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.
“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.”
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