A review of the 1946 film “A Matter Of Life And Death”

At the end of the Second World War, relations between the Americans and the British were a little strained as, in the run-up to D-Day, the yanks won local hearts while they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here” and a British Government department suggested the idea of a locally-made film to improve perceptions.

Written, produced and directed by the quintessentially British Michael Powell and the Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger, the work may not have fully met its contemporary brief: British critics of the time thought the film was too pro-American and the Americans renamed the work “Stairway To Heaven” because they thought the word ‘death’ would kill its prospects. But the movie played well with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and it was so visually inventive and verbally clever that it has become a classic.

At the heart of the story is an inversion of the usual ‘yank gets the girl’ narrative, as RAF bomber pilot Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) wins the affection of American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) in record time and audacious circumstances as he is about to bale out without a parachute. That should be the end of the ‘matter’ but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) of “the other world” (the word ‘heaven’is never used) fails to find his man in the Channel fog.

So this is a romance – and a comedy – but it is also very political with some satirical analysis of contemporary Britain and America. The tribunal in the other world, pitting American prosecuter (Raymond Massey) against the British defender (Roger Livesey), features critiques and characteriisations of both nations, not least in the choice of the members of the two juries.

The set designs – by German-born Alfred Junge – are simple but striking, especially the staircase to the other world and the scenes of that world, while there are a whole range of clever visual techniques, starting with the representation of earth in colour and the heavenly world in black & white and including the ‘freezing’ of ‘real life’ when Conductor 71 makes his earthly appearances and an amzing shot from an eyeball point of view.

Even the statutes on the stairway are carefully chosen (all of the 17 famous personages named in Pressburger’s copy of the script were believed to be sufferers of epilepsy). Indeed the whole film is constructed so that the viewer can interpret the story either as a real life medical phenomenon or as an obviously spiritual experience.

Most people will only have seen this film on television which is where I first encountered it. But, in December 2017, a digitally restored version was shown in British cinemas and I was fortunate enough to see it on the big screen as a Boxing Day treat.

Seven decades on, the film still has resonance as a British Prince Harry wins the heart of the American actress Meghan Markle and the second jury – made up entirely of self-declared immigrants to the USA – reminds us that current US President Donald Trump does not represent the real America.

You can read my reviews of 57 classic films here.



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