A Matter of Life and Death November 1, 2019
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
eter Carter (David Niven), a skinny, mustachioed British Squadron leader, is supposed to die in a plane crash on May 2, 1945. That day, his bomber is irreversibly damaged by the Germans; everyone in his jet who doesn't die in the process bails out. Peter, though, gets stuck, hence his predestined fate. He plummets; his parachute gets so shredded by bullets that it becomes worthless. He comes to make peace with his
reality. As he tells June (Kim Hunter), an England-based American radio operator whom he manages to successfully flirt with over the airwaves as he contemplates death miles in the air, he’s simply going to jump out of the plane to his watery grave. Better to slam into the fog-shrouded English channel than be painfully engulfed by flames.
Eventually Peter leaps from the front seat. But miraculously, he doesn’t die. Before we can savor his luck, though, we learn that what we’ve just witnessed isn't a miracle at all. It’s an unequivocal mistake. Peter was penciled in to die on May 2 by the bigwigs controlling an otherworld that’s probably heaven but is never called that. But the angel who was supposed to swipe his soul from the clouds, an epicene Frenchman who goes by Conductor 71 (Marius Goring, wonderful) and who dresses like an 18th-century aristocrat, couldn’t see through the fog while he was descending and missed. Seventy-one interrupts a picnic June and Peter have shortly after the latter’s postponed demise, literally stopping time to tell his unwilling victim that he’d better go with him or else. But Peter protests. Is there any way to appeal his fate? Get his death postponed? Seventy-one says maybe. Then he disappears for a couple of days, seeing what he can do.
When Peter relays as much to June, then to her doctor friend Frank (a dashing, brainy Roger Livesey), they (surprisingly) don’t think he’s crazy but do think that he’s suffering from a head injury. He speaks totally logically; Peter, who was a writer before the war, can still wax lyrical about life itself seemingly without a hitch. But regardless of whether Peter actually is sitting with a head-bump or is maybe or maybe not going to be whisked away by 71 into the throes of an eternal rest, it cannot be argued that this thing he’s facing isn't a matter of life and death. In A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which is written, produced, and directed by the slow-to-be-beloved British filmmaking pair Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the clock ticks loudly. In just a few days, Peter could either die from what looks like a concussion unless he gets brain surgery fast, or the people high up in the clouds could decide that he doesn’t deserve a second chance at life and snatch his soul away.
A Matter of Life and Death is a high-concept fantasy movie that nimbly mixes eclair-light comedy, existential-crisis heaviness, and passionate (and of-course-dated) patriotism. It’s a strange kind of masterpiece, where every one of Powell’s and Pressburger’s whims — aesthetic, dramatic, you name it — is tested and could fuck up everything but never does. It’s a spry balancing act, yet they make it all seem as easy to make as one of Ernst Lubitsch's featherlight comedies. (And those, too, were not easy to make.)
So much about A Matter of Life and Death is cumbersome. I mean this physically. The sets in the movie’s heaven of sorts are gigantic. There’s a gargantuan elevator that leads you from Earth to heaven flanked by statues of iconic great men of history Peter and 71 at one point ride; a stadium filled with people wearing inflated historical costumes in which the audience watches a court case unfold. The pointy and big modernist displays look one part Metropolis (1927) and another Lost Horizon (1937), all alien angles, odd geometry, and heavenly looking lights. (Watch this film, too, if you’re interested in seeing a lid shut from a tired eyeball’s perspective.)
I mean it visually, too. The Earth action has sumptuously albeit trickily been shot by the cinematographer Jack Cardiff in three-strip Technicolor, whereas the heaven stuff is in black and white but complicatedly is, as the credits say, “Colour-and-Dye Monochrome Processed in Technicolor.” As is the case for nearly all of Powell and Pressburger’s movies from the 1940s (i.e. their apex), the photography is of the kind that makes you feel like you’ve been colorblind all your life until now. These colors rumble and occasionally explode; each tint is its own little storm. Even the black and white has a vibrancy to it that makes you feel like the grays and whites have so many thoughts and feelings that they can’t help but quiver, begging to turn into any color or shade if you just gave them a nudge.
I also mean it narratively. The movie is by all means a great rom-com, fantasy story, art piece, and propaganda film. (Especially, though a little insultingly and vulgarly to my tastes, on the latter front: the British government has claimed that this movie helped improve relations between the United States and the United Kingdom.) It’s at once celebratory of life and one grand lament for the lives cut short by war; it’s vigorous and optimistic but also unaffectedly poignant. Roger Ebert remarked in 1995 that it’s “both awesome and intimate, suggesting that a single tear shed for love might stop heaven in its tracks.”
Yet the feature never feels cumbersome. It’s never beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, big for the sake of being big, or ambitious for the sake of being ambitious. Everything comes with a purpose, relating to the next thing as if the film were a large and pretty prism. You sense not a stitch. The storyline goes down easy and so does everything else, even though we’re taken aback by the richness of its color, the fullness of its ideas, and the bigheartedness of its actors. It's as if we were watching a historical epic that for once wasn’t bloated but instead was as sweeping as it was meant to be. (A Matter of Life and Death, besides being so technically forward-thinking in the first place, is decidedly not a historical epic.)
Every place the movie was released called it A Matter of Life and Death except for the states. There distributors bemoaned the idea of releasing a post-war film with the word “death” in the title. Why would anyone want to see a movie that threatened to include something the public wasn’t interested in thinking about? It was retitled Stairway to Heaven. Movie titles do not often much impact the material that sits under them, though there are of course the instances where features which have uninteresting or misleading names that might make you not want to see the film in store at all. But A Matter of Life and Death is a perfect title — wonderfully complementary. People usually use “a matter of life and death” in an inflated way, like a kid telling their sister that Mom needs you right now because trust me, it’s a matter of life and death. But another reason of many reasons why this movie is exceptional is that it has a title like that and lives up to the largeness of its meaning and then some. How did Powell and Pressburger do it: make all these movies that were simultaneously profound and exuberant but also intimate? A+