Select Page

A Matter of Life and Death.

Production, direction, & scenario by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

UK, 1946.

Starring David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, and Kim Hunter.

The British film-making duo of Powell and Pressburger, often called by their nickname The Archers (the name of their production company), were a force in British film from 1939-1957 (briefly re-uniting in 1966 and 1972 for a couple of final films).  The partnership made altogether 20 films, possibly the best remembered today being the vivid ballet drama The Red Shoes (1948).  Their film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) has occasionally been cited as the greatest British film of all time.

A Matter of Life and Death was the team’s 9th collaboration.  They shared writer-director-producer credit on most of their works, but typically Powell did most of the directing and Pressburger did most of the work of producer, screenwriter, and even assisted with editing.  They exercises a greater degree of control over their work than most film-makers of their era, essentially brooking no outside interference.  The most analogous partnership today would seem to be Joel and Ethan Coen of Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

While there were some high points, Powell and Pressburger tended to get lukewarm notices in the British press during their active years.  It took a later generation of film-makers, spearheaded by the likes of Martin Scorsese, to consider them major influences and elevate their status to where it is today.  A charming fantasy film, A Matter of Life and Death might be the best film to introduce new-comers to their work.  And it is the first of their films to feature the glorious Technicolor that has been so integrally associated with their peak years.  Comparison to The Wizard of Oz is inevitable, except that the world as we know it is in Technicolor in the Power & Pressburger film, and the scenes in Heaven are in black & white, whereas Oz is in color in that other film,  and the ordinary world is B&W.

Some years ago, I discovered Powell and Pressburger’s offbeat 1941 war drama 49th Parallel (which sports a fine performance by one of my all-time favorites, Leslie Howard.)  That film is about a stranded German U-Boat crew wreaking havoc as they traipse across Canada to get to the then-neutral USA and attempt a return to Germany.  Later, I discovered The Red Shoeswhich many would list as the most beloved classic film about ballet.

A Matter of Life and Death is a cosmic fantasy about an RAF officer (played by the incomparable David Niven) who goes down in flames and is supposed to die, according to the roles in Heaven, but he gets lost in the fog after bailing out of his plane without a parachute and doesn’t die, and for the remainder of the film his life hangs in the balance.  He falls in love and attempts to convince his escort to Heaven that he should stay on the earth and live out his life.  He earns a chance at a trial in Heaven to prove that he should be allowed to live. The medical stuff in the film is nonsense (a neurologist is trying to prove that the downed pilot is having temporal lobe seizures or something instead of actually seeing heavenly messengers, and he ends up having neurosurgery to cure the problem), but it is delightful to see a Technicolor 1946 operating room in action, so I gave the medical silliness a pass.  Powell and Pressburger were known for making films unlike anything else from their era, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

–Dale D. Dalenberg MD