A Matter of Life and Death


Rating *5*

Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring David Niven (Peter Carter), Kim Hunter (June), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Abraham Sofaer (Judge / Surgeon), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshawe), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder) and Richard Attenborough (English Pilot)

Peter Carter, a Squadron Leader on a Lancaster bomber, is returning from a bombing raid over Germany when his plane is hit and badly damaged. One of his crew, Bob Trubshawe, is killed and the rest have bailed out on his orders, but he has no parachute. In the minutes before the plane crashes he manages to make radio contact with June, a young American radio operator based in the south of England. He tells her he is going to bail out anyway, fully expecting to die. However, when he awakes, having been washed up on a deserted beach, he discovers that through some miracle he is not dead. He and June fall in love, but Peter is in a battle to be allowed to continue to live and not be taken to the “Other World”, his intended destination, and he must find someone to act as his Defence Counsel now that a Heavenly Court of Appeal has been convened to hear his case. June’s friend Dr Frank Reeves diagnoses a brain injury and prescribes that immediate surgery is the only option.


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (pictured), who are commonly referred to jointly as “The Archers”, could justifiably lay claim to being Britain’s greatest ever filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock excepted. Although their films were mainly written by Pressburger and directed by Powell, they usually shared an equal writer-director-producer credit. They collaborated for the first time in 1939 on the film ‘The Spy in Black’ and for the last time in 1957 for ‘Ill Met for Moonlight’, but their greatest films were those made between 1943 and 1948, including ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes’. They had a quite unique style, which, much like Hitchcock, remains inimitable, despite their widespread influence.

‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was made in 1946, originally in response to a Government department suggestion to improve Anglo-American relations in the aftermath of World War II. It was the follow-up to ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, my own personal favourite Powell and Pressburger film, and was the last of the three films they made that featured the excellent British actor Roger Livesey. It is widely regarded to be their best film and in 2004 it was ranked the second greatest British film ever made in a poll of 25 film critics instigated by Total Film magazine. It is an extraordinary film that marries the fantasy elements to the romantic central storyline with pinpoint precision and employs inspired special effects that are never allowed to overwhelm or interfere with the story. It is left up to the audience to decide if Peter’s visions are real or imagined; proof of an afterlife or a consequence of his condition.

In addition to Roger Livesey, the film boasts an impressive cast, including the celebrated British actor David Niven, who put his Hollywood film career on hold in 1939 to re-enlist in the British Army when Britain declared war on Germany. American actress Kim Hunter won a best supporting actress Academy Award (and Golden Globe) for her performance in the 1951 film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The Canadian actor Raymond Massey was the father of the actress Anna and actor Daniel Massey. Marius Goring appeared in four Powell and Pressburger films. The film is also notable for an early appearance by Richard Attenborough, a year before his major breakthrough role in ‘Brighton Rock’.

Famously, the scenes on Earth are shot in vivid Technicolor (by the noted Academy Award winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff), whereas the celestial scenes are in monochrome.

The film had a total production budget in excess of £300,000. The famous “stairway to heaven” cost £3,000 and took three months to construct (the equivalent of approximately £78,000 now, or $126,000). Filming took place over a period of four months and nearly five and a half thousand extras were employed. On its original release, an early scene that showed a naked boy on the beach was cut from the American print of the film, where it was renamed ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Not all reviews at the time of its first release were positive. Fred Majdalany, writing in the Daily Mail, called it “an elaborate joke that doesn’t quite come off,” and in the trade magazine Variety the film was dismissed as “striving to appear intellectual ... less desire to exhibit alleged learning and more humanity would have resulted in a more popular offering.” It remains, more than sixty years after it was first made, an absolutely stunning film of considerable emotional resonance. Utterly brilliant.

Review posted 31 December 2009


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