A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

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The 9th movie left to watch from my 10 Classics to watch in 2015/Blind Spot list is this Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger supernatural romance.

In World War II, poet and RAF pilot Peter (David Niven), is about to die in a plane crash when he radios an American woman at ground control named June (Kim Hunter). Their brief but emotional exchange, complete with poetry and messages to loved ones, bonds the pair before Peter says goodbye and leaps out of his plane without a parachute (“I’d rather jump than fry”). Peter miraculously survives and washes ashore, finds June and they begin a romance, but there’s a problem–Peter was scheduled to die and his absence from heaven causes a great hubbub up there (it’s never actually described as heaven, just the other world). The aristocratic and foppish French Revolution-era angel (Marius Goring) who missed grabbing Peter in the fog is sent to retrieve him, but Peter refuses to leave life now that he’s found love. The matter will be settled in a celestial trial which happens just as Peter undergoes emergency surgery for a growth on his brain.

The key player in Peter’s medical and spritual battle is June’s friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey, in a wonderfully warm and playful turn), an understanding expert who diagnoses Peter’s tumour but dies crashing his motorcycle before he can operate. Luckily his demise means he can defend Peter in the heavenly tribunal, which turns out to be a riveting and funny debate on the rifts between England and America, which is represented by the Anglo-hating Revolutionary lawyer (Raymond Massey). They argue and mock each other’s tastes and values but overcome their differences, while the couple’s love, proven by June’s bravery and emotion, conquers all.

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That ending is predictable but the point of the story to live fully and with passion. The urgency of the opening moments in the descending plane continues through the movie, as Peter clings to life and refuses to be lured with tricks, promises of reunions with lost friends or encounters with his pick of historical figures. At the same time there’s an acceptance of death as not so bad, considering the luxury and rewards. The afterlife has a coke machine right where you need one, spectacular views of anything on Earth and freshly laundered angel wings for all new arrivals. When Peter thinks he’s died and sees a real dog on the real shore, he says “I always knew there would be dogs,” and that’s this movie’s picture of what comes next–anything you wish it to be.

It’s easy and pleasant to go along with this fantasy when it’s full of imaginative and unexpected ideas and visuals, like having mortals freeze in mid-ping pong match while Peter talks with the Angel, or making Heaven smooth, modern black and white while Earth is joyful, lavish Technicolor. There’s a grand escalator leading up as far as the eye can see (the film’s original U.S. title was Stairway to Heaven), and some amazing effects showing the areas in the galaxy where heavenly authorities observe us from on high. That gets a clever comparison to Dr. Reeves’ camera obscura survey of his seaside village. The supporting cast includes Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough and Robert Coote, plus scores of dearly departed from all nations and eras attending Peter’s trial. Whether you take this as the hallucination of a dying man or a glimpse of the afterlife, it remains fresh, touching and inventive as it must have looked in 1946. 

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24 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death (1946)”

  1. I really enjoy this movie! Just because the ending is predictable doesn’t make it any less impactful of a story. So glad you got to finally see it!

    1. Totally agree, I rarely (if ever) mean predictable as a criticism. I once wrote that hamburgers and sandwiches are predictable but yummy 🙂 I really liked this, It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, such a nice use of fantasy and the look and colour are so lavish. Thanks and Happy New Year!!

  2. Such a beautiful film and I’m glad you got to see it! You are right on the mark that you have to deal with the trappings of life (and war) whereas the afterlife was not so bad. It may not be actually presenting a belief of an afterlife, but that the acceptance has a calming presence on living.

    The effects are magnificent, not just for 1946, but for any time. The sets, as is typical in P&P films, were also practically unparalleled.

    This is a special film and I’m glad you closed this blind spot.

    1. It is special, looks and feels unlike anything I’ve seen, so pretty. As urgent as the passion for life is, that realization that time is short and you have to say and do the important things, it still has that calming effect you mention. It’s fascinating that they made heaven B&W when most filmmakers would have it the other way around. Original choices. Thanks and Happy New Year!!

    1. This has to be one of the best roles For Niven that I’ve seen so far, and has such a nice look to it, even if you aren’t into the fantasy aspect of it you can’t help but enjoy the visuals.

  3. Thanks for posting this one! Just saw that we have this in our library, so I hope to see it soon.

    1. Very nice movie as you can see by the comments too. Glad to discover these Powell& Pressburger movies, they have a magical look and this is such a great role for Niven.

          1. I’ve still yet to see Peeping Tom – that easily could’ve made my list if I’d thought about it – Dang it!

  4. One of the very best romantic fantasies ever. It’s a fine story, visually beautiful and well acted – a genuine classic.
    Happy New Year.

  5. I have a fondness for “celestial courtroom” movies, and this one probably takes the cake. Great post. I think I’ve signed up to discuss this film at CineMaven’s Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, so the bar’s now been set for me to discuss this movie! See you there!

    1. Thanks, no shortage of interesting things to say about this one, or things to notice in it. Worth rewatching because I know I couldn’t absorb everything the first time. All around great movie. Happy new Year!

  6. The opening 15 minutes or so are remarkable to me, I felt the rest wasn’t quite as captivating. I probably need to give the film a second chance as its been a few years. I might have a greater appreciation now that I’m older.

    1. I know it wouldn’t have made as much of an impression on me when I was younger, the filmmaking or the subject. Those opening scenes are packed full of colour and emotion that pull you into the characters and story right away. Thanks for reading.

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