A Matter of Life and Death
d. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger / 1946 / UK / 104 mins
Collectively known as The Archers, writing, directing and producing team Powell and Pressburger are well regarded as being two of the finest film-makers of the 1940s and 50s. Film historians normally credit A Matter of Life and Death as being intended to improve tense relations between Britain and American allied forces, but the resulting film has become much more, to the extent that in 2004 Total Film cited it as the second greatest British film ever made. Originally denounced by many British critics for being too “pro-American” (one could possibly argue therefore, that it didn’t complete it’s original task too competently), history would nevertheless reward it with later prestige.
David Niven gives one of the best performances of his illustrious career, weighing equal measures of sincerity and wit (whilst perhaps a somewhat unconvincing 27 year old) as Squadron Leader Peter Carter, who we find in the film’s opening, returning home to Britain in a Lancaster Bomber during the tail-end of the Second World War. With his parachute destroyed and his plane struggling to stay airborne, Carter knows that his time is up. In his last moments on Earth, he befriends and falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter).
Miraculously, after diving from his plane without a parachute, Carter finds himself washed up on a beach in England, revitalised with a lust for life, and ready to enjoy spending the rest of his life with June (who is based locally). Unfortunately for Carter, he discovers his reprieve from death was not permanent, and that he his cheating of death was merely caused when an angel (Marius Goring as a deceased French aristocrat and spiritual conductor) was unable to find him through the Channel fog.
A court battle of heavenly proportions ensues, with Carter arguing that his “extra-time” has allowed him to start a relationship that he can not now abandon. Whilst his friends on Earth debate his sanity, Carter sets forth to settle his dispute against a fearsome prosecutor blinded by bias, the first American soldier to be a casualty in their revolutionary war against the British.
Romantic melodrama and fantasy masquerading under legal drama, A Matter of Life and Death pulls it all off whilst displaying a huge amount of technical proficiency and more importantly, a wealth of sweet-natured humour.
In its day the well balanced debates surrounding atheism, religion, war, legality and love were seen as over-intellectual and psychological, so much so that Variety labelled its philosophising “poppycock”. Now, with cinema and a studio-system indebted to the “New-Hollywood” of the 1960s, there’s a great deal more liberalism, and such debate is welcomed; seeing it enacted with such traditionalism is almost as surreal as the narrative itself.
Niven and his fellow ensemble are all unquestionably likeable, and the entire feature is inflected with clever dialogue that manages to be both smart and funny, capturing the very best in absurdest British humour; Carter’s doctor quotes Byron, “she walks in beauty, like the night…” he references of June, “… Only she’s cycling, and it’s daytime”. The prosecutor, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) uses the dull, droning commentary for a cricket match as evidence that an English man would stifle the exuberance of an American girl’s life, yet these cultural barbs are spread with equal measure and equality, an example of which being a Coca Cola machine installed in heaven’s waiting room to keep the Americans happy.
Maybe many would consider it saccharine, but there’s an intensely lyrical quality to the dialogue, but with Peter being a hopeful poet and the film’s gentle, philosophical nature, it seems very appropriate. Without meeting, Peter and June fall for one another during his final moments, “I could love a man like you Peter”, is replied to with “I love you June. You’re life and I’m leaving you”.
All of the above is fine reason to be enamoured by the film, but it scarcely describes why this film is considered a British classic. The film really breaks ground when it comes to its sublime photography and set direction. In a reversal of The Wizard of Oz, Earth is cast in full colour whilst the afterlife is depicted in black and white and pearlescent-sheen (to the extent that Peter’s angel complains of being starved for technicolour up above).
The huge escalator that the production crew affectionately named Ethel is arguably the star of the show, so much so that the Americans renamed the film “Stairway to Heaven” (as were reluctant to screen a film with Death so prominently in the title). The same spectacular sets are evident in the afterlife’s courtroom and grand waiting rooms, painting a minimalist and modernist view that can be traced through much of cinema’s ongoing history (eventually and surprisingly finding its way into Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey).
Simply put, A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable film whichever way you choose to analyse it, technically, artistically and above all else, remains an absolute pleasure to watch and re-visit.