Wednesday, November 28, 2007


During the waning days of WWII, David Niven, a British RAF pilot, is about to bail out of his burning plane. The rest of his crew has already jumped (except for his buddy, Robert Coote, who is lying dead in the plane), and though Niven doesn't have a parachute, he'd rather die from the jump than wait to be burnt up. In his last moments, he makes contact with American radio operator Kim Hunter, who is working in England. Niven starts quoting poetry and giving a farewell message to his mother, and in those few moments, they make an emotional connection which would seem to end when he jumps, but somehow he winds up washed up on a beach. He first assumes he's in heaven, but a young (and naked) shepherd boy tending his flock tells him he's not. By coincidence, the next person he meets up with is Hunter, bicycling home after a long shift at the radio. Luckily, they're both very good looking people, so their love grows. Meanwhile, up in Heaven, the Powers That Be are upset because Niven should be up there with his friend Coote. The flamboyant French angel who was supposed to retrieve him (Marius Goring) is sent after him, but Niven, thoroughly in love, isn't anxious to leave. When Niven tells other people about his visitations, it is assumed that he has some kind of brain malfunction (he reports having suffered from headaches for several months before his fateful jump) and he is put in the care of village doctor Roger Livesey, who sure enough finds evidence of brain lesions. The Heavenly Powers agree to have a trial to see whether or not he should be allowed to remain; Livesey is convinced that an operation will cure him, but he's also concerned that if Niven should lose his "imaginary" trial, he will die. The narrative continues on two levels: one on earth in the operating room, and one in Heaven where rabidly anti-British Raymond Massey is arguing against him.

This is a beautiful film all around: great Technicolor, fine acting, and clever plotting, and the fact that it can be read as either fantasy or not just adds to its luster. One plotting trick in the last half-hour involving Livesey's character doesn't sit so well with me, but aside from that, the movie is nearly perfection. This has similarities to the earlier HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, which was officially remade as HEAVEN CAN WAIT, including its picture of Heaven as a well-run cosmic bureaucracy (interestingly, almost all of Heaven's workers are women). The operating room/afterlife scenes here must have influenced Bob Fosse in ALL THAT JAZZ. The scenes on earth are in lush color; Heaven is in glowing black and white. The Heaven sets are great, and particularly impressive is a pan-out shot of the huge cosmic courtroom, undoubtedly a matte painting but almost as effective as any CGI shot of today would be. Not only are Niven and Hunter attractive, but Livesey is quite handsome as well. Also with Abraham Soafer as the Heavenly Judge and Richard Attenborough in a small role as a dead flier. I like that the American soldiers arriving in Heaven are overjoyed to find a Coke machine. The only propaganda aspect of this film, which was shot just after the war ended, is an odd turn taken during the trial into an argument for British and American cooperation--it seems weirdly out of place, but doesn't hurt the movie. It's a crime that this Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger masterpiece is not on a Region 1 DVD yet. Thank you yet again, Turner Classic, for showing this. (I think of this as a Christmas movie only because the first time I saw it, when I was 12, staying up and watching a late showing of it on our local Public TV station, it was the night before Christmas Eve.) [TCM]

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