A Matter of Life and Death… reborn?

Now for something Completely Different.

The famed ‘Archers’ writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger marked the end of WW2 by making a picture with a salient propaganda purpose. The message is surrounded by a couple of hours of outlandishly fantastic (and romantic) happenings, all filmed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and utilizing a battery of highly creative special effects.


Trapped with no parachute in a burning plane, British flyer Peter Carter (David Niven) radios in to report his impending death. Peter falls in love with his radio contact, June (Kim Hunter). They exchange endearments even as they know they will never meet, at least not alive. Things immediately leap from the romantic to the surreal plane as Peter wonders if he’s been saved by the power of pure love. Is he alive or dead, or caught somewhere between terra firma and heaven? We watch as the story becomes an outright fantasy. Realizing that an error has occurred, a heavenly accounting office dispatches an 18th century dandy (Marius Goring) to ask Niven to voluntarily give up the ghost. The visual gimmick is that heaven is in an eerie black & white, and our Earthly ‘reality’ is in color. Goring’s celestial messenger arrives, sniffs a rose and purrs the now-famous line, “One is starved for Technicolor up there.”


Powell and Pressburger dazzle us with some truly fantastic sights. People walk through walls, which was a complex trick in 3-strip Technicolor. Heaven is presently receiving Peter’s fellow aviators killed in action, among them a baby-faced Richard Attenborough. The new arrivals are processed in a heavenly waiting room that resembles a huge porcelain airport lounge … and even has a Coca-Cola machine. Connecting Heaven and Earth is a colossal ‘stairway to heaven’ (no, not Led Zeppelin’s) that stretches across the cosmos like a concrete ribbon. Peter is eventually scheduled for experimental brain surgery. The doctor is played by Roger Livesey, of the Archers’ superlative wartime romance I Know Where I’m Going. When the tribunal decides to intervene, the stairway descends right into the operating room.


We begin to wonder if June’s love is going to make any difference. When Peter submits to his operation, we see his point of view from behind his own eyelids. A camera obscura and a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream drop hints that everything we see may be merely a dead man’s passing dream, as in a short story by Luis Borges or Ambrose Bierce.  Or will love win out after all?


David and June’s case is tried in heaven, with a multitude of departed souls looking on. The issue suddenly revolves around the rather trivial issue of nationality: June is from Boston, and the assembled British dead of the ages don’t like the idea of fraternization. The arguments then turn to the subject of Anglo-American relations, which is where the propaganda comes in. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH was apparently partially conceived to counter American grumblings that Britannia should keep its wartime promises and set its colonies free. I don’t see what the big deal was, because none of the victors honored their promises for a better postwar world.


Beautiful to look at, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH is a marvelous display of the Archers’ seemingly limitless imagination and technical finesse. Many critics consider it and its followups Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes as the peak of English cinema.


Speaking before the film was Thelma Schoonmaker, creative partner to Michael Scorsese and Michael Powell’s widow. The award-winning editrix found the audience eager to learn more about the making of the picture, which was planned while the war was still ongoing. Powell took a mercy ship to America to bring back actress Kim Hunter, who had been recommended by Alfred Hitchcock. Ms. Schoonmaker stressed Michael Powell’s research into the medical problem suffered by the film’s ‘Peter Carter’  — the symptoms perfectly match epilepsy induced by brain trauma. She also emphasized Powell’s accepting attitude toward death, which was carried over to all of the film’s ‘recent arrivals in the afterlife.’

Sony Pictures’ Grover Crisp was on hand to see his company’s splendid digital restoration of A  MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, which may not have been original Technicolor but gave a very close approximation, with saturated colors and rich contrasts. The audience consisted of quite a few Powell-Pressburger converts, who took in the show in attentive silence. What a great picture!