It’s “a matter of life and death” that you watch this movie ASAP!

As a movie snob, it can sometimes feel like I’ve seen all the good movies out there. A ridiculous notion, I know. Still, when I do randomly come upon a spectacular film that I had yet to see, I can’t help but feel like I’ve uncovered treasure.

One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was to introduce classic films to a new generation; to appeal to my peers and give them a reason to give a movie made before 2000 a second look. The movie I want to discuss today is one that I feel should be required viewing for anyone who says they’re interested in film.

A Matter of Life and Death, also known by the name Stairway to Heaven , was made in 1946 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I’ve discussed another Powell/Pressburger film on this blog, one of my favorites, The Red Shoes. Strangely, I had yet to see many of their others films.

The film follows Peter D. Carter (David Niven), a British wartime aviator who we meet as he’s hurling towards the earth. Knowing he’s going to die, he spends what he believes to be his last minutes talking to June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator. He wakes up on a beach and happens upon June, who’s cycling home. You could call it love at first sight – it doesn’t matter how it happens, they fall in love. The only problem is Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French – like, of the French revolution – angel who tells Peter he was meant to die. In love, Peter fights him on it, asking for an appeal before the celestial court…and he gets one!

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I love Technicolor SO MUCH

Here’s why you need to watch A Matter of Life and Death ASAP!

The Cast

Guys, David Niven. Can we just talk about how amazing he truly is?! The plot in this movie is truly bonkers, but somehow, David Niven sells it. He makes you feel every emotion.

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Am I the only one in love with this guy?!

Kim Hunter, who’s most famous for her role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, is completely relatable in this film. She makes June special enough that you understand why Peter would do anything to stay with her, even after only knowing her for, like, 20 hours.

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Lipstick ON POINT

Marius Goring was so multi-talented. He’s wonderful in The Red Shoes, but his comedic chops are on display in this movie and he delivers! Agh, he was just fantastic.

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when your friend can’t make up their mind…

And Raymond Massey adds some much fun humor as Abraham Farlan, the prosecutor for…heaven, I guess.

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Boy. This guy would be depressed to see the stats today.

The Cinematography

Jack Cardiff. Jack Cardiff. Jack Cardiff. ❤️ 💛 💚

I mean, technicolor was on his side, but man, have you ever seen cinematography this gorgeous?

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Creepily mesmerizing…
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The feeling of being lost in a dream…
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so creepy

The Story

Many films have danced around the afterlife, or heaven, or as in the case of A Matter of Life and Death, the next world. It’s a fantastical imagining of what might happen when your time comes. In this movie, heaven is black & white and its angels have some real interesting personalities.

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Also, young Richard Attenborough

Powell and Pressburger were clearly trying to comment on the time period they were living in as well as the relations between countries. This movie came out in 1946 when tensions in the world were high.

In the court scenes, the prosecutor for heaven tries to prejudice the jury against Peter for being British. The prosecutor’s American. Peter’s lawyer, Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) makes a case stating that the jury then should be made up of Americans – he still thinks the jury will find in favor of Peter!

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Good point, counselor. 

It’s a comical scene but there’s real sentiment behind it. When you put relations between governments and different nationalities into the context of an afterlife, it makes you realize how ridiculous our differences are, a lesson we still could take a page from today.

The Romance

If you’ve followed my blog, you know I’m a fan of the romance. Like Mindy Kaling, I don’t know where this obsession of watching people fall in love came from, but nevertheless, it’s there. And this movie delivers on the romance front by showing just how simple it can be.

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SWOON 💚 💙 💜

They’re both put on trial by the celestial court and asked to prove their love for the other. How do you prove love? Peter says, “Well give me time, sir. Fifty years.” They’re asked if they would die for the other. Indeed, is there any other question that matters.

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Truer words were never spoken.

Also, they’re played by David Niven and Kim Hunter – that helps…obviously!

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literal meet-cute

It’s a beautiful, original, thought-provoking, fantastical love story!

It’s rare to see a movie so willing to take chances, to tell a story in a non-conventional way. Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s personal editor, was married to Michael Powell in his later years. In a feaurette of the film, Schoonmaker said this was Powell’s favorite movie that he made because he just got to play, like in the silent days.

I was taken by this quote from Roger Ebert’s 1995 review of the film, “Today’s movies are infatuated with special effects, but often they’re used to create the sight of things we can easily imagine: crashes, explosions, battles in space. The special effects in “Stairway to Heaven” show a universe that never existed until this movie was made, and the vision is breathtaking in its originality.”

A Matter of life and Death is an example of what makes the art of movie-making so special. It makes you feel through images and dares to imagine a world that does not exist. I was blown away watching it a few days ago. It became an instant favorite. Just…watch it and I swear you’ll understand!

Trailer below:

 

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#FeministClassics: ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’

I first saw this film as a teenager. I wasn’t super excited when my dad pitched this movie to me. I had seen Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and though I had liked both of them, I found them to be fairly male oriented films. The female characters seemed secondary. My dad countered, telling me that it wasn’t really Scorsese’s film. It was Actress Ellen Burstyn’s.

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Ellen Burstyn had just finished making a little picture called The Exorcist and after seeing dailies, Warner Brothers told Burstyn they wanted to make another picture with her. They sent her several scripts, but in each of them, the woman wasn’t the protagonist. Her agent found the script for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Burstyn ended up bringing everyone on board, from producers to Director Martin Scorsese.

If you’re not familiar, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore follows Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a woman in her mid-thirties whose semi-neglectful husband dies suddenly. This leaves Alice with no money and her eleven year-old smart ass son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III), to take care of. She decides to get back to Monterey, California, where she grew up. But since she has very little money, she stops along the way to save up, meets a couple of men, makes a few mistakes, and in the process finds out who she is and what she wants.

Here are just a few reasons Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a feminist classic:

The Cast

As I mentioned, this film belongs to Ellen Burstyn. She really was the driving force behind getting it made and in watching her performance, you can see she put a lot of her personal experiences into it. Also, she won the Oscar that year, though she wasn’t there to accept the award. Since she was in a Broadway show at the time, Scorsese accepted the award on her behalf, thanking everyone she had to told him to thank, including himself.

Alfred Lutter III made his feature debut in this film playing Burstyn’s eleven year-old son, Tommy. I’ve talked about him once before in my post on The Bad News Bears. He was only in four films before he retired from acting at the age of fifteen. Still, Lutter made quite the impression, in this film especially. He seemed like a real kid and he could be both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Funny side story: On the drive to set one day, Martin Scorsese was riding with Alfred. Alfred told Marty a story over and over, asking if he understood. By the time they got to set, Marty was completely annoyed but also thought it was hilarious – so much so that he put it in the movie (seen in the gif below).

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Poor Ellen Burstyn. #IStillDontUnderstandThisStory

Kris Kristofferson was relatively new to film when he played David, Burstyn’s love interest. Scorsese tried to put him at ease, telling him to ignore the script and say the lines in the way that felt most natural to him. He was understated and (even with that crazy beard) incredibly sexy. You just can’t NOT like him.

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A man’s MAN if I ever saw one. #SWOON

Harvey Keitel wasn’t in much of the film, but he certainly made an impression during his few scenes. Keitel played a man Alice meets while working as a singer, but he reveals himself to be CRAY. When I first saw this film, he scared the shit out of me. He still kinda does…

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Keitel is TERRIFYING, amiright?

Diane Ladd was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Alice’s co-worker, Flo. When her character is first shown onscreen, she kind of seems like a bitch. The best part is that Flo and Alice’s relationship very organically becomes a friendship and their scenes together maybe mean more than Alice’s scenes with David.

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That hair THOUGH. #1970sStyle

Special mentions:

Two young, very talented actresses. The first is a twelve year-old Jodie Foster. She played Audrey, Tommy’s friend. As with Keitel, her part is not a big one, but she makes a major impression.

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Oh, the 70’s…#shorthairdontcare

The second is actress Laura Dern, who was just seven years-old. She, of course, is Diane Ladd’s daughter and so, was in a scene in the diner, eating an ice cream cone.

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Does your eye spy little Laura Dern?

The Script

The script was written by Robert Getchell, who also wrote Mommie Dearest and This Boy’s Life. This is where the feminist aspect comes in. Although, of course, Robert Getchell is a man, this story was told from a female point of view. It was making a statement about what it was like to be a woman at that time and exploring how we define our happiness as human beings.

There was a major controversy over how to end the film. Burstyn believed the film was about Alice standing on her own two feet without a man by her side. The studio wanted David and Alice to get married at the end. They needed to find a compromise. So, Kris said, “Jeez, if he loves this girl – if I did – I’d just say pack your fuckin’ bags. I’ll go with you” (Kristofferson, Second Chances Doc). I  actually really loved the ending because it wasn’t saying that you needed a man to make you happy. Alice stood up for the things she wanted and she ended up getting all of them, including David.

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Her face THOUGH. 

The Direction

Even though Scorsese was a hired hand on this film, he made it his own. He told Burstyn from the get-go that he didn’t know much about women, but that he was eager to learn. He was only 34 years old when he directed the film, but already he was experienced. He had already made Mean Streets, which is what got him the meeting with Burstyn in the first place and as my dad reminded me, he was an assistant director on Woodstock.

It was Scorsese’s idea to start the film with a semi-fantasy sequence which was shot on the old Colombia Pictures lot. It was weird and interesting and kind of gritty, much like the film itself. As a film buff himself, Scorsese saw the film as a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis vehicle. Without his direction, I believe the film would have been more of just a straight melodrama. He added humor, sensitivity and humanity to the story.

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Scorsese on set with Burstyn and Kristofferson

It’s funny, sad, and brilliant in its simplicity.

At its core, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is about human beings – all imperfect, all trying to figure out what’s going to make them happy. Beyond the style and music, the film hasn’t aged a day and I think that’s ultimately because it’s about human beings. It’s not a big story, but it hits on an emotional level. Burstyn’s contributions were major – she wanted to make sure this film was told through the eyes of a woman.

The film went on to be adapted to a very successful tv sitcom which ran from 1976-1985. With great performances and a legendary director, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is well worth the watch. IMHO, it’s a film which doesn’t get praised often enough, probably because Scorsese has gone on to direct so many classics.

My challenge to you: watch the film and try to tell the “Shoot the Dog” story to someone. I don’t know why. That just sounds fun.

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I feel so bad for Alice here…

Vintage trailer below:

The Red Shoes: The Quintessential Ballet Film

Last night, something rare and wonderful happened. My little brother decided to let me show him a movie of my choosing. If you knew my family and our film craziness, you’d know just how rare it really is. I decided to show him a film which inspired me when I first saw it and with that in mind, here’s a little background on how I was originally introduced to the film.

Years ago, I saw a documentary called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. Prolific fimmaker Martin Scorsese talks about all the films that inspired him when he was young, the films and artists that made him fall in love with movies. One of the films he talked about was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. It was only shown for a moment in the documentary but I knew I had to see it.

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As Roger Ebert explains in his review of the 1948 film, The Red Shoes is really an amalgam of two kinds of stories. Powell and Pressburger melded multiple genres to create something truly original and daring, especially for the time it was made in.

“One story could be a Hollywood musical: A young ballerina falls in love with the composer of the ballet that makes her an overnight star. The other story is darker and more guarded. It involves the impresario who runs the ballet company, who demands loyalty and obedience, who is enraged when the young people get married” (Ebert 2005).

Moira Shearer turned down the role for a year before giving in. She was just starting out as a ballet dancer and didn’t want her reputation to be tarnished by the film. However, she ended up giving in and although the process of making the film was apparently arduous, the film has gone on to be considered a revered classic of British cinema.

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Personally, I tend to be drawn to dialogue and storytelling over the visual nature of a film. But, I have to say The Red Shoes is all about the visual. What stuck with me after I saw it were images and the glorious color that just doesn’t exist anymore. There was fluidity and beauty is every shot. Now, I understand, that much of the credit for that goes to the prolific cinematographer of the film, Jack Cardiff.

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It is said that this film inspired a generation of young girls to become ballerinas. I can see why to some extent, but I also feel that, had I seen this as a young girl, it would deter me from dancing professionally. While it doesn’t take as harsh a view as Darren Aronovsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the sacrifices it takes to make it as a ballerina. The film purports to say that you can have love or art, but not both. Never both.

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Another aspect of the film which interested me as a teenager was the character of Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. He was interesting because he wasn’t simple. There was obviously jealousy and resentment and possessiveness of Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) but it wasn’t clear why. It wasn’t romantic. I interpreted it as almost as a jealousy of Victoria being able to have everything she wanted: both love and a great artistic career. Maybe it was something he wanted to have earlier in life, but couldn’t. It isn’t clear.

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For me, a great film inspires conversation. Whether it be about the story or the cinematography or the acting or the dancing is not important. Someone created something which made you think. I think there is something for everyone to appreciate in this film. It certainly has stuck with me over the years. We’re just lucky that Scorsese championed the restoration of this film so that it can still be seen in all its beauty 68 years after it was made.

Vintage trailer below:

Added tidbit: Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor throughout his long career, was actually married to Michael Powell. Scorsese met him through a publicist and introduced the pair. Sadly, they were only married a few years before Powell’s death in 1990.