FIVE STAR FILM: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (UK, 1946)
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger
Starring David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter 

BFI Top 100: #20 (1999) 

Nicholas Meyer, the director of Star Trek II and VI, once said: “Art thrives on restrictions and things left out... Movies have a tendency to do everything for you, too much – they can tell you where to look, they can tell you what to hear, so as a director I’m always curious at things that movies manage to leave to the imagination.” Because film makes it very straightforward to show anything (especially as technology improves), it is very easy for it as a medium to take something enormously imaginative and reduce it down to mere spectacle. C. S. Lewis approved of his Narnia books being adapted on radio because it preserved the role of the audience’s imagination; he was “absolutely opposed” to a TV version on the grounds that it would reduce his anthropomorphic characters to “buffoonery or nightmare”.
Regardless of your views on Meyer’s work, or the many and varied attempts to adapt Lewis’ stories, their words ring true when it comes to the problem of depicting heaven or the afterlife on screen. Vincent Ward and Peter Jackson both found to their cost that assaulting the audience’s senses with bucket-loads of CGI is deeply alienating, depriving both What Dreams May Come and The Lovely Bones of both the imagination and the tonal consistency they desperately needed. The best films about “the undiscovered country” are those which either only hint at its character (e.g. the Grey Havens in The Return of the King) or which put a subtle twist on something universally recognisable. In this latter camp there is no better example than A Matter of Life and Death, whose depiction of the afterlife remains compelling and influential more than 70 years on.
I use the word ‘afterlife’ here, since describing the black-and-white world as ‘heaven’ is somewhat problematic. The whole plot of A Matter of Life and Death rests on ‘heaven’ making a mistake – and by extension, God making a mistake. Since God is by nature perfect, and therefore cannot make even the simplest error, it isn’t helpful to characterise this as a Christian heaven, either in itself or as one written with one eye on an audience that hadn’t been through years of sermons and Sunday school. The theological issues it raises are no less interesting because of this, but to argue Powell and Pressberger’s film is overtly ‘Christian’ simply because it deals with heaven, or acknowledges its existence, is decidedly misleading. On a purely narrative point, describing this as a perfect heaven causes the ambiguity surrounding the central character to collapse; if heaven can’t make mistakes, it makes it much more likely that everything we see is only happening in his head (more on that later).
Like all the best theology (and certainly the kind we recognise in Lewis’ writings), the film addresses deep ethical questions by grounding them in situations we would all recognise. By conceiving of the afterlife as an enormous bureaucracy or war room, with endless secretaries taking calls, filing papers and moving points around on maps, Powell and Pressberger entertain all manner of fascinating ethical problems. How can God keep track of everything that happens on Earth? How are decisions about life and death taken – and where does free will (or natural events like the weather) come into it? How would we do it in His shoes? And are angels as perfect as God, or are they flawed creatures (as strongly suggested by the story of Lucifer)?
For a post-war audience, still in the throes of rationing and with the welfare state looming on the horizon, this film takes their earthbound, comic frustrations about bureaucracy, justice and well-meaning incompetence and uses them to shine lights on spiritual issues in an uncanny and resonating fashion. And while the modes of dress and address may have changed (we’ll come onto that shortly), modern audiences can also recognise these frustrations, either as something innate to the human condition or as a hangover from the social and political institutions of which we are the heirs. A Matter of Life and Death remains timeless precisely because its depiction of the afterlife and its ethical dilemmas aren’t wedded to one event or time period – you could substitute David Niven’s pilot out for a modern-day soldier and it would still work.
There are some details of A Matter of Life and Death which are very much of its time. While none of them are deal-breakers, insofar as they don’t derail the plot or destroy the central conceit, some will require a little adjustment or at least patience on the part of younger viewers. Like Spellbound from the year before, this is a film in which “two people fall so deeply and unquestioningly in love after only a few minutes of screen time”, and unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s film our central couple can’t off-set this by fractious bickering (though David Niven’s playful banter does help). Equally the courtroom-style debate in the afterlife about love contains a lot of references which will come across as quaint or obscure. We get through on the basis of its audacious staging, and by understanding what is at stake before the case is made; just as you can follow a good courtroom drama without needing a law degree, so you can follow this if you’re not actively repulsed by jargon and appeals to old writers.
One detail of its time which has aged well, without any form of polite mitigation, is the use of Technicolor – or, in the afterlife, the absence of it. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous without being in-your-face: the film is every bit as beautiful as Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes after it, and the decision to stage Earth in colour with the other place in black-and-white is nothing short of inspired. Not only does it go against our expectations, but it reinforces the rigid order and mundane nature of the other world. By setting up the temporal realm as one of vivid beauty and variety (to the extent that even angels mutter about us “being spoiled for Technicolor down here”), it adds to the comedy of a spiritual bureaucracy trying to put things right after a creative scenario which it had seemingly never anticipated.
If you are not spiritually inclined – whether towards Christianity or anything else – it is perfectly possible to enjoy A Matter of Life and Death on a secular level. In doing so we lean towards the interpretation that everything after Niven’s plane goes down happens only in his head; it repositions the film from being the progenitor of Wings of Desire, The Exorcist III and A Life Less Ordinary to a well-behaved ancestor of works like Brazil, Jacob’s Ladder or even Lost Highway. There are good arguments on both sides, and the film’s strength is never showing its hand, or at least not showing it too soon (the presence of the borrowed book in both worlds could be seen as an argument that there is more to Peter’s plight than mere hallucination).
Like Wim Wender’s film, A Matter of Life and Death is a very humanistic work, in both senses of the word. From a religious reading, it emphasises the dignity and beauty of the human condition, encouraging free will and with God’s love for those made in his image winning through. From a secular standpoint, it’s deeply interested in the search for justice and morality, depicting Peter and the other characters waging against a supernatural order which seems just as unjust as the natural one. We root for Peter as an individual fighting against something which feels unfair, but we are never allowed to stop questioning where such ideas of fairness come from. The triumph of love over all else at the end is both a humanistic happy ending of individuals beating the system and a Christian message of love triumphing over the cold self-righteousness associated with the law of the Old Testament.
The film’s use of chess is an interesting extension of this ambiguity. It’s not certain whether Ingmar Bergman was influenced by Powell and Pressberger when he came to stage his own chess match in The Seventh Seal, but both films feature the same action: a man of war (whether knight or pilot) trying to beat the supernatural in a battle of wits. The chess match in A Matter of Life and Death is a neat way of demonstrating the different phases of the battle Peter is waging – something which could have been handled either entirely in exposition or through over-the-top visuals. The ending is in one sense a sacrificial mate: the queen (June) offers herself up to protect the king (Peter), and through such a surprising tactic the game turns in their favour.
The performances in A Matter of Life and Death are excellent across the board. David Niven has a tendency to always give the same performance throughout his career, but here he’s the ideal choice, giving a note-perfect turn which balances chivalry, charm, wit and elegance like few others could. Kim Hunter is a good match for him as June, managing to be earnest without coming across as silly or naive, and Roger Livesey puts in another highly enjoyable performance as Frank Reeves. Watch out also for a brief appearance early on from a young and very fresh-faced Richard Attenborough, a mere two years before his chilling appearance in Brighton Rock. 
A Matter of Life and Death is a terrific achievement which remains essential viewing even after all this time. It’s on a par with The Red Shoes as Powell and Pressberger’s joint masterpiece, combining a thought-provoking storyline with believable characters, beautifully crafted dialogue and stunning visuals. It remains one of the most important and captivating films of its time, whose influence continues to be felt through the fantasy genre. If you have never seen it, you need to rectify that immediately.


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