The British producer and director Sir Alexander Korda introduced Michael Powell to Emeric Pressburger in the late 1930s, and in doing so helped to create one of cinema’s great pairings: P&P enjoyed a successful career as joint writers, directors and producers of a number of films in the years that followed, forming the formidable production team The Archers with Alfred Junge (design), Hein Heckroth (costumes) and Reginald Mills (editing). A Matter Of Life And Death was, however, the first time that cinematographer Jack Cardiff worked with Powell and Pressburger, and his inclusion brought about a shift from black and white to Technicolor; this romantic fantasy, set against the backdrop of World War II and released as Stairway To Heaven in the US, makes use of both.
In this film the scenes set in southern England are in colour, while those that take place in the otherworldly afterlife – great effort was made to avoid the word ‘Heaven’ in the script – are monochrome; Powell insisted on this as it would confound audience expectations, while he also wanted the central love story to take place in an England that actually looked ‘heavenly’. By contrast the afterlife, sitting at the top of a giant escalator that cost a small fortune to construct, is described by the critic and writer David Thomson as resembling a Moscow underground train station, and the series of modernist rooms we see in black and white all house tedious bureaucratic processes: one is like an airport check in (you’ll spot a young Richard Attenborough in a small part as a recently-deceased pilot) where newly-assigned angels are given their plastic-wrapped wings, another is a chamber for political debate, and a huge auditorium is used for the afterlife’s court.
Negotiating the path between life and death, and subject of intense debate from up on high, is pilot Peter Carter (David Niven). In the gripping first scene his plane, on the way back from a bombing raid over Germany, is on fire and a crash into the English Channel is inevitable. His crew have bailed out except for a dead co-pilot and the last remaining parachute is wrecked. He shares his final moments with a stranger: an American radio operator based on the south coast of England named June (Kim Hunter), and they have an intimate chat as death approaches. Carter promises to visit June to see what she looks like, even if he is a ghost; however, after the plane plummets into thick fog, we see Carter’s body wash up on the shore, miraculously still alive and even more miraculously in close proximity to June’s living quarters.
Niven and Hunter are enjoyable as the young couple entering into a sweet romance, helped along the way by Roger Livesey’s neurologist Dr. Reeves, his presence in the story raising questions about Carter’s sanity (while the earlier mention of ghosts means speculation that the character is hovering between life and the afterlife never dissipates). The pilot has visions, during which time apparently stands still and he is visited by Marius Goring’s camp French aristocrat Conductor 71, who had originally been sent to escort Carter to the afterlife but lost the airman in thick fog. The question as to whether Carter’s subsequent love for June should give him another chance on Earth is hotly contested by those above, and gradually the film shifts from romantic love story to bizarre courtroom fantasy-drama, in which characters from history in the afterlife debate whether the outcome of a medical operation on Carter back on Earth should be successful or not. The case is a thinly-veiled discussion of Anglo-American relations, extremely pertinent at the time, and A Matter Of Life And Death makes a number of observations about the American revolutionary era and English meddling before an uneasy truce is agreed.
There’s a winning playfulness to the special effects, a clear extravagance with the sets (29 were used in total, and the production cost an estimated £320,000), and a certain charm in seeing characters twitching, breathing or moving slightly when time has supposedly stopped. It’s also funny: recently deceased American GIs are greeted in the afterlife by a Coke machine, while Conductor 71 breaks the fourth wall by declaring ‘One is starved for Technicolor up there’ during a sojourn to the third rock from the sun. What is most impressive is that the film starts by playing an ace, that magnificent scene where love blossoms over the airwaves, and then manages to keep playing more at regular intervals thereafter; a vibrant, inventive and witty film, it’s little wonder that it regularly appears in the upper echelons of critics’ polls.
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Marius Goring.
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff.
Editing: Reginald Mills.
Music: Allan Gray.
Running Time: 104 minutes.