Medics in the Movies: A Matter of Life and Death

Posted on November 28, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , |

Carrying on with my new selected module and I’m really enjoying learning about camera angles and mis-en-scene. 😛

Our first group screening was A Matter of Life and Death, a 1945 classic by groundbreaking production team Powell and Pressburger.  I’d seen clips and heard bits about it, but never actually watched from start to finish.  I’m glad I finally did, as the idea of the film I had in my head was way off the mark, and I probably would never had watched it had it not been coursework!

On with the review:

A Matter of Life and Death revolves around the strange premise of a man cheating death by getting lost in the fog.

OK, so it’s a little more complicated than that, but that is the basic gist. Pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is going down with no parachute, radioing in what he assumes will be his last words to the unsuspecting June (Kim Hunter).  He has bravely given away the last of the parachutes to his crew, and now plans to jump from the plane to his certain death.

It’s not often that a movie can get away with killing its leading man in the opening frames, and here is no exception.  Peter wakes up on a beach, assuming he’s dead.  Here’s the twist though, because of the thick fog the night his plane went down, the Conductor sent to collect him and take him to the next world missed him, and he has somehow ended up still alive, relatively unscathed, and only a few hundred feet from June’s house, who he fell in love just before he “died”.  Convenient right?

I know it sounds convoluted, but stick with me ‘cos it works.  Peter is visited by the Conductor (Marius Goring), who, in an effort to make the books balance up above, tries to convince Peter that he needs to “die” since he is only alive by mistake.  Peter wins the right to appeal his case in the high court, with the help of June, and village doctor Frank (Roger Livesy).

On paper it sounds like a very confusing movie, but actually it’s a skillfully told tale, making the most of relatively new colour technology to distinguish between the two worlds.  While you might expect Heaven to be in glorious Technicolor and our drab little world to be in black and white, it’s actually the other way around, highlighting Peter’s desire to stay on Earth.  The colour transitions are used very well, reminding me of Pleasantville a lot, especially with the fade on the rose.

We are actually first introduced to the “heavenly” world between Peter crashing and waking up, where we meet his late friend and crew member waiting for him.  The whole thing is run (not surprisingly in context) as a military operation, where new arrivals report to collect their wings and everything is run very much to schedule.  So when Peter goes AWOL it literally sets alarm bells ringing, as the staff scrabble to try to undo their mistake.  There is no malice in their wanting to take Peter back, he is treated almost like a misplaced package.

Part of the charm of this film is the wonderful Englishness of it.  Peter has possibly the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever seen on film, completely unfazed by his imminent death at the beginning of the movie, but at the same time he has a hugely Romantic personality, which contrasts nicely and goes a long way to support the Romeo and Juliet style love affair between him and June, which takes place within a matter of days.  Added to their whirlwind romance is the fact that while he is English, she is American, which doesn’t go down well with the Prosecuting counsel upstairs.  A good proportion of the trial is given over to examining the relationship between us and our cousins across the pond, which at the time was pretty unusual since we were allies who had just finished fighting a war together.

Of course, the reason I was watching this film was to focus on the doctor and he really is an interesting character.  There is (obviously) a lot of religious imagery in this movie, but the introduction of the doctor looking down over the village through a camera obscura is striking and begins a series of metaphors relating to the God-like status of doctors and surgeons.  They are portrayed as the mediators between the two worlds, literally making the decisions about who lives and dies.  Frank is essentially the stereotype of the good country doctor; devoted, omniscient, self-sacrificing and above all incredibly knowledgeable.  He remains calm under pressure, and always fulfils his duty (without wanting to spoil things, he really does take “above and beyond” to a whole new level).

One of the questions I’m supposed to consider is what impact this portrayal would have on public perceptions of doctors, and I’d be interested to hear what those of you who have seen it think.  In a way, although the film shows doctors in an incredibly positive light, I think it is potentially damaging for public perceptions, as it holds up an impossible ideal that today’s (and I’m sure the same was true in the 40s) doctors cannot possibly live up to.  Despite being an antiquated idea, a lot of Frank’s personality traits; complete devotion to his patients and undivided attention to the case, are still what people expect in doctors today.  Not that you shouldn’t expect the best healthcare possible, but no one can be entirely devoted to every patient. It’s a paradox.

I can see now why A Matter of Life and Death always features in movie buffs “must-see” lists.  It’s full of clever imagery and some pretty groundbreaking ideas for the time that still stand up 50 years later.  The final message is one that has been used in cinema since the very beginning: Love conquers all, but it’s done in a very original and engaging way.  I’m definitely recommending it to you all, and I’m hoping that like me, you’ll be surprised that a movie you may have written off as a dated oldie is actually just as good today as when it was first made.

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