A discussion of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death between two of our critics in celebration of the film’s recent Blu-ray restoration by the Criterion Collection.
Matt Schlee: Today we are discussing the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death which will be released in a new 4K restoration by The Criterion Collection on July 24. The ninth collaboration between directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, it is the duo’s fourth film to be released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and the eighth overall. I am a huge fan of their work for reasons that we will get into, as so many of them are on display in this film. Before we get into the nitty gritty of A Matter of Life and Death, what are your thoughts on Powell and Pressburger?
Kevin Jones: I only really started to dive into their work a little over a year ago and since then, they have definitely become two of my favorite directors. Their work is so consistently great, while displaying a terrific amount of ambition and artistry. They so often created films that pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible in film. A Matter of Life and Death is definitely a great example of this, which is why I’m so excited to see it finally get a long overdue Criterion release.
Matt: I’ve been interested in their work for a while, but my first experience with A Matter of Life and Death was seeing this recent restoration in theaters, which was spectacular. The Red Shoes is one that I’m particularly fond of, but I haven’t seen one of their films that I didn’t like.
Kevin: A Matter Life and Death found Powell & Pressburger once again exploring World War II, following in the footsteps of prior works 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale. Interestingly, this was not the only impact the war had on the film, as the production actually had to wait nine months for film stock and Technicolor cameras to become available, as they were being used for US Army training videos at the time.
Fortunately, however, this was one of their films that was treated better internationally. As opposed to A Canterbury Tale which did not receive a release in the United States for five years (and had a new character and narration added when it did), A Matter of Life and Death received a US release the same year as its UK release with the only change being a new title, Stairway to Heaven.
Matt: Indeed production was a challenge, but safe to say the hard work paid off. The British Film Institute rated A Matter of Life and Death as the 20th best British film of all time in their 1999 poll which makes it the second highest rated Powell and Pressburger film on the list (after The Red Shoes at 9).
The film follows Peter Carter (David Niven), a pilot in the Royal Air Force, who speaks to June (Kim Hunter) via radio before ejecting himself from his crashing plane with no parachute. After he inexplicably survives the incident, he and June meet and fall in love. Peter goes on to discover that his survival was a clerical error, and that he is expected to surrender his life to appease divine prophecy. On the basis of his newfound love affair, he appeals the decision with the help of Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey). The fantastical, borderline absurd premise makes for something of a modern fairy tale.
Kevin: It is certainly no surprise to find Powell and Pressburger working with such fantastical material as you describe it, as they often found themselves exploring fantasy and fairy tales in their work whether in this film, The Red Shoes, or The Tales of Hoffmann. For this specific film, this fantasy element seems to really give them the space to explore love, the history of the British Empire, and Anglo-American relations. In particular, whether the past history between Britain and the United States could be mended and, if so, could an American woman and a British man truly fall in love. Proving this can occur winds up being one of the main elements of the film’s plot and themes.
This is especially explored in a court case set in Heaven, in which Frank serves as the lawyer for Peter and pleads his case. In the court case itself and its follow-up as the court of Heaven searches for a way to prove that, yes, Peter and June truly love one another, it is hard to not get swept up in the romance and the emotional power of it all. Though the film may be utilizing an incredibly fantastical premise, it is hard to deny the great human feeling and emotion that the film captures. From the very onset, the film shows great creativity and imagination on the part of Powell and Pressburger, but the very human core of the film in which two lovers must literally move Heaven and Earth to be together, winds up being one of my main takeaways from the film’s plot and characters. How did you respond to and feel about the film’s story?
Matt: The major thing that stands out in my mind about seeing the film is the way that I felt after walking out of the theater. Viewing this film is such a joyous and celebratory experience. Even in directly approaching the topic of death repeatedly throughout the film, Powell and Pressburger refuse to allow their audience’s smiles to disappear for even a moment. In contrast to The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus which dwell much more in the struggles of their characters, A Matter of Life and Death really bathes in its characters’ love for each other.
One of the most magical and fantastical elements of the film is its frequent switch between color and black and white. When the characters occupy the world of the living, everything is in vibrant technicolor. When in the afterlife, they see only black and white. Dialogue from the characters indicates that this is not merely for the audience’s benefit, but is actually how they see these world. It fascinates me that they chose to make the afterlife, this world of angels and people from all ages of human history, as dull and even bleak. Powell and Pressburger hoist up the world of the living, even in a scenario where heaven really exists and is tangibly presented to Peter. What did you make of the film’s use of color?
Kevin: That is a great point about the rather unique portrayal of the afterlife. As you say, one would expect that to be the spot of technicolor and great beauty. It, in my eyes, may even tie into the feeling you mention the film giving you. The happiness, the love, and the infectious nature of Peter and June define the scenes in the living world. Yet, in the afterlife, the characters find themselves dealing with paperwork, bureaucracy, and a legal case in which they have to tangibly prove their love. In this, the color or lack thereof works incredibly well in capturing the competing feelings. There is even likely some thematic intent as well, perhaps along the lines of a black and white world-view of “good vs evil” in the afterlife as opposed to the nuance and middle ground of the world.
As a visual spectacle, however, it is impossible to deny the appeal of A Matter of Life and Death. The technicolor is gorgeous with great vibrant colors, while the self-reflexivity you mention adds incredible charm. With the film flipping between technicolor and black and white, it has to be one of the more unique viewing experiences out there.
This leads quite nicely into a discussion of the portrayal of the afterlife and Earth, but mainly in terms of the film’s special effects. Probably the most well-known special effect: a long stairway that functioned as an escalator to bring the recently deceased up into the afterlife. The design has been noted not only for its impressive stature, but also the statues that line the staircase of famous historical figures. Ranging from Alexander the Great to Plato to King Solomon, among many others, they were all carefully selected by Powell and named in the film’s script. What did you make of this effect and the link it forms between the afterlife and Earth?
Matt: I think it’s a really incredible tool for showing the mid-point between the two realms that Powell and Pressburger are dealing in here. Rather than have events take place either in Heaven or on Earth, they concocted this wildly creative and regal mode of transportation to signify the limbo of being in transit between life and death. You can see why they went with Stairway to Heaven as the US title. It’s certainly one of the most memorable setpieces I’ve encountered.
Furthermore, I think that the presentation of the space for the trial equals the stairway in terms of its epicness. The area feels almost infinite in its capacity and generations of humans from all races and eras pack in to see what the results will be. It’s written much like a normal court procedural which offers a comedic dichotomy in such a grand setting.
Kevin: Completely agree. The staircase’s bridging of this gap between the afterlife and Earth is an incredibly unique element. One of my favorite moments comes as June must prove her love for Peter to help them win the court case. As Peter lays on an operating table for brain surgery, the inclusion of the staircase here feels particularly intimate. The design is incredible, of course, but the way in which the film shows that, no matter where one is, this bridge is always there feels quite powerful.
You make a great point about the courtroom as well. Obviously the stairway is quite grand, but so much of the afterlife feels quite drab as we talked about earlier in regards to color. Yet, the courtroom is a true bit of grandiose design and structure. The scale and the staging of the moment – coupled with the great effect of swapping out the jury for a different one – captures that sense of awe that the afterlife typically has in film or in one’s mind.
In terms of the cast, A Matter of Life and Death is certainly star-studded from leads David Niven and Kim Hunter to the supporting cast of Roger Livesey, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring, and even Raymond Massey. For me, I loved Niven and Hunter in this film. Their power and passion as they declare their love for one another is hard to resist. In addition, Massey is quite tough-nosed in his role as the prosecutor and a Revolutionary War veteran who is staunchly anti-British. He is so matter-of-fact and cynical in the role with Massey’s harsh delivery being a perfect bit of casting, countering the unbridled passion of Niven and Hunter. Did anyone stand out for you?
Matt: The ones you mentioned are certainly outstanding performances. Niven and Hunter are so believably in love. Their romantic chemistry really allows the film to be feel as magical as it does. My favorite performance in the film is probably that of Marius Goring who plays Conductor 71, a revolution-era Frenchman dressed in circa 18th century garb. His character’s role in the story is as the individual who flubbed Peter’s death after losing him in the fog. Goring provides some wonderful comic relief and his almost cartoonish appearance itself sets the stage for laughter. He also provides some amazing meta-commentary, at one point even bemoaning the lack of technicolor in the afterlife.
All-in-all I’d say that A Matter of Life and Death is one of The Archers’ best films. I imagine repeat viewings will have it competing with The Red Shoes as my favorite entry in their filmography. It’s a truly magical experience and one which hits the viewer with its charm and its emotionality almost immediately. I knew that it was a masterpiece the moment the credits started rolling and my opinion of it has only grown in reflecting on it.
Kevin: I feel the same and cannot wait to get my hands on the Criterion Collection’s release of the film. It is just one of those films that is the perfect blend of artistic accomplishment and pure joy. All of the great elements we touched on in this discussion define why it fits both, with the film being of those experiences for me where, after it ends, I just sat there with a smile on my face never wanting to let the experience go. It is a film where I knew I wanted to show it to anyone who would let me, which is always one of the best feelings when it comes to film.