by Allan Fish
(UK 1946 104m) DVD2
Aka. Stairway to Heaven
It’s heaven, isn’t it?
p/w Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger d Michael Powell ph Jack Cardiff ed Reginald Mills m Allan Gray art Alfred Junge, Hein Heckroth, Arthur Lawson cos Hein Heckroth spc Douglas Woolsley, Henry Harris
David Niven (Squ.Ldr.Peter David Carter), Kim Hunter (June), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Abraham Sofaer (Dr Leiser), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshawe), Kathleen Byron (Angel), Richard Attenborough (English Pilot), Bonar Colleano (American Pilot), Joan Maude (Records Angel), Bob Roberts, Robert Atkins, Betty Potter,
Yes, Dickie, it really is. Considering his excellent roles in everything from Brighton Rock to The Great Escape to 10 Rillington Place, if asked to recall the most famous line spoken by Richard Attenborough in his whole career, it would probably be his only line in Powell & Pressburger’s forties fantasy. There are no movies that you must see before you die, contrary to S.J.Schneider’s aforementioned work, but this is perhaps one you should. After all, who can say that Powell & Pressburger aren’t right? Better to be prepared.
That’s more than can be said for Conductor 71, the heavenly messenger sent down to collect Peter Carter when he jumps without a parachute from his burning plane to avoid frying. You see, he misses him in a ruddy pea-souper and Carter wakes on a beach, falls in love with a woman he just happened to send out his last message to over the radio and, in such changed circumstances, refuses to go with the Conductor when he finally comes for him. Can Peter survive the resultant heavenly trial and the neurological surgery he must undergo to correct what is seen as a cerebral abnormality?
Heavenly fantasies are rare indeed and very rarely done well. Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait and Hall’s Here Comes Mr Jordan are often cited as classics and, for their playing at least, very nearly are. Yet though they pale like the monochrome of heaven beside the colour of earth in P & P’s masterpiece, the film doesn’t really get the merit it deserves in Hollywood, which to these eyes is mystifying. Or maybe not so mystifying. Hollywood has rarely liked being outdone at their own game (as witness some of their mystifying best picture Oscar decisions). For a golden period in the forties, the imagination of this unparalleled partnership ruled the roost in flair and originality. It may not have had the subtexts of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or Black Narcissus or the immortal allure of the arts of The Red Shoes, but mention P & P in the UK and the first film to be mentioned is invariably A Matter of Life and Death. It has become a national treasure not among the everyday public, but among British film buffs, even those who generally revere films no older than Get Carter and The Wicker Man. It’s not about religion, despite the presence of an afterlife, it’s rather about faith and, like so many Archers productions, the idea of nationality, mercilessly mocking both British and American sensibilities. Yet it’s the love of a British poet flyer for a girl from Boston that is the most powerful force in the film, more powerful even than the law. To P & P, nationalities are secondary, people are just people. Too often in today’s jingoistic times, it’s all too easily forgotten.
It’s also true that P & P were not alone in creating this piece of cinematic wonder. The performances are all superb, with Niven particularly excellent in what is, for me, his signature role, Hunter a lovely heroine, Livesey – a P & P veteran – typically superb as the doctor, Massey memorably anti-Brit and Coote his typically “what ho!” self. Yet king of the bunch has to be Goring’s Conductor, complaining about losing his head and being starved of Technicolor in heaven, committing cinematic grand larceny, stealing any scene not stuck down with velcro. Even then you’re feeling awful for ignoring the photography and design, which you take for granted in a P & P film, not to mention Allan Gray’s hypnotic music based around eight notes. It’s a film that, to paraphrase Peter, most directors would admit “I’d rather have directed that than flown through Hitler’s legs.”