It is 2 May 1945 and an airborne fighter pilot is reciting poetry with the clipped delivery of the British upper class. His plane is going down fast over the English coast as he offers his last words to June, an American wireless operator he has never met, stationed on the ground below. This is the memorable opening of A Matter of Life and Death, a British romance which, despite its 76 years, continues to hold its critical standing alongside the world’s top films.
Made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and starring David Niven, it is part of the canon of world cinema. And yet many British filmgoers will never have watched its vivid glories.
Three nights ago, after a decade-long wait, the results of an influential poll of the world’s greatest films prompted shock and joy in equal measure. Both Citizen Kane and Vertigo, established as bywords for the best the big screen has to offer, were dislodged from the top of the chart. The new winner, a comparatively little-known feminist drama by the Belgian director Chantal Akerman, is also the first film by a woman to make the top 10. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death came in well below, at number 78, nine places behind their vibrant ballet drama, The Red Shoes.
This weekend, film lovers seem happy to salute this fresh list of 100 illustrious titles, published by Sight and Sound, the British Film Institute’s journal. It is a line-up compiled every 10 years from the votes of international directors, actors and critics, a constituency expanded this time to 1,639. Since the poll began in 1952, the results have been dominated by male directors, so the time was ripe, most concede, for a broader view.
True, a few commentators are quibbling about the usurping of the acknowledged “great movies” of the past in favour of more zeitgeisty offerings, such as 2019’s Oscar-winning Korean satire, Parasite, at number 90, Barry Jenkins’s story of queer identity, Moonlight, at 60, Jordan Peele’s racially astute horror debut Get Out, now at number 95, and the notable ascent of a three-year old film, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, now at 30. Others have grumbled about a suspected “tick box” instinct among voters, allegedly prompting them to make sure that more female directors made the grade.
But as the dust settles and the list is analysed for what it says about changing critical tastes, there is good news for the sustained power of British storytelling. Although there are now 69 different international directors, rather than 55, in the top 100, the talents of Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Powell and Pressburger are still well represented, to say nothing of the Putney-born director Carol Reed, maker of that stylish favourite The Third Man in 1949. Seventy three years later, it holds 63rd place jointly with Goodfellas and Casablanca.
So the British titles that still ride high are rather different to the realist, kitchen-sink dramas commonly thought to characterise good British film making. Acclaimed work such as Ken Loach’s Kes or Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake – which laid the gritty groundwork for British directors working today like Clio Barnard, Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold – are not so visible across the world.
“There is a colourful thread of British imaginative world-building that you can see in the directors still included in the poll,” said Isabel Stevens, managing editor of Sight and Sound. “It is an almost theatrical tradition.”
Such an approach, born of variety acts and gothic literary traditions, is evident even in the work of Ridley Scott, who comes in at number 54 with Blade Runner. It can be summed up in the written lines that emerge through the clouds at the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death: “This is the story of two worlds, the one we know, and another that exists only in the mind.”
It also, arguably, still fuels the work of Christopher Nolan, maker of Dunkirk and Inception, and even of Edgar Wright, director of the comic horror hit Shaun of the Dead and last year’s Last Night in Soho. Wright, who was at the launch of the poll results on London’s Southbank, helped compile the votes of some well-known directors and said he was delighted to see that the experimental director Peter Greenaway, best known for The Draughtsman’s Contract, had unexpectedly selected Ridley Scott’s action films Gladiator and Blade Runner, and that the poetic British film-maker Terence Davies plumped for two Doris Day films.
“The choices of other directors are so interesting,” agrees Stevens, who suggests that Davies’ mesmeric Distant Voices, Still Lives is destined to move up the charts in the next decade. “I would watch for Nicolas Roeg too, films such as Don’t Look Now and Walkabout are growing in popularity. I also rate Orlando, made by Sally Potter, and Under the Skin, as well as Charlotte Wells’s recent fantastic film Aftersun. They may well all climb up.”
The enduring impact of British storytelling is even more impressive if you slightly cheat by including Stanley Kubrick, an American who moved to Britain in 1961 to make Dr Strangelove: Or how I learned to love the Bomb with Peter Sellers, and then stayed. His 2001: A Space Odyssey had been rumoured to have made it to the top this time, but stuck at number six. (This time, though, it does top the parallel poll that counts only the votes of film directors.)
“He sort of is British really,” said Stevens. “His films The Shining, at number 88, and Barry Lyndon, at a joint 45 with Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, were all shot here with British crews. And of course 2001 was based on Arthur C Clarke’s book.”
Dr Strangelove, that unnerving political comedy, a favourite of Gary Oldman’s,is the clear grandparent to recent British satires such as Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin. Iannucci, by the way, chose Monty Python’s Life of Brian as one of his 10. Among his other votes was The Great Dictator, made by the London-born Chaplin, which he watched in awe as a teenager. Chaplin’s City Lights makes number 36 and Modern Times is at 78. But then he had two films in the top three in the first poll in 1952.
These films are among the few comedies in the top 100. The humour of emigre American Billy Wilder is there, with The Apartment at 54 and Some Like It Hot reaching a joint 38 with Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And Jacques Tati is prominent at 23 with Playtime. But Britain’s beloved Ealing comedies make less of a dent, a sadness perhaps for Stevens, who is the great niece of the British comic actor Terry-Thomas: “It is fascinating to see who has risen up and who has declined. David Lean made it into the first top 10 with Brief Encounter, but seems to have dropped away.” Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, once so admired, did get a vote from Roger Corman though.
Some might be surprised by the mounting esteem for the haunting Night of the Hunter, made by British actor Charles Laughton. Starring Robert Mitchum, it is now at 25, beating the poll’s first winner, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It won notable votes from directors Carol Morley and Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh.
Yet Hitchcock remains the big British story. He dominates with Vertigo, now in second place, after winning in 2012, along with Rear Window and North by Northwest, and his Psycho at 31. It is an impressive legacy for a lad born in Leytonstone, north-east London, and, considering British directors did not feature in the top 10 of 1962, it also indicates a growing appetite for his work.
British directors possibly have an advantage because they work in the same language as the Hollywood film machine that still bestrides the artform. As more foreign films become accessible, it is probable things will change.
Stevens just hopes the new poll will send people in search of new and old classics. She does however, like Tilda Swinton, suggest that A Matter of Life and Death is a great place to start for those yet to see it. “It shows what film can really do.”