Tag: Kim Hunter

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A pilot is stranded between Earth and…somewhere else in this brilliant romantic fantasy

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven (Peter David Carter), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Kim Hunter (June), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw), Kathleen Byron (Officer Angel), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (Judge/Surgeon), Richard Attenborough (Pilot)

In the final days of World War II, a plane glides across the Channel in flames. The crew has bailed out, leaving only their skipper behind. Unknown to them, he’s not got a parachute – and is facing a choice between jumping or crashing to certain death. With only moments left to live, when is there a better time to fall in love? Quoting poetry and embracing what life he can in his final moments, Peter Carter (David Niven) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), the last person he expects to talk to. It’s stirring, sweeping, hugely romantic – and then Peter jumps at 50,000 feet.

So that’s it, right? Wrong. Peter washes up on the shores of Britain, not dead and practically on June’s doorstep. Happy ending? Perhaps not: at the end of a huge escalator linking our world to another (maybe the next?) Peter was expected. His “conductor” (Marius Goring), a French fop executed during the Revolution, whose job it was to take his soul “up” lost him in the fog. Now a man who isn’t supposed to be alive is walking around on Earth falling in love. Can it be allowed? Or will Peter need to head up that staircase? Or is all of this in fact in Peter’s head, a product of a head injury diagnosed by Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey)? Either way, Peter faces two trials: life-saving surgery on Earth and a tribunal in that other place to decide whether he stays on Earth or not.

When released in America, AMOLAD was renamed Stairway to Heaven – a title rightly hated by Michael Powell. Part of the magic – and there is a lot of magic realism here in the most beloved of all British filmic fables – is the film’s carefully measured ambiguity. The film superbly doesn’t give any answers. The two worlds are clearly, visually distinguished and when Goring’s Conductor and others descend to Earth to freeze time and converse with Peter, their appearance is always foreshadowed with the same symptoms (smells and headaches) Frank diagnoses as part of Peter’s condition.

The beauty of AMOLAD is how wonderfully gently it explores the struggle of two nations – here represented by Peter and June – to emerge from the trauma of war and return to everyday life. From a world where death lies around every corner – where your plane can plummet to fiery doom in moments – they must readjust to one of romantic picnics, amateur theatricals and games of table tennis. Peter’s struggle to survive his surgery is a beautiful metaphor for returning to a life full of hope, possibility and looking forward rather than backward.

It’s why the visual impact of the film is so important. “Heaven” is shot in crisp black-and-white. As the Conductor says when travelling down to Earth, “one is starved of Technicolor up there”. This Heaven is a place of peace, but also of bureaucratic efficiency. Arrival lounges are staffed with decent but practical Angels (Kathleen Bryon is marvellous as the first of these we meet – and there is a fabulous shot from Powell that frames her in front of a clock, making the edges of its face appear like a halo around her head). There are rules and paperwork – in fact a whole city of clerks and arrival lounges. What it doesn’t have is the warmth and passion – the colour – of Earth. Down here, everything is in luscious, gorgeous Technicolor. Up there life is restful, but monochrome.

Jack Cardiff’s photography of AMOLAD – combined with Powell’s astute visual eye – crafts one of the most ravishing films you’ll ever see. Blues, oranges and reds practically pour off the screen into your eyes. Filters add a golden hue to much of what we see. The ramshackle details of locations – Frank’s cluttered library with its piles of books, June’s country-house-base – see every single detail captured in painterly beauty, colours popping out. Only Peter’s surgery room feels like a bridge between ”Heaven” and Earth, cooler filters stressing their blues and cool icey whites.

This is what Peter is fighting to stay in. A world of colour, of joy and poetry. Perhaps “Heaven” is just his imagination of what the afterlife could be like. It resembles the military operations he has spent the last few years emersed in. It’s filled with the historical generations he taught at university. Familiar faces up there fight his corner and represent him at the great trial to decide his fate. His surgeon on Earth shares the face of his judge in “Heaven”. Powell and Pressburger don’t lean too far either way – it’s all gloriously left open to our imagination.

And who, in 1946, wouldn’t want to believe in a heaven as reassuringly welcoming as this. (On a side note it’s refreshing to see a film from the 40s that depicts such a racially diverse after life). One where all are equal and questions of colour and creed are left aside. “Heaven” is packed with soldiers from all across the world – and the sheer volume of uniforms up there reminds us of the trauma down here.

AMOLAD is all about the world we might decide to live in after the trauma of war. It’s also about forging lasting bonds between two nations bought together to fight. No one feels more English than David Niven: and AMOLAD is, arguably, his finest performance. He makes Peter a man of casual wit and lightly worn intelligence, but with hints of the burdens he has carried across years of war. He’s the best of us Brits – and now he has fallen in love with the best of America. June, wonderfully played by Kim Hunter, is practical, brave and grounded. Their love (and the life they could spend together) becomes the battleground at the heavenly trial.

On the one side: a prejudiced revolutionary American (played with gusto by Raymond Massey) – on the other the perfect embodiment of English decency. There could have been no better choice of actor for this than the glorious Roger Livesey. Livesey’s Frank Reeves becomes a mix of English eccentric, master surgeon and Prospero-like magus. It’s no coincidence that among his hobbies is a large camera obscura with which he observes events on his village streets with a protective, grandfatherly care. His study is lined with books, his knowledge is infinite and he is always open to Peter’s tales of heavenly staircases and visitations from mysterious conductors. Then as his advocate in “Heaven” it is he who has the clear sight and judgement to focus the jury not on what divides us, but what unites us – what makes us all human, not what drives us apart.

AMOLAD is about what brings us together. It’s open about the flaws of Britain – the first trial jury is awash with Boers, Indians and other victims of Empire – but also a celebration of its virtues. It celebrates the melting pot of America – the second trial jury is made-up of an incredibly diverse selection of American citizens – and is a hymn to personal freedoms. Farlan picks up on what divides Britain and America – cricket vs American dynamism – but what unites us is our desire for life. So what does it matter if Brits can be austere or Americans so brash they raid a coke dispenser on arrival in “Heaven”. We’re still cousins.

All this helps capture the film as a universal fable, of love being discovered in the magical boundaries between worlds (its no coincidence we see Midsummer Night’s Dream being rehearsed by an American cast under a British vicar). This is a quiet, decent struggle about emerging from the horrors of war into the chance of a new world of love. It’s a struggle for Peter and June that is both very personal and hugely universal.  Powell and Pressburger’s film captures this perfectly in a film that’s sublimely directed and never-endingly rich in dialogue and visuals. It perfectly offers up a universal fable that speaks to the heart. It’s perhaps why this is their most beloved – and finest – hour.

Lilith (1964)

Jean Seberg lures Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda into a psychologically dangerous web in Lilith

Director: Robert Rossen

Cast: Warren Beatty (Vincent Bruce), Jean Seberg (Lilith Arthur), Peter Fonda (Stephen Evshevsky), Kim Hunter (Dr Bea Brice), Anne Meacham (Mrs Meaghan), Jessica Walter (Laura), Gene Hackman (Norman), James Patterson (De Lavrier), Robert Reilly (Bob Clayfield)

Movies have long had a fascination with mental illness – in particular the impact of mental illness on women. Lilith is an intriguing, elliptical, somewhat cold but intriguing film that looks at the impact isolation, loneliness and seclusion can have on people and how these damaged psyches can sprawl out and cause further pain and suffering for others. However, it’s also a difficult, unclear and occasionally hard to like film, that deliberately clouds so many of its points in a veil of doubt and uncertainty that it’s difficult to really embrace it.

Returning from an undisclosed war (possibly Korea), Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), a lonely, slightly troubled young man, drifts into a job as a counsellor at a private mental hospital, under the supervision of Dr Brice (Kim Hunter). Bruce is empathetic and keen to understand and help the patients, but he finds himself slowly drawn towards Lilith Arthur (Jean Seberg), a sensual and seductive patient at the institute. Encouraged to spend more time with Lilith – as only Vincent seems able to draw her out of a fantasy world to engage with the real one – he increasingly finds himself infatuated with her, increasingly bending any personal or professional ethics to fuel his emotional and sexual need for her.

Just in case you are in any doubt from reading that, it’s pretty clear from early on in the film that the real person in need of help is Vincent. Played with a methody introspection and brooding insecurity by Beatty (he impassively and wordlessly drifts through several scenes or merely watches, and only rarely shows any emotional engagement), Vincent is frequently framed by Rossen alone, lost in the centre and sides of frames, or walking seemingly aimlessly forward. The camera often drifts towards him, if only to stress his lack of real engagement with the things he is seeing in front of him. His obsessive qualities are there from the very start, with his fixations switching between his mother, a former girlfriend (played with a flirtatious seductiveness by Jessica Walter) and finally settling, overwhelmingly, on Lilith whom he follows with the glazed eyes of a potential killer. Beatty struggled with the part – and I can see why, as our central character is such a distant cipher that he becomes someone very hard for the audience to invest any interest in.

Lilith herself is an intriguing if, it seems, unknowable character – almost impossible to tell if she is a truly destructive force or someone who simply behaves as she feels in the moment with no understanding of the impact her actions have. She is frequently callous and cruel, and then will revert to sadness, vulnerability and insecurity. She looks for love – or at least affection and loyalty – at every turn, but then also seems unable to understand any personal relationship except through the filter of sex. Starting the film placing an erotic spell around sensitive fellow patient Steve (Peter Fonda, vulnerable and rather sweet) she quickly switches all her efforts to wrapping Vincent in a web of enchantment (as the film rather clumsily stresses to us in a scene where a doctor explicitly compares her to a spider).

Lilith is increasingly seen as an unsettling, indiscriminate figure. No sooner does Vincent become her lover, than she begins flaunting a sexual relationship she is having with another female patient. (Lesbianism was quite radical for a film at the time). Even more surprisingly the patient is a staid, rather imperious middle-aged woman (played imposingly by Anne Meacham), and the relationship seems to be partly conducted to get a rise (of one sort or another) out of Vincent. Earlier, Lilith flirts disturbingly and erotically with a very young child (who seems disturbed) – although the viewer is perhaps even more disturbed by Vincent’s blank watching of the whole scene. At every point we are reminded of Lilith’s erotic allure – and the framing of the film, and its beautiful photography by Eugene Schufftan helps to create this mystic image. Lilith is often shown behind grills and bars earlier on, before she emerges into the outside world and one enchanting image sees her kissing her reflection in a lake, the very act reducing the reflection to shimmering ripples on the surface: can anyone know her?

The part leans on being borderline sexist, the idea of the enchanting, liberated woman as somehow being a dangerous (almost evil) threat to the safety and mental security of the men around her, deliberately endangering the decent world with her sexual openness. It largely manages to avoid this due to the performance of Jean Seberg, who gives Lilith a vulnerability and suggestions of deep psychological trauma that underpin her surface sexuality, flirtation and predatory nature. It’s no surprise that she is so completely able to overwhelm the repressed, inverted Vincent, or that he becomes such a willing slave to her whims and spur-of-the-moment suggestions.

Much of this disintegration of Vincent underpins the second half of the film, as he and Lilith engage in a dance that ends up having overwhelmingly negative consequences for each of them and for many of those around them. Intriguingly, Rossen’s vision of this mental institute as a more bohemian organisation suggests that the staff all seem aware of (and even tacitly encourage) the relationship – although whether this is part of a treatment or some sort of bizarre other motive is unclear. However, all this doesn’t help to make either character one we really care about, or make the story crystallise into something that carries real impact.

That captures the central problem of the film – Rossen deliberately builds the story with an elliptical sense of mystery in which the actions and motives of characters remain deliberately unclear, and the world they live in takes on elements of the dreamlike fantasy world that Lilith herself sometimes lives in (complete with her own language). Events seems to move with little sense of time. There are surreal interludes, not least an extended sequence where Vincent takes Lilith to a jousting competition (yes you read that right). It’s perhaps all a part of understanding how the personalities of the two lead characters slowly collapse over time into themselves, but it also serves to keep a distance between the film and the viewer. The final tragic outcomes are predictable from the very start of the film, but there is still a certain power to them. As a study of what slow mental disintegration may look like, Lilith is an intriguing little picture, but basically a little too hard to invest in emotionally to carry real impact.