Home Year 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

And she's buying a stairway to heaven...
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…

Twitter Plot Summary: When a WW2 pilot doesn’t die when expected, he has to argue with a heavenly court for his life.

Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Romance/War

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Key Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Richard Attenborough, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kathleen Byron,  Marius Goring.

Five Point Summary:

1. Ive seen this scene spoofed in Big Train and in Bill and Ted too, I think.
2. Heaven in black and white, Earth in colour. Nice. Also: Richard Attenborough!
3. Let the court case commence!
4. Lots of arguments based on nationality. Not quite sure why that
s relevant
5. Love conquers all. Naturally.

On his way back from a bombing raid in a battered Lancaster at the end of World War 2, pilot David Niven strikes up a conversation with radio operator June just before bailing out of his heavily damaged aircraft without a parachute. Given a choice between bailing out and being cooked alive by the flames, it’s certainly the lesser of two evils. After disappearing into the fog he wakes up on a beach and bumps into June who happens to be based nearby. They fall in love and all seems well until a French conductor (Marius Goring) from the other world drops by and tells him that he should have died, and he’s here to take him back. Carter refutes the claims and appeals the decision, as any Brit would do, thus setting the stage for the rest of the film.

The divide between Heaven and Earth is nicely done, with the place of the angels in old-school black and white, and the Earthly world in full colour – in some ways this is directly opposite to what you may expect, however it seems that the colour implies life, whereas black and white indicates death and the afterlife. Perhaps a bit too on the nose for modern audiences, but it would have been something new and exciting back in 1946. I should note that the other world is never directly referred to as Heaven in the film as apparently that would have been too limited given the number of religions out there, but the implication is there. I’m of the opinion that the disclaimer that opens the film regarding the other world/Heaven is designed solely to appease the Christian element of the audience who may have taken umbrage at any representation of the afterlife in a film. Personally I don’t have any issue with any portrayal of worlds beyond our own – it’s a film about love conquering all despite whatever circumstances are put in front of you, yadda yadda, repeat ad nauseam.

Sniffing David Niven's hair. It was all the rage in 1946.
Sniffing David Niven’s hair. It was all the rage in 1946.

There’s also some nice ideas at play in terms of direction and narrative. One scene shows David Niven’s Peter Carter being anaesthetised , and we see his eyes close from his perspective. Again, nothing astounding for a modern audience, but it’s very clever. The other special effects are also fantastic for the period – the stairway to heaven in particular looks amazing, and the freeze frame moments where characters are stuck in place whilst Carter discusses options with the French Conductor are a marvel of technological achievement.

The love story is key to the whole affair – by having additional time on Earth and having opportunity to fall in love, Carter argues that if he hadn’t had the additional time he’d have gone willingly. As he had fallen in love with a girl between his expected time of death and the point where Heaven sent the Conductor down to collect him, asking him to give up his life is somewhat a moot point. Can’t say I blame him to be fair. There’s also the argument as to whether or not this is actually happening, or if it’s simply taking place in Carter’s head as he plummets towards the ground, his final thoughts before death. It’s ambiguous enough for either perspective to be true, and the script tows the line nicely by neither confirming or denying that it’s one or the other. Instead it’s for us the audience to decide, and that’s perhaps the best thing the film can give to us. Besides being rather good, of course.

Favourite scene: The court scene. Very nice.

Quote: “Ah, these English! What is the good of kissing a girl if she does not feel it?”

Silly Moment:  Very fast talking whilst playing table tennis.

Score: 4/5

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