A slightly ashamed first-time viewing of A Matter of Life and Death

Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death is back in UK cinemas from Friday, December 8, in a gorgeous new 4K restoration. I’m ashamed to say I had never seen the film, until this week…

Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death marries colour with black and white
Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death marries colour with black and white

In the unlikely event that you, like me until this week, haven’t seen A Matter of Life and Death, there will be spoilers ahead.

It was with some trepidation that I settled into my seat for a screening of A Matter of Life and Death this week. Those around me were discussing their hopes that the film would look especially beautiful in its new 4K print. I, however, was concerned I wouldn’t love the film in the way they did. It’s a film that I had simply never got around to watching, despite it placing highly in many lists of all-time classic British movies. Indeed, my familiarity with Michael Powell is more through his career-killing slasher movie Peeping Tom than his work with directing partner Emeric Pressburger.

The chance to illuminate a cinematic blind spot was a tempting one, but there was always the risk it would turn out to be a disappointment. I probably should have known better.

I am pleased to say A Matter of Life and Death is every inch the classic I was told to expect. It’s a stirring tale in which raw emotion is mixed with elaborate fantasy and moral musings to create an elegant and eclectic tale, likely a far cry from the straightforward propaganda the British government expected when they suggested a film to improve Anglo-American relations. For a film that’s more than 70 years old to still feel brave and subversive today is very unusual indeed.

The story begins with a bizarre voiceover, guiding the audience through outer space (“This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”). We then meet Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) as he delivers his last words to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) just before his plane goes down. He wakes up on a beach in Devon, having miraculously survived, and runs into June. Meanwhile, in the “other world”, it transpires that Peter’s survival was a result of a cock-up by Conductor 71 (Marius Goring).

 

 

This setup is delivered with a joyous sense of humour, with Niven bringing oodles of charisma to his leading man. Hunter, meanwhile, builds sympathy even in her first scene so that, by the time we see them fall in love, we have no doubt they are meant for each other. This only makes the cruel twist of fate when the mix-up is revealed only more potent.

Meanwhile, the depiction of the “other world” as black and white in contrast to the vibrant Technicolor of reality – stunningly enhanced in 4K – is an ingenious switch of the expected order. It’s a clear depiction of how Peter’s reality, blessed with love as well as life, is far sunnier than even heaven itself.

A Matter of Life and Death consistently upends expectations, whether it’s by morphing from a romantic fantasy into a bureaucratic courtroom drama or with its playful sense of humour. When Goring’s cosmic conductor is dispatched to Earth to pick up Peter, he drolly remarks that he was “starved for Technicolor” in the other world. The notion of life and death as a complex legal wrangling is an interesting one and it provides an absurdist sense of comedy to even the most serious elements of the story.

The film culminates in the celebrated courtroom sequence, in which recently deceased English doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) plays defence barrister to Raymond Massey‘s ferocious and intensely anti-British prosecutor, who was the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War. It’s a real war of words, with both characters handed eloquent speeches to deliver in a tremendously realised, vast, heavenly courtroom.

David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death

It’s consistently impressive how inventive and ambitious A Matter of Life and Death feels, with the visual style decades ahead of the time the film was made. The match cutting from Technicolor to monochrome, and back again, was achieved by shooting the scenes in Technicolor and not fully developing the film. It’s an exceptional little flicker of invention that gives the other world sequences an ethereal quality, only enhancing their unusual power.

There’s a charm and potency to the emotion that proves to be the perfect vessel for the cinematic boundary-pushing. It’s little wonder that the film has endured beyond any of the other films Powell and Pressburger made during their careers together. From its playful comedy to its sweeping tale of love in the face of adversity, it’s a piece of pure cinema with heart in abundance and enough ambition to justify its place on the biggest of screens even in 2017.

To see where A Matter of Life and Death is playing near you, take a look at this list of screenings. If you’re a fan of the film, why not share your experience in the comments section?

 

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