Play It Again: A Matter of Life and Death

Play It Again: A Matter of Life and Death. By Jess Lomas.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which classic-film connoisseur Jess Lomas revisits a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up … or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

It seems the dynamic team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a staple for film lovers, yet it wasn’t until late last year that I jumped aboard the bandwagon. Though The Red Shoes will always be my favourite film from this writer-director-producer powerhouse, A Matter of Life and Death also ranks incredibly high.

When squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) goes down with his burning plane during World War II, his final moments are spent conversing with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), who is stationed in England. Despite not having a parachute, these final moments of human connection will lead to a miracle: Peter surviving the fall from the plane. While the mistake occurs because Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) did not collect him to take him to the Other World, he soon tries to convince Peter to accept his fate and pass over. Of course, Peter and June have since fallen in love and he will do anything humanely possibly to stay with her.

What makes this film so unusual is the choice to film the Other World scenes in black and white, and the Earth scenes in colour. Much comparison to The Wizard of Oz has been made and the decision to reverse the assumption that the Other World should be shown in technicolour. Taking care never to refer to the Other World as Heaven it was said, “This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war”. It was left open-ended whether or not the Other World we see is real or whether it is part of a hallucination following Peter’s fall.

The film underwent a title change for its American release, which caused upset at the Powell and Pressburger camp, and deleted any mention of the word death by being renamed Stairway to Heaven. A film that was decades ahead of its time, with breathtaking cinematography from the legendary Jack Cardiff and a moving, romantic premise, A Matter of Life and Death is a rare gem.

Discuss: A Matter of Life and Death!

3 Responses to “Play It Again: A Matter of Life and Death”

  1. This was certainly a most enjoyable film released in Australia in late 1947 under the title of STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN! I would highly recommend it to all cinema buffs – especially the older ones!

  2. Absolutely a gem.
    I remember seeing this several times as a child and being absolutely absorbed and moved by this great film. Seeing this again is not unlike how in trepidation i ran Midnight Cowboy to my now older kids sometime back (after not seeing this film since it’s initial release) and being just blown away how it also was still immensely powerful, fresh and moving.

    We are very lucky indeed that there are places in time and movie making, when the important things in life, transcend the greed and control to make schlock for the big returns…cough…Tron…cough, etc.

  3. Omigosh, I’ve just ordered the Powell and Pressburger collection from Amazon. Can’t wait to see this. I too have only just recently discovered the awesomeness of them and the sheer amazingness of The Red Shoes. Our very own Robert Helpmann! *squee*

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