A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) movie poster

directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
viewed: 02/09/2014

Another film in my march through “great films” that I have never seen (I am still hoping to come up with a more concise and catchy way of putting that).  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, of course are considered perhaps Britain’s greatest directors, maybe with David Lean, I don’t know.  And it’s a pretty shameful fact that I’ve seen so few of their films.  This one has interested me for a long time and I can’t begin to say why I never got around to seeing before now.

The thing that you always hear about A Matter of Life and Death is how present day (1946) real world England is depicted in Technicolor lushness, but that the film’s foray into “heaven” is done in succulent black and white.  And I guess that you can make of that what you will.  It’s a telling enough conceit to suggest that there is a lot afoot in this story about a WWII RAF pilot (David Niven) who jumps from his doomed aircraft without a parachute, upper lip fully stiffened after a brief radio correspondence with an American ally (Kim Hunter) who he had never met.

His sure death gets lost in the British fog and he winds up surviving the fall, washed up on a beach, strangely close to where Hunter is bicycling.  They fall madly in love.  Only, heaven wants him back.

Turns out, heaven is quite like a place on Earth, a bureaucracy, not all too heavenly, and this sort of thing just doesn’t happen.  But Niven fights his case to the high court of the place.  And the big drama takes place in a heavenly courtroom.

Only, back on Earth, it’s not clear whether this is really happening or if it’s just part of a mental fugue of Niven’s, a fight in his mind, which he must win, according to the 1940’s pop-psychology.

What really surprised me, and perhaps this is proof that I hadn’t read up further on the film beforehand, was how much the story is really about English/American relations post-WWII.  It was no doubt timely and the film’s propaganda is intentioned that this love affair between a Brit and a Yank is the bigger sticking point in all the red tape, rather than the strange technicality that gave the two lovers time to fall for one another.  The court case hovers far more on America versus England than makes more transcendental sense.  It places the film much more of its time, quite literally on the heels of WWII and set in the waning days of the European Conflict.

It’s a beautifully shot film, vastly interesting, quite romantic.  And it has some amazing set designs from its noted “escalator to heaven” or its heavenly modernity and superstructures.

I’m not big on courtroom dramas.  And so as great as the film is in many respects, the dramatic crescendo struck me less potent.  It’s marvelous in many ways, though.  Truly.

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