the fog, contemplate the futility of life, love and art with an existential shrug before returning into it alone and disconsolate, newly reassured of the essentially tragic nature of all human endeavour. To Have and Have Not has its characters emerge from their solipsistic shells to work together and cause at least a dent in the armour of insensate fate or authoritarian power. In Quai des Brumes, love is enshrouded in the fog of doomed romantic fatalism, unable to escape the gravity of the all-pervasive baseness and corruption into which it is cast. In To Have and Have Not it is a sparring partnership of wisecracking banter, a conversational give and take which ensures the maintenance of a dynamic balance. This love gives the individual the strength to take a moral stand and, who knows, maybe to strike a blow against tyranny and the bullies who enforce it.

Maybe these are the attitudes of innocence and experience, the contrary states of the human soul, of worlds Old and New. But in a spirit of détente, let’s emphasise the commonality of these dockside dramas. To transatlantically recast Lauren Bacall’s famous words, ‘tous ce que tu dois faire es siffler. Tu sais comme on siffle, non?’ If you’ll pardon my French.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Film Ever - Part Three

3. Philosophy with a Light Touch

A Matter of Life and Death is a film about ideas and philosophies, which, if we didn’t know what a joyfully visual playground it is, might make it seem a little dull. A scene which perfectly visualises this grounding in ideas and debates is the one in which Peter lies sleeping in a chair in Doctor Reeves’ library. His head is surrounded by a halo of books, which also lie scattered around on various surfaces. He has obviously been reading voraciously and widely. Indeed, the disarrayed, actively used library is an outward model of the ideas racing around in his mind. The library is separated from yet has a window looking into the games room where June and Dr Reeves play ping-pong - suggesting there is not a rigid divide between the two.

Indeed, Peter’s chosen game (also favoured by Conductor 71) is the highly intellectual pursuit of chess, often seen as analogous to various aspects of calculated real world interactions. The to and fro of the ping pong game is also a reflection of the play of opposing viewpoints which pepper the film’s debates and which takes centre stage (or court) in the match between Doctor Reeves and Abraham Farlan, facing each other from opposing promontories in the celestial struggle over Peter’s fate. This trial sequence takes the form of a classic Socratic dialogue, in which every point is answered with an ‘ah, yes, but…’ All the themes of the film are distilled in this intense intellectual debate, and yet still, despite the weighty themes and the thicket of dialogue, the tone remains light and witty.

Reeves vs Farlan includes philosophical rallies on the nature of national character, the importance of the artistic imagination in shaping culture, the distinction between law and justice, the influence of history and culture on the individual, and the importance of the individual within the sweeping tides of history. The humour with which these matters are addressed does not lessen the seriousness with which they are considered. But it is of a piece with the serious playfulness of the film as a whole. Dr Reeves’ wry, quietly stated approach opposes the high rhetorical poses struck by the embittered, hate-fuelled Farlan and thus holds out the hope for a more joyful world.

Their battle is amusingly exemplified in their appropriation of radios to provide a contemporaneous voice of Britain/America snap (or voice) shot. The British radio provides a dull cricket commentary, like John Arlott with the flu. Trubshaw immediately perks up and pays attention. As usual, Powell and Pressburger adopt a tolerant each to their own attitude. But Trubshaw aside, this is clearly a fairly damning assessment of national character. At this crucial moment, Conductor 71 magics his way onto Dr Reeves’ promontory with his own radio, an elegant wood-encased wireless which trumps Farlan’s transistor in an amusing ‘my set’s bigger than yours’ moment. He has clearly decided that his allegiances lie with the forces of romance. The radio is tuned to an American bobbysoxer singer in the early Sinatra style. Farlan grimaces in distaste at his ‘shoo-shoo baby’ lyrics. He concedes that he can’t understand a word that’s being said. The black GIs in the audience smile and nod with pleasure, however (although why they should go for this sub-Bing nonsense is a mystery). Again, each to their own, and an argument about cultural relativity is neatly encapsulated, with added laughs.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Film Ever Made - Part 2

2. Characters
It’s no doubt as easy to mock the characters in A Matter of Life and Death as it is the thwarted lovers in Brief Encounter, and equally misguided. Their breezy cheerfulness and dated language set them up as easy targets for a modern sensibility which only takes account of surface superficialities. In fact, these details cover up a nobility and underlying pain along with an all-pervasive self-effacement and open friendliness which I find eminently admirable. David Niven’s opening torrent of words as his plane plummets to a fiery doom are genuinely moving, as if he is trying to elucidate a whole lifetime’s philosophy in the few moments left to him. And his request to June to write to his mother in her own words to let her know that ‘I’ve always loved her, but never really showed it’ is beautifully done, conveying how much remains unsaid in any life. It’s probably at this point that June falls in love with him, I should imagine.

The characters are all types in a sense, and yet Emeric Pressburger’s dialogue and the playing of the actors bring them to life (and afterlife) and make us care for their plight. David Niven’s Peter is an idealist caught up in war, his mind focussed on the world which could emerge from the conflict. He is clearly bursting with ideas and has an intensely serious mind lying beneath a light-hearted exterior. His inner torment has the possibility to do him real harm. As Doctor Reeves puts it, ‘he has too fine a mind’, and that mind is riven with the conflicts of the age. Kim Hunter’s June is a practical, caring young woman whose optimism has remained stubbornly intact in the face of her experience of the blood of war. She has a friendly relationship with Dr Reeves and is unafraid of questioning his medical approaches.

Roger Livesey’s Dr Frank Reeves is a quietly authoritative figure who feels a sense of propriety over the villagers he watches through his camera obscura. Deeply committed to his work, he is a figure whose work during the war is merely a continuation of the calling which would place him at the centre of civilian life. Up above, Trubshaw is the good old boy, the loyal companion, simple but goodhearted, taking pleasure in beer, women and cricket, possibly not in that order. Conductor 71 is a dandified official with a heart and an overrefined sense of style, whose initial duplicity in the face of bureaucratic rebuke is gradually replaced by his romantic advocacy of Peter’s case.

The numerous characters who play a less significant role are all imbued with a sense of personality, even if this is only conveyed through one line (Dickie Attenborough’s awestruck airman realising ‘this is heaven, isn’t it’ as he looks down on the cityscape of bureaucratic records offices). There is a comedy vicar, New Joisey Yanks brushing up their Shakespeare, the icy cool of Kathleen Byron’s heavenly (in both ways) receptionist, and the beaky dignity of the celestial, impressively bewigged judge. These characters are all created with a sense of generosity and lack of condescension which deflates any potential stereotyping. Only the prosecution counsel Abraham Farlan fails to win our sympathy. He was the first soldier shot by an Englishman in the American War of Independence, and he has clearly failed, in the modern parlance, to ‘get over it’. His twisted, hate-fuelled soul is ably conveyed by the facial grimaces of Raymond Massey. Just as the story pits the universal against the personal, these characters and the actors who bring them to life ensure that real people lie at the heart of the colourful fantasy which surrounds but doesn’t overwhelm them.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Ten Reasons Why A Matter of Life and Death is the Greatest British Film Ever Made - Part One

1. Imagination vs. Realism
Britain seems to have something of a problem with using its imagination when it comes to film-making. Films often seem to come with the epithet ‘gritty’ built-in and documentary-style social realism is the ne plus ultra of critical worthiness. Indeed, if anyone strays from the path of drab, grey realism, they are usually thought to have retreated from the real world, possibly into genre realms at which respectable critics would wrinkle their noses in distaste before putting aside their lengthy bargepoles. And yet it was not always thus.

Director Michael Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger were a collaborative film-making team who, under the very English nom-de-plume of The Archers, were active from the 1930s through to the fifties. Probably their best-known and most popular film, A Matter of Life and Death, is a riot of colour (and black and white) and fantasy and yet it never loses sight of the real world. The opening words, ‘this is the story of two worlds’, resonate on so many levels. It is the story of Earth and Heaven, of inner and outer realities, of the universal and the personal, the historic and the individual, New and Old Worlds, and of imagination and realism, and ultimately it is about how all these dualities can be transcended through the vision which comes through an active and enquiring imagination.

The seemingly opposite approaches of imagination and realism (we could also call it the opposition of romanticism and realism) are embedded in the very form of the film, with a sly and knowing twist. The black and white cinematography which has come to represent a certain type of realism is used for the scenes set in the fantastic surrounds of Heaven, whilst the sumptuous, heightened reality of the colour scenes are saved for Earth (and the Universe). It is as if Powell and Pressburger are saying that there could be nothing LESS realistic than a world depicted in black and white. The world is not drab and dull, it is glorious and vibrantly alive with colour (well, unless that ‘ruddy peasouper’ rolls in). As Conductor 71 says, with a wistful sigh, ‘one is starved for technicolour up there’.

Peter’s inner world is presented to us on the screen as if it were real, and Dr Reeves makes it clear that in effect it is. The world of the imagination impacts on the world outside, not least because it allows us to see how the world could be rather than just accepting it as it is. In a sense, Peter’s view of Heaven is his view of what the real world could be. It ‘starts where this one could leave if only we’d listened to Plato, Aristotle and Jesus’. The clean, ordered white spaces and curved lines certainly suggest that this is a Modernist heaven; indeed, Peter worries that he might have a modernist design of ‘prop’ wings rather than the traditional model, but fortunately his heaven mixes the traditional with the new. The view through giant ceiling portholes of the vast bureaucracies of heaven could be an architect’s plan of a model city to be built over the rubble of blitzed ruins. This is clearly also a socialist world of equality for all; When an American troop bustles in to the reception room and their leader signs in demanding ‘Officer’s quarters, of course,’ he is met with the calm response (from the beatific Kathleen Byron) ‘we’re all the same up here’. One of his soldiers immediately nudges him to one side with the words ‘excuse me…Brother’.

The vital necessity of Peter winning his case, which Dr Reeves forcefully states, is partly the need for the reconciliation of the ideal and the real, a reality which has been dominated by the destruction and chaos of war for years. It is the need for the readmission of hope and optimism. It is also centrally, of course, about the importance of love and therefore of the highest of individual values which gives meaning to life in the face of vast and often depersonalised historical forces. Powell and Pressburger’s unashamedly (for there is nothing to be ashamed of) Romantic view of the World embodied in June’s tear caught in the petals of a rose. A tear with the strength to bring the vast mechanisms of the Universe grinding to a halt.

A Matter of Life and Death amounts to a manifesto for the primacy of imagination in the arts. Through references both direct and allusive, Powell and Pressburger locate themselves in the English tradition of romantic writers and artists who have manifested inner worlds in the forms of the fantastic. One of Doctor Reeves’ defences of England in the face of prosecutor Abraham Farlan’s assaults is to assert its lineage of poetic visionaries, citing Donne, Dryden, Pope, Shelley and Keats. Pope is the satirical voice who weights the balance of the unfettered imagination with the need to maintain a practical sense of realism. Dryden was also very much engaged with the political realities of his times, the post-Cromwellian Restoration period.

The film sustains a similar balancing of imaginative and realistic forces, grounding moments of extravagant fantasy with gently sardonic humour. Thus, Conductor 71’s summoning up of an instantaneous (and instantaneously terminated) tempest to illustrate his opinion that time is ‘mere tyranny’ is greeted with Peter’s request ‘you’ll let me know if you’re going to do that again’, and his earlier metaphysical assertion that ‘we are talking in space, not in time’ is met with the abrupt response ‘are you cracked?’ Peter himself is a young poet and Dr Reeves suggests that he may take his place in the continuing line of the English poetic tradition – if he is given time.

Other nods to the imagination in arts are alluded to in the classical pastoral of the beach scene, the production of A Midsummer Nights Dream which the vicar is struggling to put on, and the visual antecedents in Blake, and Gustave Dore’s illustrations to Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy and others (in black and white, of course). Dr Reeves, the character who serves to give voice to the film’s themes more than any other, gives what amounts to a guide to the creation of successful imaginative fantasy in his assessment of Peter’s created world. ‘He never steps outside the limits of his own imagination. Nothing he invents is entirely fantastic. It’s invention, but logical invention.’