A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH: Blu-ray (The Rank Corp./The Archers, 1946) Criterion
There is a certain tingle one gets inside a darkened theater, and, in the moment when the experiences projected onto mere canvass somehow transcend commerce for which they were always intended, transformed by the miracles of true artists conspiring on something grander and infinitely more satisfying. As it is with the extraordinarily lithe, yet intensely heartfelt fantasy/romance, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), conceived by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, British cinema’s dynamic duo, whose wartime masterpieces, ostensibly, have never been equaled. Under the production banner ‘The Archers’, with this movie Powell and Pressburger create a panacea of haunting images, deftly to subjugate the world-weary; astonishingly surreal in Technicolor and singled out from their formidable and lush pantheon of art. Powell and Pressburger’s visual virtuosity cannot be overstated. A Matter of Life and Death is an exquisitely dark, at times ingenious and fantastically believable tale. On the surface at least, it ought not to have worked, much less to have clicked with an audience. And indeed, when the picture was released in the U.S. its title was altered to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – as, presumably, there had been enough ‘death’ in the world during those terrible years at war to satisfy everyone’s quota. And yet ‘death’ is precisely what our story is all about – or rather, one man’s right to choose life over it as a prescription for his own destiny after a terrible blunder in heaven inadvertently affords him his second opportunity.
Contextualizing A Matter of Life and Death into the social fabric of 1946 is a challenge, since even the closest comparatively themed ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (released the same year) remains firmly anchored in a warmly rekindled nether land - the idyllic small-town Americana that, ostensibly, never actually existed. Despite its whimsical subject, A Matter of Life and Death is not all that far-fetched, nor particularly interested in the war although, conversely, it never shies away from the innate tragedies lurking in the conflict. After skipping across a serene universe bedecked in a dazzle of stars against an azure backdrop, the opening shots in A Matter of Life and Death fast become a showcase for the final countdown for Squadron Leader Peter David Carter (David Niven). Carter’s Lancaster bomber is mortally wounded and nose-diving. Having ordered his crew to bail, all except for Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote), who took a direct hit and was instantly killed, Carter sends out a mayday, intercepted by an American WAC. Inexplicably, she takes a very personal interest in his plight. Carter’s gallant optimism in the face of certain death fits neatly into the form-fitted cliché about Brit-born stiff-upper-lipped gents allied with King/Queen and country. The rest of the movie becomes an ardent tug-o-war between heaven’s autocracy of granite-faced angels of mercy – and one thoroughly anachronistic bon vivant, Conductor 71 (played with effete Parisian flare by Marius Goring) – and, June (Kim Hunter), the all too earthy lass who, during Carter’s brief reprieve, has thoroughly captured his heart. A Matter of Life and Death elegantly evolves into a crisply written and expertly executed make-believe in which the vestiges of life cling perilously to flesh and blood, marred by humanity’s eternal promise made to the ever-lasting (and unseen) entity, oddly enough, never referenced as God.
To fully appreciate A Matter of Life and Death requires a complete leap of faith and a thorough investment in our suspension of disbelief. Truth to tell, Powell and Pressburger’s expertise makes it easy to buy into the bizarre without fail. No reason is given for Carter having survived -unconscious, no less – in a freefall plummet from his gaping cockpit into the ocean far below. The fall alone ought to have been, if not lethal, then certainly enough to have broken his back and severely disfigured him. But no. He emerges steadfast from the glistening surf in pristine condition, untouched by fate/unwanted, but for this wrinkle in time. And for the next hour and a half, what unfolds is a battle royale between these unseen forces, presumably for goodness, who demand a wayward charge be brought home, and Carter’s willful determination to remain his mortal self. The ‘other world’ as depicted monochromatically in A Matter of Life and Death, is never referred to as heaven. The producers have, in fact, taken great pains to suggest what is about to follow is far more the hallucinogenic ramblings of a damaged imagination, violated by war, with ‘any resemblance to any other world known or unknown’ being ‘purely coincidental’. But is this Powell and Pressburger’s attempt at quaint sarcasm, liberally applied with tongue firmly in cheek, or merely due diligence on the producers’ part, not to alienate the agnostics in the audience? Whatever the case, one may draw their own conclusions about this ‘other world’ where new arrivals are given their wings wrapped in zippered plastic sleeves and the model of efficiency, observed from one of its portals, looks unsettling matter-of-fact, like the cubical office setting on the fifth floor of the IBM Building.
Interestingly, the architecture of ‘the other world’ lends itself to pseudo-fascist conformity; large, circular moderne slits in the floor, ever-vigilant in their ‘big brother’ observations of the earth. Quizzically still, there is no warmth emanating from Kathleen Byron’s nameless ‘angel’ – militaristically attired on a variation on the USO dance hall hostess, escorting the newly fallen and thoroughly bewildered to their assigned ‘wings’. While the world of men is a fractured paradise, it nevertheless overflows in glorious Technicolor, contrasted by this otherwise clinical, if softly lit, but deadly austere infinity, tucked neatly beyond the horizon. If this ‘other world’ is, in fact, heaven, it retains a most peculiar homage to ‘great men’ and ‘prophets’ from the land of the living; its escalator-styled stairway lined in towering statuary devoted to the likenesses of Alexander the Great, Ludwig van Beethoven, Confucius, Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad, Moses, Plato and King Solomon. The parallels conjoining all of the aforementioned go beyond the distinction of their contributions to society already made in their chosen spheres of influence. Each was believed to have suffered from epilepsy, the condition afflicting Carter after his accident, but never referenced as such in the movie as epilepsy, at least in 1946, was considered something of a taboo disease.
A Matter of Life and Death is as ambitiously oddball about its provocative and slightly adversarial address of Anglo-American relations, fleshed out in the penultimate passion play for Carter’s life. This pits Roger Livesay’s cerebral defense as Dr. Frank Reeves against the more bombastic and penetrating prosecution put forth by Raymond Massey’s wild-eyed Abraham Farlan. Ironically, Massey was a Canadian, though he manages to harbor the zealousness of his rebellious alter ego in the movie (Farlan, executed by the British during the War of Independence). Despite the détente between England and America as allies during WWII, Britain begrudgingly harbored an innate prejudice against ‘the Yanks’ – popularly dispelled as being “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” That A Matter of Life and Death ought to become a catalyst for shoring up this partisanship was, in fact, deliberate; Powell, an impassioned champion of American chutzpah – however, crassly commercial and gauche it seemed to many of his countrymen. Powell was encouraged to pursue this artistic reconciliation by the British government, having acknowledge the strain the war put on the Anglo-American alliance. To this end, Powell applied a simple inversion of the Hollywood tradition. Instead of a strapping American officer conquering the doe-eyed Brit-born lass, it is the poetry-spouting Brit who wins the heart of a kind-hearted and demure American WAC.
We should also note A Matter of Life and Death’s technological ambitiousness; the film photographed by the legendary Jack Cardiff – his first, in Technicolor. Powell met Cardiff while the latter was working as an assistant DP on Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945), another masterpiece, for too long unseen, and made only because Powell could not get his hands on a Technicolor camera immediately to shoot A Matter of Life and Death. Impressed with Cardiff’s creativity on the aforementioned picture, Powell offered the young cinematographer the dream job of a lifetime and his big break in the picture biz. Cardiff leapt at the opportunity, only to discover Powell’s large-scale plans to shoot A Matter of Life and Death in both color and B&W presented several unforeseen complications; notably, how to maintain monochromatic integrity on color stock as it had a tendency to register a pearly texture during the de-saturated ‘other world’ sequences. The solution for Cardiff was eventually hyped in the screen credits as Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor. Given the extraordinary challenges of melding these two worlds, Cardiff’s superbly smooth dissolves and transitional fades from B&W to lurid Technicolor are nothing short of miraculous. Today, it could all be achieved with relative ease digitally. In 1945, Cardiff was actually performing such delicate photographic maneuvers ‘in camera’.
The other astonishing technological achievement in the picture is ‘Ethel’. While some of A Matter of Life and Death was actually filmed on location in Devon and Surrey, the bulk of its lithe escapism is mostly sustained on 29 sets, economically constructed at D&P and Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, England at an estimated cost of £320,000. These included the iconic stairway to heaven, an escalator with steps measuring 20 ft. wide and driven by 12 hp engines, the illusion into infinity attained with hanging miniatures created by matte artist, Peter Ellenshaw. The actual staircase/escalator worked, affectionately dubbed ‘Operation Ethel’ by the engineering firm responsible for its creation. Extreme noise from its engines prevented live soundtrack recording. Virtually all of the scenes taking place atop ‘Ethel’ had to be dubbed during post-production.
A Matter of Life and Death features some interesting casting choices. Although David Niven had made modest inroads into British cinema he was hardly considered ‘star material’, while Kim Hunter’s participation could ostensibly be called ‘a happy accident’. Alfred Hitchcock had used Hunter as a stand-in to read Ingrid Bergman’s lines during rehearsals on Spellbound (1945). Hitchcock liked Hunter, and, as Hitchcock and Powell were old friends as well as colleagues, his recommendation carried considerable weight. After some finagling with producer David O. Selznick (who held Hunter’s contract) the actress was signed to appear in the film. For the role of Conductor 71, Powell and Pressburger turned to one of their perennial favs, Marius Goring. But the actor initially petitioned hard to play Carter instead. As neither producer could be dissuaded from their original plans to cast Niven in the part, Goring was politely informed he could either partake of the role being offered him or forfeit the opportunity to Peter Ustinov instead. Mercifully, Goring agreed to these terms. A Matter of Life and Death is also noteworthy for the very brief appearance of Richard Attenborough as an unnamed English pilot newly arrived in heaven; Attenborough, destined to go on to greater things in British and American cinema.
A Matter of Life and Death begins in earnest on May 2, 1945 with RAF Squadron Leader, Peter Carter recognizing his number is up. His Lancaster bomber has sustained irreparable damage and is descending rapidly to earth in a ball of fire. Having instructed the rest of his crew to bail out, Carter is left with no parachute and the remains of his fellow officer, Bob Trubshawe, killed in the blast. His final contact with the outside world, or so it would seem, is an S.O.S. to June, a WAC operator based in England. Carter’s uncanny optimism in the face of death touches June’s heart. Carter instructs June to contact his mother and extend his never-waning love for her to her, moments before he jumps from the plane, presumably to his death. Assuming the worst, June is stricken to the core by Carter’s final broadcast. As unrealistic as it may seem, she has fallen in love with this disembodied voice, bravely surrendering to the call of duty. As fate would have it, Carter is not for the other world – not yet. In fact, miraculously, he has survived his ordeal with only a minor gash sustained across his forehead; unconscious, but otherwise unharmed and lazily washing ashore. The wrinkle, of course, is Carter ought to have died. Indeed, heaven-sent Conductor 71, a French aristocrat guillotined in the Revolution, has come too late to this party to escort Carter’s spirit over to the other side.
A pity, ’71 became lost in the pea soup fog off the English Channel. Having missed his opportunity to reclaim Carter, ’71 is ordered by heaven’s austere Chief Recorder (Joan Maude) to go to earth to convince Carter of his fate. One problem: having awakened on these glistening shores in total bewilderment, and, made his way across picturesque windswept bluffs, Carter meets June and now has also fallen madly in love with her. Hence, when Conductor 71 explains the situation to Carter, he absolutely refuses to go. Worse, at least for ’71, Carter appears to have solid grounds to appeal his fate in heaven’s court. Nervous, ’71 retreats into the clouds to consult his superiors. Meanwhile, Carter continues to indulge in his own earthy resurrection. Alas, Carter begins to suffer from hallucinations. Or are they? Whatever their merit or concreteness, Carter’s ‘condition’ continues to worsen. June is frantic to spare her lover from his suffrage. To this end, she confers with Dr. Reeves, an old friend. After some tests, Reeves’ diagnosis is ‘chronic adhesive arachnoiditis’; in laymen’s terms, a brain injury from a slight concussion. Reeves, however, is optimistic he can cure Carter with experimental surgery. Tragically, Carter suffers a setback, necessitating Reeves’ immediate intervention.
Reeves endeavors to perform the operation. But his ambulance has been delayed in a horrendous storm. As June remains at Carter’s side, Reeves suits up on his motorcycle to ride into town. Earlier, Reeves’ daredevil handling of this motor bike was established. Regrettably, under less than perfect conditions he loses control of his vehicle. Smashing headlong into the ambulance, Reeves is instantly killed. Meanwhile, back at the farmhouse, Carter slips into another hallucination, electing Reeves’ spirit to represent him during heaven’s trial. Deftly, Reeves articulates the point that Carter’s prolonged stay on earth is not his fault. Furthermore, his earthly commitment to June must take precedence over the afterlife's claim on his soul. As heaven’s defense council, Abraham Farlan launches into a weighty diatribe on the merits of English law, akin to man’s own, but flying in the face of heaven’s autocracy. Reeves’ protests that the jury is stacked with men from cultural backgrounds with whom England’s long-standing wars have thus tainted their reputation; hence, prejudice against England itself will affect the outcome of the verdict. In reply, Farlan replaces the jurors with American immigrants, representative from the same nationalities Reeves accused of harboring prejudices against England.
At a stalemate, heaven’s Judge (Abraham Soefar) intervenes, ordering Trubshawe and Reeves to claim Carter and June to testify in their own defense. Carter’s lifesaving surgery is suspended in time. He awakens fully renewed and in pilot’s regalia. Reeves challenges Farlan’s claim that the variables of Carter’s recall have been altered, presenting as evidence a single tear, taken from June’s cheek and perfectly preserved on the petals of Conductor 71’s boutonniere. Asked if he would give his life for June, Carter willingly agrees that he would. Only now, Reeves informs June it is she who must sacrifice herself in Carter’s stead to prove the depth of her love for him. Carter is frozen in time and June voluntarily ascends the staircase to heaven, presumably to die for love. As the Judge and his ensemble retreat with June in tow the escalator is suddenly halted. June rushes down its steps and into Carter’s arms. Unable to argue against the validity of their love for each other, as it has prevented even these other-worldly forces from exacting their pound of flesh, the Judge signs a generous decree, affording Carter a long and prosperous life. We regress to the operating room. Carter’s surgery is successfully completed. Removing his surgical mask, we take notice that the surgeon who spared Carter’s life, and, the other-worldly ‘judge’ at heaven’s gate are one in the same; the former, acknowledging the exceptional circumstances of this case.
A Matter of Life and Death is a hauntingly surreal, queerly unsettling masterpiece; the final gemstone in Powell and Pressburger’s crown. The hallucinatory quality of its storytelling lends credence to the romance and mythology to our limited understanding of what may lie beyond the bonds of earthly endeavors. Justice – eternal and bespoke - is lent a fairy tale-like simplicity, never more clearly understated than when Niven’s newly escaped pilot stumbles upon a casually nude goat-herd practicing his flute; a character straight from Greek mythology. The idolization of Britain’s national acumen during the war is counterbalanced with a good-natured poke at the French and Americans that, in tandem, punctures the balloons of hypocrisy and stereotypes regarding British stiff-upper-lipped stoicism in the face of war. Despite its fantastical narrative, Powell always believed A Matter of Life and Death was grounded in reality and decidedly not a fairy tale. Indeed, the circumstances of a pilot surviving impossible odds by leaping from his plane without a parachute had actually happened in real life during the war. The lushly romantic note on which A Matter of Life and Death concludes is thus perfectly timed to offset Faran’s unsentimental debate on the implacable nature of divine law. Love can indeed stop the universe. It may even be the only arbitrator to dictate that mercurial quality of ‘humanity’, capable of eclipsing even the highest authority on any hemisphere.
Any studio today undertaking a full-blown restoration of a vintage 3-strip Technicolor feature today ought to take a sincere tipoff from the efforts put forth on Criterion’s presentation of A Matter of Life and Death. Scanned at 4K, and, employing an earlier restoration by Sony Pictures, the British Film Institute and the Academy Film Archive, overseen then by the late Jack Cariff, A Matter of Life and Death looks utterly pristine on Blu-ray. Why more studios are not endeavoring to bring their 3-strip back catalogs to such a high level of remastering is, perhaps, understandable if not forgivable. It takes both time and money to achieve such results. Apart from inherent age-related damage, the restoration efforts herein had to grapple with differential shrinkage of the original cyan, magenta and yellow layers, creating nasty halos of color to distort and blur the image. There is no shortcut here. All three layers of the original Technicolor negative must be re-scanned and re-composited on a shot-by-shot basis to eliminate such fringing. Struggling to overcome color breathing, mis-alignment, built-in flicker, and the added dilemma to maintain Cardiff’s seemingly effortless optical shots, fading in and out from color to B&W and back again, proved trying. However, no one can dispute the results.
A Matter of Life and Death sports a clean, crisp and refined image with gorgeous Technicolor. The stunningly handsome B&W sequences were achieved by eliminating the three separate B&W spliceless duplicates and simply concentrating on the restoration of a single layer to preserve the true monochromatic integrity of these scene. Contrast throughout is superb. Age-related dirt and other anomalies have been eliminated. Technicolor was a grain-concealing process, and thus, the image herein is both vibrant and smooth while revealing a startling amount of fine detail in hair, makeup and clothing – especially, in close-up. The monaural soundtrack also has been given the utmost consideration. Bar none, this is an absolutely perfect recreation of Powell and Pressburger’s masterwork. Criterion compounds our admiration here with a spate of meaningful extras: from 1986, The South Bank interview with Michael Powell; from 1998, an all too brief featurette with Jack Cardiff reminiscing about the film; from 2008, an interview with Martin Scorsese, and finally, from 2009, an audio commentary by scholar, Ian Christie, and, another interview featuring editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who also happens to be Mrs. Michael Powell. We also get a fascinating featurette on the film’s special effects, specifically created for this Blu-ray release.
Not much else to say. A Matter of Life and Death has been given its due in hi-def. Now, if we could only convince the likes of Warner Home Video – custodians of some of the most gorgeous American-made 3-strip Technicolor musicals a la MGM, as well as a formidable library of their own - to get busy restoring their back catalog to this nth degree of accuracy, and, yours truly would be a sincerely happy man! But I digress. Bottom line: this disc – a no-brainer. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)