A Matter of Life and Death (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, is as gorgeous and romantic as films come.
The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
All six Pink Panther features directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau are featured in this six-disc Blu-ray collection, four of them making their respective Blu-ray debuts.
Clouseau was but a supporting character in The Pink Panther (1963), a comic heist film with David Niven as the legendary jewel thief “the Phantom” out to steal a priceless diamond (called “The Pink Panther”) belonging to Indian Princess Claudia Cardinale, but Sellers’ mock-French accent and oblivious intensity made him the most memorable character. The bumbling French detective Clouseau also has a wife in this one, played by Capucine. Set in a posh Swiss resort and accompanied by an easy-going light jazz score by Henri Mancini, Blake Edwards’ mix of elegance and slapstick was a hit and Sellers was back as Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark(1964), this time without a wife, which gives him time to romance lovely murder suspect Elke Sommers. While the original film gave the series its name and its hero, it was A Shot in the Darkthat defined the series by putting Clouseau in the lead and introducing two essential series characters: martial arts wielding manservant Kato (Burt Kwouk), who keeps his boss in shape by ambushing him every time her returns home, and tormented Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who barely survives the walking disaster that is Clouseau.
After the death of Peter Sellers in 1980, Blake Edwards made the unexpected decision to revive the Pink Panther film franchise by creating not one but two sequels simultaneously without the defining presence of Sellers in the lead as Inspector Clouseau. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), the first of the two, utilizes previously unseen footage shot for previous Pink Panther features for a kind of memorial for Clouseau, who is sent once again to solve the robbery of the Pink Panther diamond (the jewel stolen in the original The Pink Panther (1963) and disappears, apparently dead in a plane crash. A reporter interviews friends, foes, and colleagues of the legendary detective, allowing Edwards to use classic clips from the series.
Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) picks up the premise months later and spins it into an attempt to launch a new character under the Pink Panther brand. Clouseau’s boss and nemesis Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) is directed to use a supercomputer to find the world’s greatest detective to find France’s greatest detective. Since only a complete moron on the level of Clouseau has any hope of figuring him out, he reprograms the computer search for Clouseau’s perfect match: the worst detective in the world. Enter Sergeant Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) of the New York Police Department, a walking disaster area that his commanding officer is overjoyed to pack off to Paris. Immediately upon reporting to duty, his clumsiness sends Dreyfus to the hospital.
John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) is quite possibly the least well known of his films and quite probably the biggest misfire of his career: an anti-war film played as a slapstick comedy. Never been on DVD so the TCM showing is a rare opportunity.
Set in the final days of the war, The Extraordinary Seaman (1969) is more farce than satire. David Niven receives top billing as Commander John Finchhaven, a sardonic old salt with a crisply British sense of decorum and a bottomless cargo of Scotch, and he plays the role with a bemused sense of dignity and unflinching perseverance in the face of disaster, incompetence and bad judgment. The romantic lead was a young stage actor by the name of Alan Alda; this was his first major screen appearance as an ill-equipped junior officer saddled with command of three more experienced (but far less motivated) sailors: a paranoid cook (Mickey Rooney), a gunner’s mate (Jack Carter) and a suspicious seaman (Manu Tupou), a native American who is silent but for reciting his name, rank and serial number to friend and foe alike. And it was the fourth feature for rising star Faye Dunaway, who was fresh off Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when she was cast as the beautiful gun-toting grease-monkey of a trading post operator given passage in exchange for supplies. Frankenheimer underplays the romance angle, letting the slapstick complications throw them together time and again while the chemistry of two attractive young people in a crew of old eccentrics did the rest. It’s a wartime comedy of a misfit unit and a Captain of questionable pedigree, a military farce, a slapstick romance and a crazy ghost story all in one strange package.