Stairway to Heaven/A Matter of Life and Death 1946 Directed by Michael Powell, Emerich Pressburger. When the plane of WWII Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is badly hit, he orders the crew to bail out aware of his own faulty parachute. Just before jumping to certain death, he deeply connects with June (Kim Hunter) an American radio operator in London. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) sent to escort Peter to Heaven, can’t find his quarry in the fog. The flyer survives and meets June cycling back from her night shift in tears. They fall in love.
Conductor 71 stops time to explain the situation to Peter who’s not about to go quietly. He’s granted an appeal with three days to prepare and must choose his lawyer from the dead. June’s sympathetic friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) diagnoses Peter’s visions as a brain issue and sets up an operation. He then dies in an accident. While on the operating table, the pilot chooses Reeves as his lawyer. We see moving stairs through the clouds and an endless amphitheatre representing celestial court. Only when June takes the stand (she’s asleep on earth) do things shift the couple’s way.
Good arguments. Visually imaginative. Extremely romantic. In 1945, the production used 29 sets, and cost an estimated £320,000, equivalent to £13,910,000 in 2019. Rent on Criterion.
The Beauty and the Beast 1947 French with English subtitles. An adaptation of the original tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Directed by Jean Cocteau. Fabulously imagined and rather moving. You know the story: on the way home to his daughters, a father (Marcel Andre) gets lost and takes refuge in a castle that seems to welcome him. Leaving he picks a rose for his youngest Belle (Josette Day) infuriating the garden’s owner, a Beast (Jean Marais). The accused is allowed to return home with a caveat that either he or one of his daughters must return. Belle volunteers.
Belle is treated like a queen at the castle but refuses the Beast’s marriage proposal despite growing fondness. Observing the girl misses her family, the creature magics her back home with a promise to return. Greedy sisters, a violent braggart suitor, and her brother interfere. Diana’s Pavilion also plays a part. The Beast dies of a broken heart or does he? Rent on Amazon Prime.
Orpheus 1950 French with English Subtitles. Based on the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Directed by Jean Cocteau. Set in then contemporary Paris. Orpheus (Jean Marais), a famous poet, is present at a café brawl and sees the hit-and-run death of poet Cégeste (Eduard Dermit). The Princess (Maria Carases) who accompanied Cégeste will take him to the hospital, but insists Orpheus come along as a witness. They arrive instead at a ruined chateau where the now dead body is reanimated. Chauffeur Heurtebise (Francois Périer) drives Orpheus home after hallucinatory experience. Wife Eurydice is waiting.
Orpheus believes the Princess is Death, yet starts to dream about her as a woman. When Eurydice is killed, Heurtebise offers to lead her husband through The Underworld to try and retrieve her. They face a tribunal in Hades. The couple may leave if Orpheus never looks upon his wife again. At first they manage, then a mirror changes everything. Friends of Cégeste come after Orpheus. Death wins, but again temporarily. Loyalties shift. Time is malleable. Immensely evocative and rather confusing, but worth seeing. The Criterion Channel.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 1947 Based on the novel by Josephine Leslie under the pseudonym R.A. Dick. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Utterly charming. Young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), daughter Anna, and housekeeper Martha (Edna Best) move into a seaside cottage haunted by a ghost. The rakish spirit of Sea Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) appears to Lucy. It was his plan to turn Gull Cottage into a home for retired seamen and he doesn’t appreciate her presence. The headstrong woman won’t leave. Daniel can’t help but be intrigued and only shows himself to her.
When the widow runs out of money, Daniel suggests he dictate his memoirs to her. A life of great manly adventure, it’s related in salty language. (Harrison excels in the telling.) He and Lucy fall in love. Blood and Swash becomes a bestseller. One day in London, Lucy meets children’s book author Miles Farley (George Saunders) who courts her. To give her a chance at real life, Daniel plants in Lucy the idea that he’s just her imagination. Miles has a fatal flaw and Lucy becomes a recluse until…Wonderfully romantic. Rent on Amazon Prime.
The Beauty of the Devil 1950 In French with English subtitles. Directed by Rene Clair. A wonderful reimagining of Faust in which the devil seems as mischievous as evil, warms to his victim and is pixilated when drunk. Doddering scholar Henri Faust (Michel Simon) is coming towards the end of his life without accomplishing half what he intended. Lucifer’s agent, Mephistopheles (the handsome Gerard Phillipe) insidiously makes himself known in hopes of making a deal, but Faust keeps sending him away. Seeming to veer from established procedure, the demon gets permission to give Faust youth as a trial.
Faust, now just known as Henri, exults in his new body, goes out to sample the life he’d eschewed in favor of study, connects with a band of gypsies – especially fortune teller, Marguerite (Nicole Besnard), and is pursued for essentially robbing his own house when he needs tavern money. Police investigate and assume the professor has been murdered by the young man. Just before being sentenced, Mephistopheles appears as Faust (and stays in the body). Henri digs ditches until the demon draws him into helping the town by achieving his alchemic goal to create gold (out of sand).
Henri is made Chevalier and experiences the high life with the demon continuing as Faust. When the young man falls in love with a princess, Mephistopheles finally gets him to sign the contract after which mischief upon mischief makes things go horribly awry, until…Terrific fun. If you watch this, listen to Faust’s whistled tune as he puts gold into a carryall. I’d swear it became “Master of the House” from the musical Les Misérables. Simon is the perfect Mephistopheles. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Pandora and The Flying Dutchman 1951 Based on the legend of The Flying Dutchman. Directed by Albert Lewin. The Spanish port of Esperanza is occupied in part by a small circle of expatriates revolving around American nightclub singer Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner at her most beautiful). Inspiring love in all men, she feels nothing. One suitor (Marius Goring) commits suicide by drinking poison wine, another (Nigel Patrick) sends his fabulously expensive, prized racing car into the sea at her command. Later, she agrees to marry him for the gesture.
One night, a strange yacht appears anchored not far from shore. Pandora sheds all her clothes and swims out to it. Onboard, owner/captain Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason) is painting a portrait of her as namesake Pandora. She’s drawn to him. Hendrick becomes a separately orbiting part of the group, in particular friends with archeologist Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) who finds an old Dutch book with the legend of the Dutchman. In order to stop sailing, a woman must love him enough to give up her life and go along. When Pandora figures this out… Rent on Amazon Prime.
Top photo: Bigstock