With David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesy, Raymond Massey.
What is it about David Niven that is so charming? Is it his perfectly shaped mouth, topped by a slightly too thin mustache? Is it the way he asks questions expecting nothing but the truth for an answer? Is it in this movie, his ability to recite Sir Walter Raleigh’s poetry over a radio while he is in the act of being shot down as a bomber pilot, his dead mates all around him?
David Niven’s character named Peter Carter keeps saying he is 27 years old, even while his creased brow indicates a man older than that, perhaps in his mid 30s. No matter. Peter has the intelligence and wit to convince you that everything he says is absolutely true, including his having fallen in love, only over the airwaves, with an American whose job is to bring bomber pilots in for a safe landing. When June (Kim Hunter) realizes that she cannot do that, and that her and the bomber pilot’s mission has failed, she weeps quietly at her station, and somehow Peter picks up on that innate sense of decency, and if he hasn’t fallen in love with her before, he certainly has by now.
And so the dilemma begins. What to do with a bomber pilot whose parachute has failed, and who by extension, must die, when he has suddenly and irretrievably fallen in love, when your job is to reap in the fallen souls who have died,, and belong in … the other place. We are not talking about heaven or hell, just the sheer statistical gathering place where souls are harvested, and accounts must be squared, and deaths are deaths and lives are lives. Here officials dressed in white make sure you sign the register book and collect your wings carefully wrapped in cellophane. What if one of the newly dead doesn’t land where he belongs? One like Peter Carter, recently fallen in love, recently bailed out of his airplane, without a parachute, into a very foggy England?
Well, there you have it. He has landed in a place and a time where lo and behold June, the girl he has been talking on the radio with, is quickly bicycling home to her lodging, where she is friends with a clever doctor named Reeves, who on learning about the strange nearly dead Peter, determines through his diagnosis, that Peter has suffered from a serious injury which requires surgery in order to save him.
Or…does the judge who has come to be in charge of the case of statistical anomolies, need to determine whether Peter has earned a repeal, a new case? In which case, each side gets to claim a defending advocate to argue whether Peter will live or die.
The movie’s ideas and several quick light handed touches made me laugh. For instance, there is repartee regarding the conflict between the English and the French, and the conflicts between the Americans and the English. But another great thing about this movie, besides its ability to waltz on air with its many changes in tone, is its casting of Roger Livesey as the doctor/friend to June. He is perfection.
I am so grateful to live near the Film Forum on this bitterly cold day so that that I got a chance to see it! It has some magical realism, some sappy romantic bits, and a whole lot of thoughtful plotting about what it means to sacrifice yourself for the one you love. It requires a bit of leaving your brain at the door, until you need to quickly pick it up again for its marvelous ability to work through whether a law might exist that could prove whether or not someone had truly loved you. Metaphysical legal cases rarely co-exist in war movies, but here is one, and on top of that, you have a great performance by Roger Livesey as a brilliant doctor. And all throughout you get to cast your eyes on David Niven in his prime, full of charm, and wit and dashing goodness.