The history of storytelling is littered with examples of characters trying to cheat death. From Max Von Sydow’s fateful chess game in The Seventh Seal (and it’s bastard son of a sort, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) to Russian folk tales about capturing the grim reaper in a magical sack, humanity has always found obsession in immortality. It is an understandable fixation; we so often pine for what we can’t have, and with the specter of death looming over lives both long and short, avoiding that final outcome is a desire that unites so many on this world. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, those titans of mid-century British cinema often known as “The Archers” for their production company, provided their own take on the concept back in 1946. Released on American shores as Stairway to Heaven, it is perhaps best known by its original title, A Matter of Life and Death.
The film seems to begin at the end of the life of Peter Carter (David Niven), a World War II fighter pilot whose damaged plane barely remains aloft as he tried to fly back to base in England. With no remaining crew or functioning parachute, Peter is resigned to his fate, comforted in his final moments by the voice of an American radio operator posted to his base named June (Kim Hunter). They strike up an instant rapport, but a short one, as Peter is forced to eject from the burning bird. By all accounts, there’s no way he should be able to survive the fall, but the envoy sent from the afterlife to escort him to his eternal rest (a French aristocrat named Conductor 71 played by Marius Goring) cannot retrieve him within a dense fog, allowing Peter to live another day to his complete bewilderment. Bolstered by his surprise second chance, Peter rushes back to the base to spark a relationship with Jane, the woman he had fallen in love with just hearing the sound of her voice. All appears to be well until Peter is visited by the Conductor, who explains to him that he was supposed to die in the crash and must go with him to the other world to balance the celestial books. Peter scoffs at the notion, first chalking it up to bad dreams. His confidant, Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey), is convinced the visions are triggered by a traumatic brain injury, with his attempts to save his friend’s life working in parallel with Peter facing a heavenly court to argue for his life.
It is a novel concept, but what is perhaps first noticed in Powell and Pressburger’s approach to the project is their use of color. As Peter flits back and forth between worlds corporeal and celestial, the Archers take a page from The Wizard of Oz’s playbook, shooting one location in eye-popping technicolor and another in sepia hued black and white. But whereas The Wizard of Oz drained the real world of its color and turned the fantasy of Oz vibrant, A Matter of Life and Death turns those tables on their head. While we might expect the afterlife to be a world of color, switching the palettes makes sense within the context of the story, as the real world is where Peter’s desires lie; June is there, after all, and a life without June, even an eternal one, is a life without color. The choice to shoot the film in this way also slyly reinforces the concept that Peter’s struggle to deny the afterlife could just be an elaborate delusion brought on by his brain injury. Powell and Pressburger remain coy with this aspect of the narrative, never providing a definitive statement whether Peter’s visions are real or hallucinatory. The bridge between these two possibilities, the massive escalator between Heaven and Earth that provided the film with its American title, is a supremely impressive piece of scenery, a microcosm of the Archer’s love for meticulous and exacting production design (consider the dazzling ballet sequence of their 1948 masterwork The Red Shoes for proof of that). The scope of it all, the set design, the use of color and space, the way the camera work changes from one setting to the next (the afterlife is often shot from high angles, like God looking down on His creations, compared to Earth’s more immediacy of close-ups). This is clearly the work of two artistic titans at the top of their game.
Of course, all the production value in the world can’t support a story on its own, and the cast assembled further serves to bring this world to life. Niven and Hunter excel at Old Hollywood romance melodrama, and considering the belief that they fell in love over the radio is so critical to the entire enterprise, their ability to make the relationship genuine and spontaneous is a joy to behold. Equally satisfying is Goring, who chews the scenery with gleeful abandon, his accent as outrageous as his wardrobe. There is so much personality on display in every shot and every scene that A Matter of Life and Death never flirts with losing its focus or disengaging. Belief in the conceit is vital for a high concept film like this one, which makes it so gratifying when every aspect of the production, from script to performance to design, weaves together so harmoniously.
It is a cliché to say that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like they used to anymore. It is a true statement, especially when it comes to grand scale looks at the human condition like A Matter of Life and Death. But tastes change and technology obsoletes and the world moves on to different stories and different storytelling. We can be glad, though, that these films remain with us through the decades, a portal into a bygone era. A Matter of Life and Death is an indisputable classic, wry yet genuine, boundlessly clever, engrossing and sophisticated, and while the style of filmmaking Powell and Pressburger perfected seven decades ago has passed on to memory, that memory persists for the benefit of all. A masterpiece.