Fragment #004: Michael Powell on a Title of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death is called Stairway to Heaven in the USA. This change of title seemed to us to illustrate a fundamental difference between the English and the American mind and outlook. We had been pleased with our title. I believe the suggestion was mine. I loved the old melodramatic phrase which crops up in every thriller written during the last century, in every European language: and I liked the play upon words, for in our film it really was a matter of life and death that was being discussed, so Emeric [Pressburger] and I looked a bit blank when the film was finished, and two young, excited New York lawyers, Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin, who were determined to take over the film business and use our film as their spearhead, came rushing down from the projection room, into the studio and said to us: “Boys, we’ve got a wonderful title for your film.”

“We have a title already, Arthur.” (This was Emeric.) “A Matter of Life and Death, don’t you remember?”

But this was 1946. Arthur and Bob brushed question and statement aside. “You can’t have ‘Death’ in the title,” they screamed. “We’re going to market it as Stairway to Heaven! What do you think of that?”

What did we think of it? We had all of us survived a war with the greatest and most fanatical power in the world, and won it. In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words “life and death” were no longer the great contradictions that they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that we couldn’t have “death” in the title.

I don’t recall that Emeric and I argued very much with Arthur and Bob. They loved our film and said so, and they were so proud of their inspiration and so sure we would be glad of this soapy title for our film. We had become rather anxious about Arthur Rank’s and John Davies’s promises and hope for world distribution, and it was exhilarating to know that these two young enthusiasts were going to start their career with our film. After all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word. And now these young Americans were juggling with it, as if it were a Hollywood musical.

Emeric made one last attempt to persuade them.

“Arthur, you say that no film with ‘death’ in the title has ever been a success, but what about the famous play which they made into a successful film also: Death Takes a Holiday?”

But Bob and Arthur were ready for him.

“That’s the very reason it was a success. Don’t you see, boys? Death takes a holiday – obviously there’s not going to be any death in the picture!”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: William Heinemann, 1986


The Rain Before it Goes to Earth

In Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, The Rain Before it Falls, a character describes the joy of appearing as an extra in Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth. Her excitement at getting close to Jennifer Jones is a hint at her burgeoning sexuality, but the recollection fits in well with the books central themes of memorialisation, and the power of photographic records to record some, but crucially not all, of the truths of a particular moment. The film gives her a glimpse into the past lives of herself and her friend. Coe illustrates the sequence vividly:

“I can describe exactly the clothes that Beatrix found for us to wear for our appearance in the film. This is not a feat of memory on my part: it’s because I have the film on tape now, recorded from the television some years ago, and she and I can be seen quite clearly in one of the earliest scenes. Oh, the excitement, of glimpsing myself – just for a few seconds – on the big screen, when I saw the film with my parents when it was first released! We went and saw it four or five times in a single week, just for that thrill. (And most of the time we were almost alone in the cinema, for it was not a popular film, not popular at all.) And then the poignancy of glimpsing myself – of glimpsing both of us – once again, when the film was rereleased almost forty years later, and I saw it with Ruth at that cinema near Oxford Street shortly after our dinner party. […] Since then I have seen it many times – so many times; it is the only moving record I have of Beatrix at all, the only one where she is not frozen in time. It is precious to me for that reason, mainly, although there are other reasons too.
Our little appearance takes place in what I believe the film-makers call an establishing shot. A sculptor is seen chiselling the date – 20 June 1897 – on to a memorial stone, against a background of bright blue sky. Behind this, already, we can hear the noise of horses’ hooves clip-clopping along the street. We then cut to the street itself – the bottom of the High Street, at its junction with Wilmore Street, so that the old Tudor guildhall and buttermarket buildings are also in view – and there, immediately, you can see Beatrix and me, standing in the left-hand corner of the frame, laughing and talking together.”

The description of the scene continues for a couple more pages. But as soon as I read it I knew that I was going to find a copy of the film and check whether or not this shot exists, and whether or not our two characters are visible in its left-hand corner. And here, with apologies for the dodgy old VHS quality, is, I think, the relevant shot:

It is a little spooky to see fictional characters transported into another medium. Maybe Coe anticipated the little frisson that would greet readers when they saw the film, as if throwing in an uncanny authentication of the story told in the novel. In the book, the dying Rosamond leaves a series of tapes for a blind girl whose family relationship is initially mysterious. On these tapes, she describes a series of photos that mark out key moments in her life. But the images never tell the full story, and sometimes they obscure it. Coe pulls off the neat trick of offering us, in this moment from Gone to Earth, a concrete example of an image that lies to us – it is, of course not Rosamond and Beatrix in the left hand corner of the frame. The image has just been borrowed and put to a new fictive purpose. I’d love to hear about more examples of books describing, and re-imagining scenes from actual movies.