#40. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring
European filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – collectively known as “The Archers” (named after their production company) – are very easily two of the most visually impressive and ambitious directors of the 1940’s. Their catalogue of terrific films include 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes among others – all of which are considered to be the strongest films of the era. Their film A Matter of Life and Death is undoubtedly my favorite of the bunch, as it combines their penchant for striking visuals with a poignant, romantic, spiritual story that likes of which I’ve never seen before. The films sees Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) of the British Royal Air Force bail from his burning plane, forced to jump without a parachute. When Carter hits the ground, he’s shocked to find that by some impossible means he isn’t dead – his guardian angel Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) missed him in the thick fog and is thus unable to successfully escort him to the Other World. Carter meets a woman named June (Kim Hunter) via the radio moments before his would-be death, and the two shortly meet in person and fall in love. When Conductor 71 catches up to Peter, he is forced to convince him to accept his death and follow him to the Other World. Peter is not ready to move on, and decides to fight for his own existence and prove his worth in a celestial court. As you can probably tell from the description, A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in America) is incredibly unique in its presentation. It is perhaps most comparable to the celestial scenes found in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but is much more dedicated to the spiritual nature of the subject matter than that film. Powell and Pressburger’s film is delicate and powerful in its handling of such epic subject matter, mixing humorous elements with grand visuals of the afterlife, and a truly profound story. The film was shot by great cinematographer Jack Cardiff (mentioned previously in my write-up of The African Queen), who opted as usual for beautiful three-strip Technicolor. This gives A Matter of Life and Death a unique look, as many of the black and white sequences (used for scenes in the Other World) appear to have a heavenly hue about them. Cardiff’s photography perfectly compliments the film’s incredible and detailed production design, featuring scenes in a lush garden, a burning airplane, a foggy beach, and most famously on a grand, visionary stairway to the Other World. David Niven is charming and charismatic as Peter Carter, who slowly becomes confused and progressively frustrated as he is seemingly stuck in a state of limbo and forced to fight for his mortal existence. Kim Hunter’s June is equally charming as a hopelessly romantic young woman who will stop at nothing to help fight for the man she loves, despite it being under truly bizarre circumstances. A Matter of Life and Death is both bleak and hopeful in its dealings with the afterlife and fate, exploring themes of life, death, faith, and love under difficult circumstances. It’s beautiful, visionary, well-acted, and incredibly powerful – it’s a must see for fans of classic cinema.