Of all Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films, “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) is the most rhapsodic, so three cheers and then some to see it bow on DVD in such a spectacular transfer. Yet it seems a false step to couple the pic with the vastly inferior “Age of Consent” (1969) as Sony does for “The Films of Michael Powell,” its second collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.
Powell directed both movies but Pressburger wasn’t involved in “Age of Consent,” and that matters. So does “A Matter of Life and Death’s” vintage because the 1940s were Powell and Pressburger’s golden age, when they conjured landmark efforts such as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes,” films that exude a unique ethos. Boldly colored, unapologetically romantic and fiercely English, they remain endlessly watchable even 60 years after their debuts.
“A Matter of Life and Death” (originally titled “Stairway to Heaven” in America) tells of a downed English Royal Air Force captain (David Niven) who is accidentally lost by an angel of death (Marius Goring). Once found, the flier refuses to be taken heavenward because he’s found love on earth with an American gal (Kim Hunter) assisting the war effort in Blighty.
The magic comes as the film, lensed by the great Jack Cardiff, toggles between the earthly romance, in blazing Technicolor, and the somberness of Niven’s heavenly trial, shot in gauzy b&w — a cheeky upending to “The Wizard of Oz’s” depiction of fantasy versus reality.
“Age of Consent,” Powell’s last feature, will interest only those wanting to follow the helmer’s career to its disappointing end. It’s an old man’s film in the worst sense, an indulgent island romp in which a middle-age painter (James Mason) attempts to recapture lost vibrancy, a quality personified in the feral girl he enlists as a model (Helen Mirren, in her first film). It’s beautifully, though not imaginatively, shot in vibrant color, with ample underwater shots of the Great Barrier Reef.
What’s notable about this issue is that the pic’s “risque” original title sequence has been restored, as has Peter Sculthorpe’s beguiling original score — both foolishly jettisoned by nervous Col execs prior to the film’s debut.
As for the extras on this two-disc set, Scorsese’s intro to “A Matter of Life and Death” is sweet but too personal. (It’s not about you, Marty!) The full audio commentary by preeminent Powell and Pressburger scholar Ian Christie, though, couldn’t be more authoritative and compellingly delivered. Fans of the Archers (as Powell and Pressburger called themselves) are certain to learn much.
The extras for “Age of Consent” are in some way more engrossing than the film itself. “Making ‘Age of Consent'” features the director’s son, Kevin Powell, who worked on the film, as well as editor Anthony Buckley and scorer Sculthorpe. In the 12-mintue “Helen Mirren: A Conversation With Cora,” the Oscar-winning actress speaks endearingly of how intimidated she was by filmmaking generally and how touched she was by Mason’s kindness and Powell’s tender concern.