A Matter of Life and Death

Cinema | A Matter of Life and Death

Kevin McGrath pays tribute to a classic of British cinema.

If you happen to believe in love at first sight, then Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s romantic fantasy A Matter of Life and Death is a film that you should move heaven and earth to try and see. In fact, the star-crossed protagonists of this wonderfully innovative movie actually fall in love before they’ve even clapped eyes on each other. The film opens with a terrific ‘meet cute’ (a term which dates back to the classic Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930’s, and which describes an imaginative plot device for bringing a screen couple together for the first time with the intention of sparking an unlikely romance), when Peter Carter (David Niven), flying his burnt-out Bomber back from an air raid over Germany, has his May-Day call answered by June, a young American radio operator stationed at a nearby aerodrome. Carter, accepting of the fact that he is facing certain death, is less concerned with relaying his co-ordinates to June than he is in sharing his last moment on earth with a kindred spirit.  That’s a meet-cute without too much of a future. Or so it seems.

A Matter of Life and Death

As the blazing Lancaster tumbles from the sky, Pressburger has a minute or two to reveal to the audience everything it needs to know about the doomed airman, from his family relationships to his life’s ambitions and, of course, whether or not he has the character and courage to face up to imminent death. What follows is a screenwriting tour de force, as Carter clues us into his past: “Age 27, religion Church Of England, politics Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience”. Powell cuts to a shot of a dead crewman and back to Carter, who, a promising young poet himself in peacetime, is cheerfully reciting the works of Andrew Marvell and invoking the spirit of Plato, Aristotle and Jesus, before poignantly signing off with “I’ve known dozens of girls, I’ve been in love with some of them, but an American girl whom I’ve never seen and never shall see will hear my last words”.

This being a Powell and Pressburger film, however, means that death may not necessarily spell the end of Peter Carter’s life. In fact, it may just be the real beginning of it, and the audience had better be ready to suspend disbelief as Squadron Leader Carter cheats death, surviving his crash-landing into the sea with barely a scratch upon his person. Carter’s explanation, relayed to a mystified June (not to mention the audience), is a rather incredible one; he has been visited by Conductor 71, an eccentric French nobleman eternally tasked with collecting the deceased and ferrying them back to heaven who, in a frank and rather ill-tempered admission, has confessed to losing track of the dead airman in an “absurd English Fog”.

All’s well that ends well you might be forgiven for thinking, except for the fact that the Conductor, having been dispatched from heaven with a flea in his ear, has now returned to reclaim Carter and convey him to his rightful place in the afterlife. Carter refuses to accompany him, insisting that falling in love with June in the time granted him by heaven’s bureaucratic oversight means that they should now be allowed to live out their days together, requesting that he be allowed to battle for his right to live in a celestial court. The missing airman, meanwhile, is the cause of chaos up above, as heaven minus one deceased Englishman, cannot balance its books. If this flight of fancy sounds a little too rich for the blood, you can rest assured that there is a conventional explanation for Carter’s miraculous story, one which is firmly rooted in science and the reality of war.

Towards the end of the Second World War, The Archers, Powell and Pressburger’s production company, had been commissioned by The Ministry of Information to make a film that would improve relations between Britain and America. Instead, however, of turning in a standard propaganda movie, with a conventional plot showing both sides standing shoulder to shoulder in a heroic battle against marauding Nazi’s, the idiosyncratic pairing authored this Anglo-American love story with a supernatural twist which threatened to endanger the countries’ “special relationship” before it had even begun.

Screenwriter Pressburger had previously scripted a two-world’s fantasy for 1931 short I’d Rather Have Cod-Liver Oil, directed by Max Ophuls, and he returned to that ostentatious device for A Matter of Life and Death. In fact, it wasn’t a particularly original idea; Fritz Lang had made Der Müde Tod (1921) and Liliom  (1934) and there had been three very recent examples of the genre with the box office smashes Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait, (1943) and A Guy Named Joe (1944), later remade by Stephen Spielberg as Always in 1989. And 1946, of course, was also the year that Frank Capra was shooting It’s a Wonderful Life, perhaps the best-known and best-loved celestial fantasy in cinema history. Interestingly, both films are prefaced with an explanatory, otherworldly voiceover that attempts to set out man’s place in the universe in the wake of an unimaginably horrific world war.

For the role of Poet/Pilot Peter Carter, The Archers cast David Niven, a star who had made a name for himself in Hollywood before war broke out in a series of studio swashbucklers such as The Charge Of The Light Brigade, (1936) and The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937), before embarking on a search of the USA to find an all-American girl to play opposite the erudite hero. Luckily, their compatriot Alfred Hitchcock had just the girl in mind – Kim Hunter was Ingrid Bergman’s stand-in for Spellbound (1945), which Hitchcock was just wrapping up for David O. Selznick. For the crucial role of Carter’s heavenly advocate, Dr. Frank Reeves, Powell cast Archers stalwart Roger Livesey, fresh from starring alongside Wendy Hiller in another magnificently quirky Powell and Pressburger production, I Know Where I’m Going (1945).  Livesey’s gregarious performance is one of the film’s great joys, while there is a sublime turn from Marius Goring, who’d already worked for The Archers on their 1939 thriller The Spy in Black. Goring had, at first, held out for the part of Carter, before edging out Peter Ustinov for the flamboyant role of the Conductor. The excellent supporting actor Kathleen Byron also came on board as a heavenly Civil Servant with a kind heart.

As well as being brilliantly acted and sharply scripted (the scene where a crew of American flyers check in to heaven and immediately go in search of the nearest vending machine would have inspired a wry grin on either side of the Atlantic), A Matter of Life and Death looks magisterial too. Pressburger confounded Powell’s expectations by deciding to shoot earth in colour and heaven in black and white, thereby reversing the template of The Wizard of Oz. Future Oscar winning Cinematographer Jack Cardiff  made his main feature debut here, largely on the grounds that he was one of a select few fully trained in the use of Technicolor film, while the sets, especially the celestial amphitheatre and the giant 106 step escalator (the film is still known in the states as Stairway to Heaven ), supremely designed by master craftsman Alfred Junge, brought Pressburger’s vision of the hereafter to life. Powell, too, was having fun with his box of tricks, using extended freeze frames and point of view shots from behind a giant eyelid to add to the film’s experimental atmosphere.

Chosen as the first Royal Command Film Performance after the Second World War had ended, the picture met with a mixed critical reception. It was variously dismissed as “trivial” or “hokum” and one leading critic sourly labelled it a “barren fantasy”, although the British Film Institute’s Monthly Film Bulletin called it a “bold and imaginative tour de force”. It was not until the mid-sixties, and the rise of the auteur theory of filmmaking, that Powell and Pressburger properly received the critical praise that was their due.

Between 1943 and 1948, Powell and Pressburger made a half-dozen films that clearly rank among the best movies of all time –  The Life and Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944),  I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and, of course, the magnificent  A Matter of Life And Death. All are unique works, but A Matter of Life and Death is, perhaps, the most enthralling film in the P&P oeuvre – fusing a uniquely imaginative and moving love story with an intellectual examination of complex Anglo-American relations going back to the American War of Independence. It’s a bravura piece of film-making, completely breathtaking in its ambition and execution.