Classic Film of the Week #12: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

What makes a movie magic? I'm sure everyone has a different answer to this question, but my personal definition can be summed up by a viewing of A Matter of Life and Death. It's a flawed film with a convoluted mess of a plot, yet it manages to capture images and ideas about love and the afterlife that are absolutely breathtaking, and more than that, true movie magic.

Directed by the legendary duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, and Marius Goring. Peter (Niven) is a WWII Air Force pilot trying to get back to England in a damaged aircraft with no parachute. When it becomes clear that he's not going to make it, he gets in touch with a radio operator named June (Hunter), with whom he shares his final words before jumping out of the plane. Miraculously, he wakes to find himself on a beach in England--just a little ways away from June's boarding house. He finds her and the two immediately fall in love, having already formed a deep connection during the conversation they shared when they thought he was going to die. All seems well, until Peter is confronted by a strange Frenchman (Goring) that only he can see, and who claims that Peter was meant to die and must come back with him to the afterlife. Peter demands an appeal, and in the meantime June acquaints him with her friend Dr. Reeves (Livesey), who seeks to cure Peter of his "hallucinations" before the fateful trial that will determine if Peter will live out his life with June, or be forced to submit to the death he unintentionally cheated.

By 1946, Powell and Pressburger were famous for their lush and inventive use of Technicolor. So what did they do to up the ante for their first big fantasy film, filled to the brim with groundbreaking special effects? They filmed them all in B&W, of course. At first it seems like a strange choice, but in fact, visually differentiating the "real world" and the "afterlife" by having one filmed in brilliant Technicolor and the other in B&W is genius. Especially smart is the choice of which to film in B&W: I think most filmmakers would have opted to de-saturate boring old real life and show the majestic heaven in all of its colorful glory, but the opposite is so much more powerful. The scene pictured above, in which Peter and the messenger ascend a giant staircase, is one of the most amazing visuals I've ever seen in a film: it's an eerie, dreamlike sequence that feels completely removed from reality, and so much of that comes from the lack of color. Truly, from start to finish, this is one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen. While the elaborate production design in the B&W scenes is certainly a treat, there's also a lot to be enjoyed in the Technicolor sequences. In particular, I just love the rich greens and purples in the scene taking place in the flower bushes--the Archers know just how to utilize color so that even the most simple scene becomes a visual marvel.

Moving onto the plot, this is the one area where the film doesn't quite work. It incorporates such a ridiculous number of sub-plots, especially in the last act, and few of them actually go anywhere; but most troubling of all is the film's effort to make the audience doubt that Peter's visions are real. The character of Dr. Reeves offers a rational, medical explanation for what Peter is experiencing, and the climax is split between Peter's trial and his experimental brain surgery. Now, if the film followed through on this ambiguity--allowing the audience to decide whether Peter has really upset the natural order of life and death, or merely suffered a brain injury--that would actually be pretty fascinating, as films that challenge the audience in this way may be quite common nowadays, but I don't know if I've ever seen a plot of this type from the 1940s. Such a choice for this film's plot would even improve it in many ways, as the extraneous plot-lines and inconsistencies could all be explained away by Peter's illness. Unfortunately, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too: throughout the film it's made very clear that the afterlife is real, and by the end there can be no doubt that this is the case, rendering the lengthy scenes of Dr. Reeves analyzing Peter and diagnosing him completely pointless. The good news is, though, that this is the kind of film where the plot doesn't actually matter very much: the characters, their conflicts, and the visuals are strong enough to be compelling even though the story-line doesn't quite live up to them.

Ultimately, A Matter of Life and Death is a movie that encapsulates every cliche people think of when they think of "classic film", but in the very best possible way. It's epic and grandiose, it's full of stunningly over-the-top visuals and special effects, it utilizes both classic Technicolor and B&W, and it's the ultimate story of the power of love: there is no irony in the film's tale of a man who deserves to cheat death for no reason except that he's fallen in love. And behind all of it is such artistry and so much heart; this is a film so deeply felt by the people making it that it's impossible not be carried away by the beauty of it all. Bringing us back to my declaration that this film is pure, undiluted movie magic, and a magnificent example of cinema's power to not only create, but also transport an audience into a whole new world.

A Matter of Life and Death is one of the great triumphs of Powell and Pressburger's partnership, a groundbreaking picture that has all of their artistry and technological innovation on full display. It's the kind of film that reminds a weary viewer of exactly why they love cinema so much and all that it's capable of, and it comes highly recommended to all film buffs--whatever your interests, you'll surely find something to appreciate here.


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