A Matter of Life and Death: The Too-Muchness of It All

A Matter of Life and Death: The Too-Muchness of It All

On Film / Essays — Jul 24, 2018

To love the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, among the most mischievous and inventive of all cinema poets, is to accept that there’s more to life than you’d previously imagined: more color, more humor, more ardor, more blissful confusion. In those terms, A Matter of Life and Death is the quintessential Powell-Pressburger movie. It’s a fantasy love story, imaginative to the point of being hallucinatory, one of the most out-there pictures of the last century. Yet it’s a wide-awake film, not a dreamy one. Released in England in 1946, this is a postwar work that both reckons with recent history and hustles to move beyond it: it’s the perfect metaphor for a country—or a world—ready to stride forth into the sunlight, fighting every minute against being pulled backward. The title is both a wry joke and a concession to a self-evident truth: between life and death, what else is there, other than everything?

To recount the plot of AMOLAD, as the movie came to be called by those who worked on it, is to risk sounding insane: British squadron leader Peter Carter, played by David Niven, leaps from his burning plane without a parachute—but not before making the acquaintance, by radio, of an American Wac stationed in England, Kim Hunter’s June. In the duo’s brief conversation, Peter quotes Sir Walter Raleigh and Andrew Marvell. In a blink, they’ve fallen in love. Miraculously, or so it seems, Peter survives his jump into the English Channel and washes ashore, stumbling through the sand unsure of whether he’s in England or heaven. It’s a little of both. June, headed back to her quarters after completing her shift, happens to be cycling nearby. The two meet and recognize each other immediately, because that’s the way love is. 

But Peter is wanted elsewhere, a place the movie doesn’t strictly define as heaven, though it may very well be. A celestial associate—an eighteenth-century French dandy known as Conductor 71, played with slippery charm by English actor Marius Goring—appears out of nowhere to escort him to the afterworld. But Conductor 71 has slipped up: he was due to appear earlier but was delayed by mucky English weather. His heavenly higher-ups have ordered him back down to fetch Peter, pronto. But he’s too late, at least as far as earthly matters go. Peter isn’t ready to leave. He has fallen in love, and could anything matter more than love? He’s willing to fight to stay in the land of the living. It’s decided that Peter must stand trial, with a jury of the deceased deciding his fate.

The story shifts between the world we live in and the one that lies in wait for all of us: in the vision of Powell and Pressburger, as captured by the duo’s ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff, our living world is all vital, saturated color—technically, Technicolor—so vivid we can feel it through our fingertips. The afterworld is rendered in luminous black and white, a palette of restful, harmonic tones that are seductive in their own way but not quite right for the living. One of the features of this realm is a stylized art-moderne waiting room, all sleek curves and burnished shadows, a space that newcomers enter looking slightly bewildered and exit toting a regulation-issue set of wings, kept clean and fresh in a clear plastic covering resembling a dry-cleaning bag. It’s all lovely enough, but on one of his visits to earth, even Conductor 71, in the film’s most famous line, pinpoints what’s lacking in heaven: “One is starved for Technicolor up there!”


In the real world, Peter and June picnic in a lush, almost tropical-colored garden, lounging idly as if their life together had no limits. But all is not quite as it should be. Is Peter alive or dead? Or, more precisely, is he alive but mad? Powell and Pressburger use an array of visual tricks to put us in Peter’s personal bardo: A table-tennis match halts between ping and pong, its players frozen in time, their paddles held aloft. Two silver cups that Peter is just about to fill disappear before his, and our, eyes—only to reappear minutes later, right where he left them. These effects are delightful but also disorienting. What is it like to come back from war—to come back, literally, from death? No wonder nothing looks right to Peter. A Matter of Life and Death is, among other things, a mystical film about what we have come to know as PTSD.

If it all seems like too much, the too-muchness of it all is exactly the point. Powell and Pressburger—whose writing and directing collaboration began in 1939 and was cemented by the creation of the pair’s production company, the Archers, in 1943—conceived A Matter of Life and Death after they were approached by Jack Beddington, head of the Ministry of Information’s film commission, with a plea: now that the war was close to being won, Beddington told them over lunch one day, the rifts between America and Great Britain were, after a period of unity, beginning to reopen. As Powell recounts in his madly digressive, roguishly captivating memoir A Life in Movies, Beddington said, “There’s a danger that the ordinary man and woman in the services will forget what they have learnt about each other. The old jealousies, misunderstandings, and distrusts will return.”

Pressburger expressed exasperation, if only the mock kind. “Jack,” he said, “we have already said all this for you with 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Colonel Blimp, and A Canterbury Tale. Are you suggesting that we make a fifth film to prove to the Americans and the British how much they love each other?”

Beddington’s answer, delivered with a sigh, was yes. “It’s a tall order,” Powell responded, knowing intuitively that Pressburger already had at least four suitable ideas in his pocket. “You wish us to write a story which will make the English and Americans love each other, with a mixed American and English cast, with one or two big names in it, and it obviously has to be a comedy, and spectacular, and imaginative, and you want it to be a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and you want it to go on playing to audiences for the next fifty years.”

“Thirty years will do,” Beddington replied.

And so AMOLAD was conceived. Pressburger’s early draft included ghosts making their presence known via blowing curtains and the like. Powell then had a go at it, consulting with his brother-in-law, a surgeon, who recommended some books to give the film a more scientific grounding. One of Powell’s ideas, for instance, was to indicate that Peter’s hallucinations were happening in space, not in time. A film that asks more questions than it definitively answers, AMOLAD opens with a lyrical yet scientific mini-tour of the universe, a modest piece of animation rendered in moody blue tones dotted with stars, clouds, and whole solar systems. “This is the universe,” intones the narrator. “Big, isn’t it?” (The authoritative voice belongs to actor and writer John Longden.)

The Archers found clever ways to work out Peter’s treatment and ultimate cure on earth, on the way to getting his ultimate reprieve from heaven. They cast Roger Livesey—a Powell-Pressburger favorite, who had just appeared in the duo’s marvelous, if more earthbound, 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going!—as Frank Reeves, the good country doctor with a special interest in neuroscience who comes to Peter’s aid. For this role, Livesey, who enjoyed altering his appearance for every Archers film, decided to grow a beard, which came in reddish gold. To match it, Powell cast his two cocker spaniels in the movie. They can be seen passively enjoying a demonstration of Reeves’s camera obscura, through which the doctor observes the casual goings-on in his village—it’s one of AMOLAD’s most delightful and poignant special effects, and the dogs aren’t bad, either.

“The staircase was not a visual trick but a feat of engineering, conceived by ace production designer Alfred Junge and built at Denham Studios, where much of the film was shot.”

Other effects come off even more grandly, though they are, in some ways, more straightforward. The chief feature of the afterworld, where Conductor 71 whisks Peter in advance of his trial, is a giant moving staircase, an escalator that drifts past a phalanx of philosophers and poets, of statesmen and wise men, rendered in stone. Abraham Lincoln, Plato, Julius Caesar, the prophet Muhammad—all of these men are presented as possible defenders of Peter’s case, which Conductor 71 has assured him will be a tough one. The staircase was not a visual trick but a feat of engineering, conceived by ace production designer Alfred Junge and built at Denham Studios, where much of the film was shot. Denham’s resident backdrop whiz Walter Percy “Poppa” Day created a series of characteristically resplendent matte paintings—they show us a dreamworld that appears to be lit from within.

It’s a testament to the Archers’ geniality and sensitivity that the actors never get lost in this elaborate mix. Livesey is wonderful, shifting from affable to grave and back again with the subtlety of a cloud drifting past the moon. Hunter plays June as perceptive and sturdy but also possessed of believable innocence: you can see how she’d fall instantly in love with a dying pilot, captivated by the sound of his voice alone. And Niven, as Peter, is a marvelous presence, whether padding along the beach in a daze after his fateful drop, one foot bare and the other still encased in a puffy pilot’s boot, or wooing June in his finest civilian country tweeds. There’s both jauntiness and gravity in the spring of his step, and he makes even the movie’s loftiest dialogue feel offhanded and natural. 

All of those things have helped cement viewers’ love for AMOLAD over the years, even if the film initially threw some for a loop. It was chosen as the first Royal Command Film Performance, premiering before the king and queen at Leicester Square’s Empire Cinema on November 1, 1946. Powell notes in A Life in Movies that “the occasion was so exciting that the film passed practically unnoticed.” Still, the mere choice of the film was an honor, not just for the Archers but for J. Arthur Rank’s General Film Distributors, which had released it. And the film was well received by audiences in the United Kingdom, and also made a decent showing when it opened in the United States a little later. (Its U.S. box-office take was $1.75 million.) In the States, however, the title had been changed to the more prosaic and less enigmatic Stairway to Heaven, in order to avoid using that ostensible turnoff word death. The decision made the Archers unhappy, though they went along with it. “We had all of us survived a war with the greatest and most fanatical power in the world, and won it,” Powell later wrote. “The words life and death were no longer the great contradictions that they had been. They were just facts.”

But by the time audiences were finally getting to see the movie, under one title or another, the Archers were already at work on two more dazzling films that would become part of their signature, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948)—pictures whose way was paved, stylistically, by A Matter of Life and Death. Powell said that AMOLAD was his favorite of their films, and his widow, the great film editor Thelma Schoonmaker—who had been introduced to Powell by Martin Scorsese, whose love of the Archers’ films practically constitutes a religion—reaffirmed that in an interview with the Guardian in 2017. “Michael felt strongly that love is about sacrifice and sacrifice is about love. And that’s what you see in this movie when Kim Hunter steps on the stairway to save David Niven’s life,” she said. AMOLAD doesn’t sugarcoat the idea of death; it acknowledges that once we leave our earthly life, there’s no going back. Look at how hard Peter needs to fight for his reprieve. But the film also offers a cushion of comfort, affirming that those hopeful yet rational words uttered by lovers everywhere—“till death do us part”—have true potency. 

The words life and death, as Powell noted, were just facts—he wasn’t wrong about that. But life is not only a beginning, just as death is hardly an ending. There’s so much in between, and so much beyond. How do you put all the “in between” and all the “beyond” into one movie? Powell and Pressburger pulled it off in A Matter of Life and Death, a work of great audacity and joy. This is the universe. And yes, it’s bigger than we’d ever imagined.