A Matter of Life and Death

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A Matter of Life and Death is Michael Powell’s favorite film that he made with his directing, producing, and writing partner, Emeric Pressburger. It’s always strange to me how the favorite films of the artists are not usually the same as the critical or audience’s favorites. While most remember The Red Shoes, and Pressburger’s (incidentally mine too so far) favorite was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Powell singled out A Matter of Life and Death. Now that I’ve seen it, this seems somewhat strange to me as I don’t think it’s their best film, and I also don’t think it’s their most enjoyable. However, it’s definitely still worth a watch, don’t get me wrong.

A Matter of Life and Death was conceived with a very clear purpose in mind. Strictly speaking, it’s a post-World War II propaganda film encouraging the continuation of Anglo-American relations after WWII. In short, we’re not fighting a war together anymore, but we should still be friends. From today’s perspective, that seems a little silly (at least to me); why wouldn’t we be friends with England? Perhaps it was an issue though, as in America they retitled the film Stairway to Heaven because apparently Americans couldn’t handle a film with “death” in the title (don’t seem to be on the same page as the English filmmakers, there, do they?). Regardless, someone at the time though it was an important issue, and the film goes about arguing for it in a very obvious way (one reason why I think this isn’t their best film). It’s still full of the magic and wit that one associates with Powell and Pressburger films, as well as lovely technicolor cinematography and some nifty special effects.

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Peter Carter (David Niven) is an English pilot in WWII, and he’s about to crash. These are in the final days of the war; everyone knows the end is coming soon. During his last moments he calls for help and reaches an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter). They fall in love at first sound (if that’s a thing), but unfortunately Peter is doomed. He jumps without a chute, presumably to his death, but due to a clerical error in the Great Beyond he’s completely fine. He ends up finding June, but unfortunately heaven has other plans. They send Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) to come and collect him, but Peter won’t go without a fight. He demands a trial and argues that heaven’s mistake has now left him with new-found responsibilities on Earth, and he should be allowed to live. The trial is granted, and if all this talk of the hereafter is too much for you, you can always choose to believe that it’s all the result of an urgent need for brain surgery instead of a trial.

The film’s premise really didn’t do it for me. While it is an intriguing concept on the surface, it’s really just an excuse to set up a life and death argument over whether England and America can still be allies when not fighting a common enemy. The prosecuting attorney is Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), apparently the first American casualty in the Revolution. Understandably he’s prejudiced against all Englishmen. Defending Peter is June’s friend, Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey), who is English. They argue about the possibility of an American girl falling in love with and an Englishman, how can they possibly be happy with different backgrounds, etc etc… The whole thing feels very fabricated just to get up to this point. There’s some interesting rhetoric here, but for the most part, especially now, it seems useless to debate it. On the whole, I just wasn’t buying into the whole thing. The romance wasn’t too convincing either; Peter and June seemed like they fell in love because the plot needed them too. It gets more bearable when you bring in the brain surgery/Peter’s subconscious angle, but you are still left wondering why he would be so worried about June being American when they aren’t having any problems on that front.

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However, despite the conceptual flaws, you still have yourself a pretty enjoyable film. Probably the most famous part of the film is its reversal on The Wizard of Oz; instead of reality being in black and white and fantasy in color, in A Matter of Life and Death you have color for life and black and white for death. It really does make more sense, though it feels a little strange because in this afterlife everyone is content for the most part; it’s not necessarily depressing to die (as black and white might have us believe). Contributing to this is also the fact that the extreme vibrancy of the Technicolor here isn’t exactly realistic, more like hyper-realistic. Still, it’s not really a complaint and I see what they were going for. There is also the giant stairway to heaven, inspiration for the American title, and a cool point of view shot of an eyelid closing over an eye. Time freezes when Conductor 71 comes to talk to Peter, leaving the two of them to move around freely while everyone else is paused. While I have problems with the overarching story, the dialogue is still as charmingly funny as in any of the Powell and Pressburger films.

A Matter of Life and Death might not be my favorite Powell and Pressburger film, but it is still a good one. All of their films are wonderfully unique and this one is no exception. It rounds up a lot of their regular players, and it’s nice to see some familiar faces (even if one’s not familiar with their films, the actors are still great). While I may some issues with the story and how unbelievable it is, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the film all the same.

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“One is starved for Technicolor, up there.”

Long story short: 3/4

For Further Reading:

Original 1946 New York Times’ review (top one) 
Roger Ebert 1995 review

7 responses to “A Matter of Life and Death

  1. Hi, Hunter:

    Excellent choice in A Matter of Life and Death !

    One of those quietly inspirational films of WWII, along with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Olivier’s Henry V and In Which We Serve that spark emotions obliquely. While telling a memorable tale.

    I agree it is not Pressburger’s best effort. Though its use of B&W for the here after seems oddly inspired. While offering Kim Hunter another opportunity to reveal her remarkable range.

    • Thank you!
      I’m of two minds about the black and white, because on one hand it makes a lot of sense when you think about it, but on the other hand it goes against the normal use so it feels a bit weird.
      Powell considered making films in England during the war a patriotic duty, and to see how he went about it is fascinating. In other words, he made some next level propaganda films that were never just propaganda, but also great movies with interesting messages. I would still say that about this film, even though it might not be as successful as Col. Blimp or 49th Parallel.
      Even so, I wish Kim Hunter had actually been in the film more though. I was very happy to see Roger Livesey in such an important role at the end!

  2. Great film; nice review.
    What I like about Powell and Pressburger films is just how strange they are; I can’t think of another ’40s filmmaker that went in such weird directions as they did. My favorite P &P film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), involves a sexually-repressed man who lashes out by pouring glue in women’s hair.

    Since you’re a fan of”The Archers,” I’d really recommend a fantastic documentary about one of their major collaborators, cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It’s called Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, and in it Martin Scorsese talks a lot about the influence that the films Cardiff made with P & P (Colonel Blimp, AMOLAD, Black Narcissus, Red Shoes) had on his career.

    • Thanks!
      Wow! I’ll have to check that one out. I read Powell’s autobiography a while back and he didn’t have too much to say about that film, other than it was the duo’s first failure. That documentary also sounds great; I’ll have to keep my eye out for it.
      I have been amazed by every single Powell and Pressburger film I’ve seen; they’re always fascinating and beautiful. Even after seeing a few of them I am constantly surprised by the amount of fantasy in their films.
      Glad to find another fan, we’re few and far between!

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