David Niven, Helen Mirren shine in ‘The Films of Michael Powell'

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

6 January 2009


At his peak in the 1940s, Michael Powell was in the top ranks of British film directors, alongside such contemporaries as David Lean, Carol Reed and the Hollywood exile Alfred Hitchcock. Although Powell’s career trailed off badly in the 1950s and ‘60s, the efforts of admirers like American director Martin Scorsese and DVD companies such as the Criterion Collection have brought renewed attention to his artistry and the recent release on DVD of his films such as “The Small Back Room,” “49th Parallel” and “The Thief of Bagdad.”

Scorsese is intimately involved in this week’s release of “The Films of Michael Powell,” a two-disc DVD collection (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.96, not rated) including the masterful World War II fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death” (titled “Stairway to Heaven” when distributed in the United States), released in 1946, and “Age of Consent,” one of Powell’s last movies, from 1969, which provided the young actress Helen Mirren with her first starring movie role.

Scorsese, whose long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker married Powell in the 1980s, contributes appreciative introductions to both films, which are the second releases in the “Collector’s Choice” DVD series, a collaboration between Sony and Scorsese’s Film Foundation.

“A Matter of Life and Death” mixes the grim reality of warfare with some amazing flights of fancy in telling the story of an RAF pilot (David Niven) who comes into radio contact with an American WAC (Kim Hunter) in England as his shot-up plane is about to crash upon its return home. After he miraculously survives a fall from the plane without a parachute, the pilot meets the American woman and they fall in love.

The problem is that he wasn’t supposed to survive, and as the film steers into fantasyland we learn that a “conductor” sent to escort the pilot to Heaven failed to accomplish his mission because of the dense fog at the time of the crash. And when the conductor (Marius Goring), who in his own life had been an aristocrat killed during the French Revolution, tries to persuade the pilot to accompany him to Heaven, the pilot refuses on the grounds that circumstances have changed - in particular, he has fallen in love.

What follows is a trial in a heavenly court in which the pilot appeals for more time on Earth while the case against him - and against the British in general - is fought by a prosecutor (Raymond Massey) who had been the first Continental Army soldier killed by British troops at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775.

In an erudite audio commentary on the DVD, film historian Ian Christie discusses the allegorical nature of the film, noting that it raises the important post-war question: “Where does battered, impoverished Britain stand in relation to its powerful, victorious former colony?”

In “A Matter of Life and Death,” the Earth is seen in glorious Technicolor while Heaven is portrayed in black and white. Powell’s secular, futuristic-looking Heaven is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-national place, where everyone lives in equality and has a vote on important matters.

Outside of making two propaganda films for Britain during the war, this movie marked the return to the screen of Niven, one of the most popular leading men in British film, after six years in the army. As an archetypal symbol of Britishness, he gives a charming performance. But he has a perfect counterpart in the 23-year-old Kim Hunter (recommended to Powell by Alfred Hitchcock, says Christie) as the earnest and idealistic American WAC.

“A Matter of Life and Death” was one of 19 film collaborations between Powell and Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. Calling their production company The Archers and always listing their film credits as “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,” they become one of Britain’s leading independent film production teams. Their films included such immortal works as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes.”

The second film in the collection, “Age of Consent,” made near the end of Powell’s career and after his partnership with Pressburger had ended, was shot on location on an offshore island in the Great Barrier Reef near North Queensland, Australia. James Mason, who coproduced the film with Powell, stars as an internationally famous painter who returns home to his native Australia and a remote island cottage to regain his creative spark. He finds his muse in an independently-minded teenager named Cora, played by Helen Mirren, then a promising young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

The growing professional and personal relationship between the artist and his model is disrupted by several characters whose purpose seems to be to provide comic relief, from an old pal of the painter to Cora’s drunken grandmother to a man-hungry spinster neighbor. But the film, though beautiful to look at - and not just because the lovely Mirren models in the nude throughout - lacks dramatic punch or comedic flair.

In one of the DVD’s bonus features, Mirren offers some reflections and remembrances about making “Age of Consent.” She’s gracious and sweet in discussing the kindness shown to her by both Powell and Mason, and she considers the film an important milestone in her career. And she even seems rather proud that this was one of the first non-porn films to feature full-frontal nudity in a purposeful, non-exploitative manner.

Like the recently released collection of Westerns made in the 1950s by director Budd Boetticher, which was the first offering in the series of collaborations between The Film Foundation and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, “The Films of Michael Powell” enables film fans to see significant works that had previously been unavailable on DVD. Future offerings will feature collections of film noirs and movies starring Rita Hayworth and directed by Frank Capra and William Castle.

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