A Matter of Life and Death
d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1946)
The Criterion Collection
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger started working as co-directors in 1940. Their first few films are very good spy thrillers set in World War II. However, in 1943, when they released The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, they were at the beginning of a remarkable stretch of five years in which they created some of the greatest films, not just of the 1940s, but of all time. In the middle of this stretch — after Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going, and before Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes — made the heart-warming, life affirming A Matter of Life and Death, which some consider their absolute masterpiece. The Criterion Collection has just released a new edition sourced from a new 4K restoration, and it’s the perfect way to watch this beautiful technicolor film in your home.
A note, before we go on, about the restoration, which was performed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment: apparently the film was not in great shape. One of the features on the Criterion disc shows some side-by-side comparisons, and the booklet informs that there was some shrinkage. And yet the presentation we get here is immaculate. The amount of work that goes into these restorations is mind boggling, and I think it must be a labor of love. This is a film worthy of that work and affection.
The premise of A Matter of Life and Death might sound a bit hokey at first, and it’s certainly not completely original. The film begins as a fog rolls over England on May 2, 1945, a few days after Hitler’s suicide and just before V-E Day. Royal Air Force pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven) is flying back to England at the end of the Battle of Berlin, but his plane is in terrible shape. He’s ordered his crew (but for the already dead Bob Trubshaw, played by Robert Coote) to parachute to safety. His own parachute, however, has been destroyed.
Peter knows his own death is imminent; either he’ll burn up in the plane as it crash lands or he’ll jump to his death without a parachute. He opts for the latter, but before he does so he reaches out on the radio and contacts June (played by Kim Hunter), an American radio operator based in England. As June talks him through what should be his last moments, Peter is courageous and charming, accepting his sacrifice fully.
After Peter jumps, the film goes to black and white and we visit some depiction of the afterlife. Thousands of the recently deceased are being escorted to their new world, many of them servicemen killed in the last throws of the war in Europe, including a young Richard Attenborough.
Meanwhile, Peter wakes on a shore that looks otherworldly and beautiful. This, he thinks, must be heaven.
It is not, of course. It turns out to be even better. Somehow — and this is based on a real event — Peter survived his jump. He washes up on shore — and I doubt this is based on a real event — not far from June, meeting her on the roadway. They are actually going to be able to continue their courtship in peace.
There has been a mistake, of course. Peter’s conductor, a French aristocrat (played by Marius Goring), lost Peter in the cursed English fog and failed to snatch him up. Trying to fix his mistake, the Conductor finds Peter and asks him to come along. But now, with a new lease on life and having just fallen in love, Peter is unwilling. He demands an appeal.
We’ve seen this basic setup a few times before, and I do like those films. However, where A Matter of Life and Death shines a bit above the rest is here: it’s never clear if Peter is hallucinating or if his visions and his appeal are genuine. Certainly June thinks Peter is sick, and she approaches a neurologist, Doctor Frank Reeves (played by the always great Roger Livesey), to watch over Peter.
What we get, then, is a film that could be very light-hearted about death — will he get another chance at love? — but that instead takes the fight for life, particularly in war, very seriously.
It’s clear that, regardless of whether his visions of the afterlife and his struggles there are true or not, Peter’s been physically and mentally injured by the war, and not just World War II. His own father was a casualty of World War I, leaving Peter and a widow behind. By appealing his own fate, the film has us ask the deeper question as to why anyone should care about the potential life of this one man? It takes us back to the thousands of young people we see getting escorted into the monochromatic afterlife, to their potential lives, to the lives of those who love them. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s all the stronger for it.