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Reeling BackwardRating: 2 of 5 yaps

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


I love the idea of “A Matter of Life and Death.” It’s the movie they actually made I’m not wild about.

David Niven plays a British bomber pilot who was supposed to die, but files an appeal in the court of heaven for more time. Stories of this kind are pretty familiar, from “A Guy Named Joe” to “Heaven Can Wait” to “Always.” Even Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” — a criminally underrated film, in my humble opinion — contains similar notes about an orderly afterlife, complete with a celestial, fallible bureaucracy and innocent souls striving against its capricious strictures.

It’s a tantalizing notion, which is probably while filmmakers keep returning to it.

But this well-regarded film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — the writing/directing team better known as The Archers — is a daffy, dippy rendering that ends up defending True Love as its central theme. The big court trial in heaven, which was what made me interested in seeing the movie in the first place, is a disappointing and bizarre affair in which British and American ideals are weighed against each other.

Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter Carter, a 27-year-old budding poet who knows he’s going to die. As he pilots his flaming wreck of a plane back across the Chanel, with all of his crew dead or bailed out, he speaks to an American girl on the radio. In these few minutes of insistent chatter — in which Peter does almost all of the talking, I might add — we’re to believe they formed a lifelong bond that cannot be broken.

The official story is that Peter’s angel, otherwise known as Conductor 71 — a foppish French Revolution-era aristocrat played by Marius Goring — lost him in the fog and failed to transport him to heaven. As a result, Peter ends up alive on the beach, where he comes across a girl riding a bicycle and lo! It’s June (Kim Hunter), the gal he fell in love with over the phone.

Conductor 71 appears 20 hours after the oversight to collect his charge, but Peter objects on the grounds that he fell in love as a result of a heavenly mistake. The conductor agrees to file his appeal up the chain of command.

The military medical staff thinks Peter’s gone bonkers, of course, led by an unctuous doctor named Frank Reeves, played by Roger Livesey. Frank humors Peter’s story, determining he needs a brain operation or he’ll die. On the way to the hospital, Frank is killed in a motorcycle accident during a violent storm, which conveniently allows him to be appointed Peter’s counsel for the trial.

The metaphysics of the story are beyond silly. An angel can’t find his soul because of fog? Pretty shoddy work for divine beings. I also found silly the trick of Conductor 71 stopping time whenever he’s on earth, allowing him to do things like plucking a tear from June’s cheek to use at the trial.

What I really couldn’t stand, though, was the mawkish idea that two people can fall irrevocably in love in a matter of hours. And that this would be the entire basis upon which Peter’s case stands. He can’t leave Earth because he loves a woman? What about the millions of women (and men) who lost their true love during the war? Don’t they get an appeal?

The actual trial is a just plain weird affair. The prosecution is taken up by a Boston patriot who died during the American Revolution, Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey). His arguments are based entirely around his hatred of the English, referring to the many nations around the globe who have suffered in wars of the British empire. His pride veers beyond American exceptionalism into outright bigotry and Anglophobia.

“A Matter of Life and Death” still stands for its excellent cinematography and special effects. The Archers used Technicolor for the earthbound scenes, while the heavenly sequences are in a twinkling black-and-white — essentially a reverse of the technique used in “The Wizard of Oz.” The film was titled “Stairway to Heaven” for its American release, a reference to the stunning image of Peter and his conductor riding a massive escalator up into the sky.

Although it’s undeniably a great-looking film, I just found “A Matter of Life and Death” to be too harebrained to take seriously as a piece of important cinema. I was astonished to learn via the film’s Wikipedia page that it was named the second most important British film ever in a 2004 magazine survey of critics.

All I can say is they must have also suffered a conk on the head, resulting in overly ambitious delusions.

2 Yaps

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6 Responses to “A Matter of Life and Death (1946)”

  1. Great feedback, all! Love to see an intelligent argument going back and forth.

  2. Ian Butler says:

    To Fred,

    Firstly, I think all reviewers deserve some praise as they hang their opinions out to be shot down and if I drifted into the personal then I apologise.

    secondly I would urge you to see this film again and this time think of the afterlife as Niven’s dream state, and heaven as an allogry, then the film becomes a transport of delight and the after life becomes an open question. That way the poetry and romance of the film become overwhelming. i have watched this film countless times and although it appeals to my love for England it also speaks of universal themes.

    This would be the one film I would take to heaven if it exists.

  3. Fred Holmes says:

    I find it so pathetic when readers attack the reviewer for daring to disagree with them. Comments like "you don’t get it" and "you’re cynical" and "Hollywood is rubbish" say more about the people writing them than about the film. What they say is "I liked this film, but you didn’t, so I don’t like you."

    Personally I found the review well-argued and well-written.

    About the movie itself – my main problem with it is not that it’s absurd (I suppose it’s supposed to be that) but that I was in no way made to care about the outcome.

    In this film the characters move quite happily between this life and the afterlife (which seems to be much the same as this life, just in monochrome) – so much so that when the doctor dies, he’s not remotely concerned by this fact, and my strong impression is that the viewer isn’t supposed to mind too much either. The doctor happily goes about his new duties on the other side. So given that, why should the viewer care whether the hero crosses over to the other side or not? Because we care so much about this sudden romance of his and we’re desperate for it to continue? I personally didn’t feel invested in that outcome, but even if I did – wouldn’t a simple solution be for them to step over this comfortable barrier together and be equally happy on the other side? They’re going to end up there soon enough anyway, and in this film’s universe people stay the age they were when they died for all eternity – so seems a very good idea to die young.

    I was curious enough to keep watching, but couldn’t figure out whether I was supposed to be amused or concerned or charmed. I certainly wasn’t any of these.

  4. Trevor Abberley says:

    Some people just don’t get it!! Shame this reviewer did’nt,he really is missing out. I always thought that the point of cinema was take you on a journey of the fantasical for a couple of hours. Like others films that swallow you into their magical ride, this reviewer was left at the bus stop scratching his head as others got onboard and enjoyed. Poor,poor man.

  5. Steve Mayne says:

    If only reviewers were as cynical about the hokum that Hollywood peddles these days! I would venture to suggest that Christopher Lloyd has missed the point not only of the movie but of cinema itself; surely our willing suspension of belief is the very essence of a good movie? If it were not then pretty much all of Hollywood’s current production would never see the light of day.
    The original film was produced as a propaganda piece in an attempt to maintain relations between Britain and the USA at the end of the Second World War. It is whimsical because that is what was needed to lift spirits and offer, as we might say today, a "feel good factor"; in that respect it seems to have worked pretty well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film was an artistic and technical triumph, too.
    Sure the story is a little far fetched, but show me a movie in which there is nothing slightly untenable; it doesn’t exist!
    Anyway, A Matter Of Life And Death is a great film, excellent in pretty much every respect and one of the few movies that I can watch again and and again.

  6. Ian Butler says:

    This reviewer appears to have reviewed this masterpiece with a cynical even robotic sensibility. From the opening scene when the two leads first communicate to the ending this film is a delight for those with the ability to appreciate genius. The Archers have produced a film that crosses boundaries and allows the audience to sample and rejoice in English Romantacism and American emotional attachment to progress and enlightenment. The plot is perfectly constructed and any film which uses Andrew Marvell’s Ode to his coy Mistress and can conjure up the majesty of an Kentish village deserve the title masterpiece. All of this whilst crossing worlds while two lovers plead for the right to be in love. Simply Magnificent.