#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.)

S. – I have thoroughly enjoyed Powell & Pressburger’s list movies so far and was really pleased to see them breaking new ground in this film. While the theme of relationships in wartime is still prominent, A Matter of Life and Death takes the viewer out of the bounds of everyday existence and extends its story into a supernatural dimension. The narrative is kept grounded with the simple and earnest love story between the pilot Peter Carter and radio-operator June, yet delves into surrealism by conjuring a bureaucratic and orderly afterlife that appears to be in need of a reality check itself. This extraordinary conceit is handled with the whimsy and creativity that Powell & Pressburger have proven themselves to be masters of. Giving a fresh spin on what it means to fall in love and allowing the directors to run riot creating a parallel existence woven around the ordinary adventures of us mere mortals. While I automatically react skeptically to taking such liberties with reality, I think the key components in getting this to work are the engaging performances of David Niven and Roger Livesey who manage to straddle both worlds without hamming it up.

J. – This was my second time viewing A Matter of Life and Death. I really, really enjoyed it the first time around, wowed as much by the daring whimsy of the story as by its quality. I confess there were moments during this second viewing where my enthusiasm dimmed a wee bit (just a pinch, it’s still great), but I certainly cannot put forward a single bad word about Livesey or Niven. It’s been such a treat to witness the variety of Livesey’s roles within the Powell & Pressburger canon. This is the third list film with Livesey and sadly the last. He has such a natural warmth and charisma but also really knows when to ratchet it up in intensity. In some ways he reminds me more of a stage performer than a film actor, particularly in this film where he is often so animated and loud. Normally that would be a mark against a film performance, but Livesey manages to pull it off with such brio — he reminds me in some ways of what one wishes Kenneth Branaugh to be. I particularly enjoy the way Livesey moves back and forth between serious scientist and motorbike riding goofball in this film while fully inhabiting both roles. Niven is also excellent playing a very unusual role. He has this neat trick in this film of being both a heroic figure and a rather effete oddball at the same time. That comes off particularly well in the killer opening scene wherein he is radioing in his final words before bailing out of his burning bomber. He manages to be poetic, brave, silly, romantic, and fatalistic all at the same time, creating something akin to a charismatic madness. It works wonderfully, and simply through its tone this scene sets up the central dynamic of the film as it teeter-totters among love, fantasy, and insanity.

Matter of Life and Death 2

The opening scene is particularly masterful, bringing together Niven’s certainly doomed pilot and Hunter’s distraught radio operator in a marvelous exchange that sets up the rest of the plot. The movie generally handles their relationship with a refreshing earnestness.

S. – Niven and Livesey inhabit the scenes so expansively I do feel that the object of Peter’s affection gets a bit of the short shrift. One of the admirable qualities of the previous Powell and Pressburger films we have watched was the strong female characters that have been given room for the complexity expected from a real person. I didn’t feel as though we got the full range of June (Kim Hunter) in this story. However, I am willing to concede there may be another reason for this deficiency other than the character filling an underdeveloped “love-interest” trope. The brilliance of A Matter of Life and Death lies in the ability to watch it from two different perspectives; you can take it as given that beings on an unseen plane occupy themselves with the logistics of life and death on Earth or you can view the happenings as the experience of a damaged mind suffering from a neurological condition. Since I fall into the latter camp, it makes sense not having access to the inner life of June and Peter’s earnest struggle for his future as his mind is flickering between reality and the fantastic. This reasoning also allows me to enjoy the representation of the after-life, with its quirks, hierarchy and rigid protocols without getting too hung up on the philosophical side of things. Maybe the directors are making a larger statement about the meaning of life, but I think it works best viewed as an off-beat romance.

Matter of Life and Death 4

The film is beautifully shot and makes the most out of very simple set ups. In this sequence Niven’s character has washed up on shore and assumes he is dead. Though just a normal beach, Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff find a way to turn the mundane into a fantasy setting in this sequence.

J. – Oh, see, I’m completely the opposite on this. I really like to believe that the afterlife stuff is totally real. It’s just more fun that way! But regardless of interpretation, I also think the character of June gets short shrift in this film, although I like that she does display the determination and smarts that previous Powell & Pressburger women protagonists have displayed — they certainly do not do shrinking violets. I also think it is basically the result of the story structure that she inevitably gets a bit left behind. June is the character who has the smallest interaction with the afterlife (which makes sense given her being alive) — and that realm takes up about half the film. One of the wonderful twists in the movie is that Livesey’s doctor ends up as Niven’s defense attorney in the afterlife following a fatal motorbike accident. Sure, the irony is a bit much in that crash sequence, but it was ultimately a brilliant way to connect the two realms and keep Livesey as an active participant in the climatic battle for Peter’s life.

And what a wonderful realm heaven is! I think that one of the most marvelous aspects of the film is that heaven runs quite counter to typical conceptions of the afterlife. Heaven is sterile, bureaucratic and all in black-and-white, whereas the realm of the living is awash in color and beauty — a reversal of expectations that the film acknowledges in a great moment wherein an agent of heaven (played by the fantastically fey Marius Goring) breaks the fourth wall: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” But that doesn’t mean that heaven is without its grandeur. The sets are marvels of minimalist design and augmented by some really wild matte paintings. The massive stairway connecting heaven and Earth is a particularly awe-inspiring set piece, and really helps sell the fantastical element of the film. But for all that I still think I prefer the elements grounded in the real world, in large part because I rather like the playful relationship between Kim Hunter and Roger Livesey’s characters and I also feel like the earthbound stuff was more subtle and much funnier in handling one of the key obsessions of the film: Anglo-American relations.

Matter of Life and Death 5

The film’s afterlife may be minimalist and devoid of color, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t damn impressive. The tribunal is a particularly awe-inspiring set/matte painting combo.

S. – It is so strange that a driving force behind the production was to make a propaganda film. It ended up being so much more, an appeal to enjoy the best things about living was the strongest message I got out of it. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, where so many died in the prime of life, I expect it was a welcome theme. The vibrant technicolor paired with glamorous characters clearly made Earth the desirable place to be as opposed to the crowded (and rather dull) heaven. There was a smattering of playful cultural stereotypes bandied about between the earthbound British, American and French players, in stark contrast with a more serious challenge of principles during a court scene in heaven. Perhaps the fact that the intent of the propaganda here was to highlight the underlying similarities between the nations rather than amplify the differences that prevented the tone becoming too bombastic. Directing the focus towards the fate of the two lovers, who suffered no angst whatever over their differing countries of birth, may be propaganda by stealth. The cranky historical figures can argue for eternity over the relative merits and sins of Britain and the United States, the rest of us are too busy living life in full colour.

Matter of Life and Death 6

The movie has a lot of fun transitioning back and forth between the afterlife and the real world, often using freeze frame effects as Marius Goring’s character (left) stops time to talk to Niven. In this scene only Kim Hunter is frozen, as all the other characters have come from heaven.

J. – I think that’s an excellent way of looking at it, S. But you kind of say without saying one of the troublesome aspects of the movie, which is that judicial hearing in the afterlife. Some of it is great fun, and certainly the way that Powell frames the crowd and makes use of the wild set is quite impressive. (I particularly like the nods to the Indian soldiers who served in WWII — perhaps subtle support for Indian independence?) But while the court case doesn’t get too overblown or bombastic in its propaganda, it does get a bit tediously didactic in parts. And some of the stereotyping is too broad and obvious — Brits are boring, Americans are boorish. I think the same stuff was dealt with better in the context of the earthbound scenes, like the great bit where American servicemen and women are preparing a Shakespeare production.

So yes, it ultimately does all come down to the two lovers, and I like that the film is all too happy to risk being maudlin in the way it brings these two people together. For a film that deals with life and death in such a fantastical and often ironically comedic way, it is refreshing to see that Peter and June’s relationship is handled without a drop of cynicism. And I think that separates this film from most romantic comedies — and I would call it a comedy, despite its moments of death, fantasy, and melodrama. There’s no bickering, no one-upsmanship, no they hate each other/they love each other, no fear of commitment, no censor-dodging banter — just affection and resolve. I rather like that the movie goes down that path and refuses to let brain maladies, war, or the dictates of heaven get in the way of a good thing.

Related yammers:
#183 – “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), dir. Powell & Pressburger and also starring Roger Livesey
#117 – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Powell & Pressburger
#12 – L’Atalante (1934), dir. Jean Vigo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s