A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (known under the more evocative title “Stairway to Heaven” in a number of other countries) is a film I originally wanted to watch and review almost a year ago, for a double feature with Dive Bomber. A brief clip of the film featured in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics reminded me to finally play the DVD.

That planned double feature would have been a bit of a dud, thematically; the two films, while both good, are far too different. A Matter of Life and Death isn’t about fighter pilots and airplanes at all, it turns out. It’s a love story rolled into a court drama with some supernatural (or psychological) complications.

After a literally cosmic prologue, the two central characters are introduced: Peter (David Niven) is a British bomber pilot whose plane has been hit during a raid in 1945, shortly before the end of the war; his crew has already bailed, but Peter’s parachute has been damaged. He calls his situation in to radio operator June (Kim Hunter), an American volunteer. The two hit it off, but they both know Peter won’t survive jumping out of his plane. Except that somehow, he does just that, and he happens to run into June near the beach where he landed. They recognize each other and instantly know they’re in love.

This film is hopelessly and shamelessly romantic. If that’s not the kind of movie you tend to like, stay clear. Peter’s love for June and her love for him are of vital importance to the plot. Peter should have died, but due to an oversight in “the other world”, he did not. The rest of the film is a sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, sometimes profound look at Peter’s struggle to make his case for staying on Earth.

The film switches between “the real world” and “the other world” (which is never explicitly called Heaven by the afterlife bureaucracy, though a throwaway joke uses the term). On Earth, in colour, a doctor (Roger Livesey) thinks Peter is having hallucinations and that they are a sign of head trauma which should be treated; in the other world, in black and white, we follow the preparations for the trial Peter is granted that will decide whether he’ll be allowed to stay with June.

—Some spoilers jumped to below this line—

It’s never entirely clear whether what we’re seeing and what Peter is seeing is real. The film’s prologue explicitly says that one world is imaginary, but doesn’t specify further and takes great pains to leave it ambiguous. The actor who plays Peter’s surgeon on Earth, for instance, also plays the judge at his trial in the other world, but Peter sees the former’s face only after the latter has been introduced. The scenes in the other world also contain information Peter does not have and set in before he is first informed of the celestial mistake; so if they’re all visions, some of those visions must be subconscious, revealed to the audience but not to Peter.

It is also possible that both worlds are fantasies by a dying Peter or one who has gone insane, given the sometimes strange turns and coincidences the plot takes both down here and up there. The ending is also made out to be unambiguously positive, and it is for Peter and June, but the death of another major character doesn’t factor into it at all, as if it’s not important.

That said, for me, the statement in the prologue and several clues from the technical side of the film, not the narrative side, combine to form the impression that the psychological interpretation is closer to the truth than the supernatural one. The editing almost exclusively uses dissolves to transition between one world and the other. That decision in and of itself (the directors could after all have gone with fades or cutaways or a mix) adds a dreamlike quality to the proceedings and blurs the line between real and imaginary. The notion of unity is further reinforced by “mistakes” that sometimes creep into the picture during transitions: scenes in the other world gaining colour, scenes on Earth losing it. Given that everything else in the movie is technically perfect, these mistakes probably aren’t; or rather, they’re mistakes by Peter’s brain, not the filmmakers. The most impressive transition in the film, and one of the few that isn’t a straight dissolve, pans from Peter’s closed eyelids to a gigantic hall in the other world by way of some abstract imagery which colour subtly fades away from: one could argue we’re literally switching to what Peter sees in front of his (mind’s) eye.

This kind of cerebral discussion is an important part of the film’s legacy, but it’s probably not the reason the movie remains so beloved over 65 years after its original release. On its face, the plot could have come across as silly and overblown, and indeed sometimes threatens to do so. But the film never tips over, always managing to involve the audience in the fates of the lead characters. And it’s always gripping, whether it comes to Peter’s worsening medical condition on Earth or his trial in the other world. Emotionally, it doesn’t matter what’s real and what isn’t, because we want Peter to succeed in both realms. It may not be realistic how his and June’s relationship develops (in that it develops not at all, but springs into existence), and objectively their love may be a poor excuse to throw a wrench into Providence’s plans. But it works; in 1946, after the bloodiest war the contemporary audience had ever seen, irrational, colourful, wonderful love beats cold, black and white, logical law. We want Peter to win because we want to believe that sometimes, love really does conquer all.

A Matter of Life and Death is the first film by writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger I’ve had the pleasure to watch. After this, it won’t be the last. I own a DVD set containing a number of their other films and am looking forward to eventually catching up on those as well.

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