Was there ever a run of cinematic form to rival that of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? Maybe only Billy Wilder in the States could claim to match the consistent level achieved by his British counterparts over the space of a decade. From The 49th Parallel in 1941 to The Tales of Hoffmann in 1951, the duo known as ‘The Archers’ released classic after classic. The satisfying thunk of an arrow thudding into its target in the pre-credits of a film was a near guarantor of its quality. In the middle of this incredible sequence was perhaps the pair’s crowning achievement, A Matter of Life and Death.
Released in 1946, and set during the dying embers of World War II, A Matter of Life and Death sees David Niven as Peter Carter, a stoic young bomber pilot trying to fly his severely damaged plane back to England. Before he ejects to his expected death, he manages to contact June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator back at base. After declaring his love for her, he deserts the plane, only to wake up on a beach as June cycles past. The two begin a relationship. Meanwhile Carter’s non-appearance in Heaven leads to a celestial schism, and a court hastily convened to ascertain his fate.
The great joy, among many, of A Matter of Life and Death, is its unalloyed romanticism, which never gives way to cloying sentiment. As sudden as Carter and June’s declaration of love is, resembling the blazing tumult and knee-jerk certainty of a first teenage dalliance; it rings true as being forged in a fire of extreme circumstances. As June responded to his charm and philosophical acceptance of his assumed fate, and Carter to her compassion and sorrow at his plight. When they meet against all odds the weight of emotion makes their passion inevitable.
This romance is the core of an innovative story that is both playful and heartfelt, and artistically ingenious. The most interesting aesthetic choice is the decision to show Earth in verdant Technicolor and Heaven in pearly black-and-white, which would initially seem counter-intuitive. However, given the cataclysmic events of recent years, it’s an understandable choice. Heaven is depicted as a place of simple order, with all of the complexities (and by implication, the brutalities) of life removed. As such, the use of monochrome is a metaphor for this simplicity. It’s not difficult to see the comfort the depiction of the soldiers turning up to collect their wings could bring to the families of innumerable sons, husbands and fathers that never came home.
Cannily, and rather daringly, a more secular take on Carter’s predicament is easily offered to the viewer; through the staunchly rational Dr. Reeves (Powell and Pressburger regular Roger Livesey) who deducts that Carter is suffering from the effects of an old head injury, which leads him to believe he’s speaking to heavenly emissary Conductor 71 (a dandyish casualty of the French Revolution played in slightly wobbly fashion by Marius Goring), a simpering psychopomp tasked with correcting Heaven’s clerical oversight.
The climactic court scene is played out in parallel with Carter undergoing his brain surgery, leaving the story ambiguous. Either the tale is a comforting vision taking place in a damaged brain, or Carter is placed in limbo while the court decides his fate. It could be argued that more atheistic take is undermined by the death of Dr. Reeves, which leads to him acting as Carter’s counsel, but in all honesty even the most militant of rationalists must admit that the heavenly angle is a better match for the film’s inherent romanticism. Whatever reading you plump for, A Matter of Life and Death matches the contemporary It’s a Wonderful Life for rich metaphysical enquiry.
Technically, The Archers proved themselves trailblazers. While perhaps not as dazzling as The Red Shoes a few years later, the effects utilised are still quietly impressive. The freeze frames during which Carter discusses his situation with Conductor 71 would be simple to achieve now; not so much in the 40s. The flawless segues from colour to monochrome was artfully achieved by cinematographer Jack Cardiff filming the scenes in Heaven with Technicolor stock, but leaving out the dyes in the development process. This allowed the colour to drain away in artful onscreen dissolves between realms. The most obvious wizardry was the construction of the ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the escalator that ferried the newly deceased to the afterlife. Nicknamed “Ethel” onset; the constant clank of machinery from the contraption required all scenes in which it features to be re-dubbed in post-production.
As with most latterly undisputed classics, initial responses were mixed. Tonally confused was the verdict of The Observer at the time, and it was dismissed as “plaster and Plexiglas” by French theorist André Bazin, although he did appreciate the humour slyly riddled throughout. Perhaps it required a suitable time to percolate in the consciousness of filmgoers. The mix of gaiety and sobriety was possibly too contemporaneous with the events it depicts. As with the likes of M*A*S*H or Good Morning Vietnam, a sense of the absurd is better appreciated at least a few decades after a traumatic conflict.
With the hindsight afforded by some 70 years, it’s easy to rank A Matter of Life and Death as one of the finest films of a decade not exactly bare of masterpieces. As romantic as Brief Encounter, as innovative in its own way as Citizen Kane, as sharp as Adam’s Rib, it’s everything that best encapsulates the magical pairing of Powell and Pressburger. For a movie so steeped in unabashed romance and feel-good fantasy, it’s a remarkable achievement that the least convincing aspect of the film is the famously seasoned-looking David Niven portraying a 27 year-old.
A Matter of Life and Death is now on re-release across the UK in a new 4K restoration by Sony Pictures.