Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Raymond Massey, Abraham Sofaer, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron
Not many metaphysical romantic dramas open with two jokes, but Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death does. First we get the disclaimer – “Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental” – closely followed by the (British) Voice of God observing, “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”. It’s one of the many reasons this film has left such an indelible mark over time.
British Lancaster Bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is shot down over the English Channel, and according to the governing laws of the universe, should have been killed instantly. But when the angels make an almighty administrative error, Peter is left in limbo and must justify his continued existence to Heaven itself with the help of the woman he fell in love with while dying (Kim Hunter) and an eccentric village doctor (Roger Livesey).
The opening scene is one for the ages, running the gamut of human emotions and every level of craft reinforcing the power of the sequence. Peter and June meet for the first, and seemingly last time over the radio, behave calmly and professionally, and try to figure a way out of Peter’s hopeless situation, before realising there is absolutely no hope so chat a while instead. June’s world is only soundtracked by an incessant ticking clock, whereas Peter is surrounded by a terrifying cacophony of wind, failing engines and straining metal. The pair have an instant rapport, and even manage to joke about Peter’s certain doom, discussing love, the afterlife, home – in short life, the universe and everything.
As well as being a swooning romance, a grand morality debate and a stunningly realised work of fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death is also all about an afterlife governed according to logic. Writers like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett must have been influenced by such a presentation of the otherworldly run by bureaucracy. Everything happens to Peter on his miraculous journey because of an admin error, an invoice going astray. How delightfully British. As Dr Reeves observes of Peter’s apparent delusions, “Nothing he invents is entirely fantastic. It’s invention, but it’s logical invention”. In this reality, the “Conductors” are the administrators of this heavenly plane, all trying their utmost to keep on top of their demanding caseloads like overworked social workers, hoping everything goes off without a hitch. They’re all stuck with the appearance and attitudes of the time periods they died in, to particularly entertaining effect with the foppish French Conductor 71 (Marius Goring).
There’s a very British vein of humour throughout – dry and colloquial and witty. Peter’s death is foiled by a “pea souper” over the Channel. Peter himself threatens his green cane-carrying heavenly messenger to “Take that bit of Barley Sugar away”. Following a cheap jab at the “make do” way the post-war British live, Dr Reeves submits that the heavenly court “is concerned with the life of Peter Carter, not past history or present plumbing”.
This view of heaven, with the golden stairway and famous figures wandering around has been borrowed countless times over the years. In terms of striking imagery, A Matter of Life and Death features some of the most iconic moments in any film. The intimacy, clever use of space and framing and near-death small talk of the opening crash scene; the switches back and forth between living colour and afterlife black-and-white; the vastness of the heavenly courtroom like an imposingly organised glacier.
There are some really ahead of their time stylistic touches, from the design and scale of the afterlife to colour bleeding in and out of scenes, the POV death on motorbike and the giant lids closing over the camera lens standing in for Peter’s eyes as he goes under for surgery. You also have a character (Conductor 71) seemingly aware of the artifice of film, looking and speaking direct to camera on occasion: “One is starved of Technicolor!”.
American and British colonialist ideals are skewered throughout (but especially at the end) in fantastic(al) fashion. This film, which ends up being not only about love transcending life, death and the universe, also becomes about criticising the arrogance of victors throughout history. “He might be prejudiced” / “He hates your guts!”. At a point Peter’s trial becomes a dick measuring contest between the outgoing world Empire and the incoming one – what is worse for a country to become, a monotonous nation with boring sports and constant talk of the weather (UK) or a vapid nation slowly being taken over by so-called popular music (USA). Not many films released in 1946 would have so boldly acknowledged how many countries the British Empire wrecked, or how so many in the Land of the Free still struggled. Released immediately post-war as it was, the film’s surface level themes might have connected, but its wider treatise probably wouldn’t have gone down too well with the brass.
A Matter of Life and Death is a towering metaphysical masterpiece, an as-near perfect conceptual, thematic and soulful story of love overcoming the workings of the universe as you’re likely to get. If it’s somehow passed you by until now, put some time aside to correct that and you might find the clocks freeze in wonderment.