Criterion Prediction #88: A Matter of Life and Death, by Alexander Miller
Title: A Matter of Life and Death aka Stairway to Heaven
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Kim Hunter, David Niven, Kathleen Byron, Roger Livesey, Richard Attenborough
Synopsis: British pilot Peter Carter falls for American radio dispatcher June when his aircraft is damaged after a bombing raid in WWII. Having to eject from his plane without an operable parachute Carter is prepared to take a fatal plunge. However, he survives and strikes up a love affair June with the woman he met over the radio.
Following this near death encounter, Peter is approached by Commissioner 71, a heavenly emissary sent to the mortal world to reclaim Carter as he was destined for a different fate.
Critique: After It’s a Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and both iterations of Heaven Can Wait, the notion of trafficking in heavenly messengers, characters pleading for their lives with otherworldly forces feels like familiar territory, even a tad silly. But in the hands of The Archer’s, who not only substantiate the material but elevate this wartime parable into something emotionally resonant, historically (and politically) pertinent, with warmth and humor to boot.
It’s easy to be blindsided by Powell & Pressburger work because they are so well rounded digestible to our modern sensibilities, but it’s their sheer implacability that makes their incomparable style so emblematic when you hold their work to the times in which they were made.
Their grounded sentiments are congruous to whimsical flights of expressive fantasy and yet their illusory tendencies aren’t saccharine but dark, mirroring obsession and often ending in tragedy; a catharsis that would lead to the director’s undoing later on with Peeping Tom. Their political explorations are just as prevalent, and yet their historically sensitive allegories tend toward mythic harmony; A Canterbury Tale, a laid back folky wartime retelling of Chaucer’s namesake feels light years from their breakneck thriller of 49th Parallel while both boast technical fluidity.
A Matter of Life and Death looks to the past in an expanded, international sense, handling broader inquiries of mortality. Yet its light comedic romanticism doesn’t dilute its poignancy. Powell and Pressburger never compromise their vision, and in their lineage of protagonists dismantled by their passions A Matter of Life and Death pivots in another direction, opting for a more fantastical narrative with the expressive drive we’d see at the heart of their subsequent features.
Less bittersweet than, say, the elegiac farewell to the gentleman’s approach to war that was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and light years away from the tragedies attached to The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death is a celebration of life and love that eschews corny sentiment by its wit and the commitment to its conceit.
Peter and June’s relationship is more than a narrative device but (in the film) a literal case for life that takes us to the heavenly court. When it’s unveiled we learn that it’s not ruled by an almighty deity but governing body of a worldly past, history is what dictates our future and seeing this sprout from a film, initially spurned as a post-war propaganda effort it’s somewhat unprecedented.
The Archers are frequently defined as the Powell and Pressburger team but it would seem criminal to omit collaborating cinematographer Jack Cardiff. In the first effort of their fruitful relationship, he gives the film a beautiful contrast in shooting heaven in black and white while illuminating the “real” world in his lavish Technicolor photography. Employing some sly technical tricks along the way, Cardiff’s contribution evokes an ethereal atmosphere of transitioning life and afterlife with such an eloquent sleight of hand, it’s not an overstatement to call this film magic. Great performances from all concerning parties, highlights include Archer’s mainstay Roger Livesey, Kathleen Byron’s “Angel” character has that sharp gaze that would resurface at the frightening finale of Black Narcissus, and it’s fun to see a young Richard Attenborough as a pilot.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The best reason for the inclusion of A Matter of Life and Death is that it feels like the “missing link” of Powell and Pressburger’s work featured in The Criterion Collection. With The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus beautifully restored on Blu-Ray – it’s almost enough to quell the upset of the long OOP The Small Black Room, The Tales of Hoffman, and worst of all Peeping Tom, thanks to the Studio Canal fallout of 2010.
I guess we should be grateful that The Thief of Baghdad, 49th Parallel, I Know Where I’m Going! and A Canterbury Tale, are still around, if only on DVD.
Thankfully, distribution for A Matter of Life and Death doesn’t fall into the Studio Canal wormhole with the rights varying from region to region. But one distributor attached to the film is Carlton Entertainment, who, along with Sony, has shared Powell and Pressburger titles in The Criterion Collection, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, The 49th Parallel, A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going!. Whether or not this is the basis for anything substantial is another matter. The best way to see A Matter of Life and Death is most accessible in The Films of Michael Powell set, including his 1969 film Age of Consent, as well as some excellent commentaries from Martin Scorsese, Ian Christie and Film Comment editor at large Kent Jones. Hopefully these could carry over to a Criterion release, should it happen.