(aka “Stairway to Heaven,” 1946) Peter, an RAF pilot (David Niven), flies the skies over the Channel. He’s dashing, dapper, in flyboy leather and a mustache that only he (and John Waters) have ever pulled off. His plane’s hit. It’s in flames. He’s going to crash. He’s going to die. He radios to base, the radio operator is an American woman named June (Kim Hunter). She talks him through, they both know he’s done, minutes from certain death. They love each other’s voices. They talk about their childhoods. They don’t talk about a future they certainly could never have. Just before he knows he’s done for, he says what for me is one of the most formidably exquisite (and earned) lines of dialogue in cinema: “You’re life, June, and I’m leaving you.” (Almost beaten by “She wuz a friend of mine. I hoped she would meet a charactah” from “Days of Heaven” and a title of a Frank Borzage film, “History is Made At Night.”) Whenever I try to describe that scene in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s sublime fantasy-romance, my eyes well up. They’re stinging now. Only recently restored and on DVD, “A Matter” used to play intermittently, every year-and-a-half or so at places like the old Film Center at the Art Institute. Over the course of several years, it may have played three times and I took three different dates. None of them liked it. Knew nothing would work out, then. Niven wakes up planted face first in the sand on a British-looking beach. Dog wanders past. “Ah! I’d hoped there’d be dogs in heaven.” A pretty woman rides past on a bicycle. Catches his eye. It’s June. He’s alive. The angel meant to ferry him to heaven messed up. A celestial trial is convened in heaven, he asks the greatest minds in history to defend him. And that is only the setup. There are visual innovations that in a way make this the “Matrix” of its era. The cinematography, set design and the mind-boggling turns of the script, eventually about the smallest runnels of the brain and the larger hopes of the human heart, are a ceaseless thrill on the big screen. 104m. (Ray Pride)
“Stairway to Heaven” plays Wednesday at Siskel. Jonathan Rosenbaum will explain.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.