A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

amolad_posterOnce in awhile I come across a film that I expect to be enjoyable, but in watching it, I’m surprised at how “near-masterpiece” excellent it is. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is such a film.  I’m not sure why my expectations were so levelheaded. I am a fan of The Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger); Black Narcissus is probably one of the most beautiful films ever, and Peeping Tom (granted only a Powell film) is one of the strangest. I even adore The Red Shoes, despite not having the least interest in ballet.

So, having had the opportunity to finally see this film, I’m glad I went in without any expectation of greatness and came out assured of it. Though part of the ill-compressed (DVD5) Michael Powell Collection (of which the late and completely unrelated Age of Consent is the only other film that technically makes it so), it marks the first time its ever been available in the U.S. under the original edit and title (it was originally released in the States under the more upbeat title “Stairway to Heaven” with cuts).

I usually try to spare a plot summary, but the appeal of this film (aside from the usual lush visuals of Jack Cardiff) warrants one: Peter Carter (David Niven) is a WWII bomber pilot who falls from the sky out of his doomed-to-crash aeroplane without a parachute, to awake, by way of Heaven’s error, still alive on Earth to meet June (Kim Hunter), the radio operator who talked him through his previously certain, pending death. Peter is soon to be visited by envoy from Heaven to explain the predicament to whom he refuses to follow off this mortal coil. He asks: Surely, there’s an appeals process? Well, the rest that follows is a rather deft case-study of a man who is portrayed as caught up in this fantastical, supernatural matter, or perhaps (also) suffering some sort of brain damage or psychological trauma.


Alternating between the real world in color and Heaven (no doubt jokingly) in black-and-white, Powell & Pressburger give us their first true gem of postwar British cinema (to be followed by the aforementioned, perhaps greatest three-films-in-a-row trifecta of, this, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes).

Oliver Sacks has written a short piece in this month’s Film Comment that mentions a new book that apparently explores the great depth to which the realistic medical argument can be taken. When watching the film I was also taken with the fact that the film is deviously objective about this point of fantasy versus reality.

The only other thing I can think to add at this moment is that I now finally know where Albert Brooks stole a large portion of his idea for Defending Your Life (one of my all-time favorite comedies).


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