Watched Aug 28, 2012
Noetic Hatter’s review:
The opening scene with bomber captain Peter (David Niven) talking to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) as he prepares to commit suicide by jumping without a parachute is one of the sharpest, funniest, and most emotionally touching moments I have seen in a movie. Niven is amazing.
Then we see "heaven". Specifically, the pilots' department. Shot in black and white, we have an afterlife just as rule-bound and bureaucratic as the world of London. But Peter doesn't show up, even though his partner Bob is waiting for him.
And so we have a humorous and touching meditation on love, living on borrowed time, and the nature of reality. Dr. Frank, played by the always-lovable Roger Livesey, believes that Peter has some brain damage from an old concussion that is causing hallucinations about visitors from heaven. Is it all in Peter's mind?
As with everything from The Archers, watch out for glorious images. The most famous one is the escalator to heaven. But the celestial courtroom amphitheater, filled with men and women of many different eras, has to come close in majesty. It had to have been tough for Americans and Brits to see this film, with all the WW2 soldiers and pilots and nurses and WACs in the afterlife. Perhaps it was comforting to see stand-ins for their own lost friends and family. It's still a powerful image today. Kudos to our boys for including a batch of black American soldiers amongst the honored dead.
And then there's Dr. Frank looking down on his little town through a telescope. He's the eye of heaven, knowing everything about everyone who passes beneath. Livesey is such a huge personality that I have no problem thinking of him as a kind of divine force for good.
The film has a second message, about the rights of the individual vs the rule of law and the force of the system. It's an important message, but I am going to deduct a star because the film gets sidetracked in the trial scenes as it chases this message in earnest. As vignettes, they are wonderful to look at and hear. But the story bogs down in speeches about the British Empire's abuses and the rights of the individual in England vs America. It's a love story and a thriller that's been nearly perfect in pacing and dialogue up to this point.
But it's only slight criticism. The scenes, as I said, are practically perfect in themselves. They're just a bit tacked on.
All in all, three cheers for another triumph from Powell & Pressburger.