A Matter of Life and Death (aka, Stairway to Heaven) (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

by Douglas Buck March 9, 2022 6 minutes (1274 words) DCP Metrograph

“This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental.”

-Opening titles

“One is starved for technicolor up there.”

-The angel known as Conductor 71, arriving on Earth

Alas, the 40’s and 50’s films of the ballyhooed Powell/Pressburger duo remain one of the (far too many) frustratingly glaring holes in my mental database, with not only a mere single entry on my shelves (with that one being Powell running solo, after their collaboration had finished – the Criterion DVD of Peeping Tom, a color-drenched brazen bit of perversity, now considered a masterpiece that at the time – similar to Hitchcock’s Frenzy in 1972 — caused such puritanical outrage amongst the tight-assed English, it was said to have, in Powell’s case, killed the remainder of his distinguished career) and only one other of their twenty plus films together seen (a seriously mind-blowing one at that, 1947’s Black Narcissus, a profoundly gorgeous and unforgettable visualization of sexual repression bursting over into onscreen madness – hey, I just realized, that’s a fairly apt description of Peeping Tom as well!).

A Matter of Life and Death (or, as us Americans knew it, Stairway to Heaven follows an English squadron leader pilot (David Niven), mistakenly surviving an impossible jump without a parachute from his destroyed war plane over the English Channel (after ordering the other men to bail, while withholding the information that the plane is short a parachute), only survived because his escort into the Other World, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), missed him in the heavy English fog, who manages to muck up the balance even further by falling in love with the last person he spoke with, an American radio operator girl (Kim Hunter), before the heavenly tribunal can correct the error.

Right from its beautiful opening sequence, with Niven’s pilot determined to cling to the ‘experience’ of life as he’s coming to the end (kind of how I think we’d all like to go out, no?), quoting poetry by Sir Walter Raleigh in the face of certain death to Hunter’s desperate listener, with the two of them sharing on such a level that the only possible outcome could be a profound connection made (yet, let’s be clear – this is no grim and harrowing moment – it’s moving, yes, but it’s so fantastically rendered, with dialogue beautiful and erudite, it transforms into a kind of joyous and magical occasion, revelling in a celebration of the glory of the immortality of cinema), A Matter of Life and Death is pure delight, filled with whimsy, while remaining adult in execution, with the two conceptions complimenting rather than contradicting (sort of how the black and white shot Other World only enhances the ironically conceived flush technicolor bloom shown to be life and Earth – of course the human’s realm is more colorful, as it’s the place of love and emotion! – watching made me realize where Wim Wenders cribbed his idea for the dual-photographed Heaven-Earth contrasts for his 1987 fantasy, Wings of Desire).

Similar to that other Englishman thesp Rex Harrison, Niven was someone whose movies may have been on syndicated television all the time when I was growing up, but I tended to ignore him (what can I say, I liked monsters, and there weren’t any in his movies). Well, as they say, it’s never too late to engage with your childhood, so I’m finally catching up to what I missed with the charming performer (based on the immediate return with Niven here, maybe it’s time to put Harrison’s Doctor Doolittle on the viewing list as well).

Powell and Pressburger have lots of fun poking at the stereotypes of, and tensions between, the various nationalities on display (including Goring’s fey romantic Frenchman, constantly irritated by his English charge’s surprise at actually falling in love, while equally as bemused by having initially lost his falling body in the ridiculously thick English fog). There’s the British, French and the simpler, if good-spirited American soldiers arriving in Heaven (I mean, the Other World… while the American distributors re-named it with “Heaven” in the title, the film itself generally avoids referring to the place directly as Heaven, even if, as the old saying goes, “If it walks like a duck…!”).

The regal presence of Raymond Massey as the Other World’s prosecutor, in this case a deceased American Revolutionary War vet with a decided prejudice against the British, tasked to argue for correcting of the missed termination of the pilot’s life by having him immediately transported to his new home, irrespective that he has fallen in love in the meantime (the court room sequences, with the actors relishing in the deliciously clever banter is another highlight).

At the same time, the clever playing of the narrative with the notion that perhaps there is no Other World at all, that in fact, Niven’s pilot is experiencing brain seizures that he must be operated on to save his life (with the brilliant, impulsive and fast motorcycle driving Doctor played by Roger Livesey, who, with his uniquely powerful voice and presence on screen was another thesp revelation for me) grounds the film in a reality of which the audience doesn’t really believe (I mean I was way too swept up in the grand-scale of the impressive celestial sets to think those angels weren’t really happening!)… but allows the concerned characters who aren’t privy to his visions to believe.

It’s a tale of Love Conquering All, told with such engagement, warmth and whimsy – with the filmmakers revealing (similar to the other two films I’ve seen) such an inspired mastery in the cinematic construction of a phantastical landscape – I mean, we clearly recognize it as artifice (and self-aware artifice at that, with fun little quotes like the one above from Conductor 71, shared with the audience about the eye-popping experience as angel and audience arrive on the technicolor-lensed Earth), but it’s the type of glorious creation we could wish to be true. It’s a fairy tale, for adults.

With the twosome having worked together almost twenty years, making (what I had heard anyway) were these gloriously extravagant, richly colorful, fantastical and romantic films (with A Matter of Life and Death certainly living up to that hype), as well as that aforementioned predilection (at least in two of the three films I’ve seen) towards themes of sexual repression, I had the notion that these guys were a gay twosome… until reading up on them after the film and realizing they weren’t. Hm. I guess I’ve been mixing them up with the Ivory/Merchant filmmaking duo, who weren’t Brits, but were long-time lovers, and were primarily making English-set films together… though of the far-more stuffy and bourgeoise ‘critical darling’ variety… Powell and Pressburger, on the other hand, from the evidence of those few I’ve seen, might be brilliant masters at large scale phantasmagorical formalist filmmaking, but they were committed populists at heart, capable of playful little winks and nudges along the way.

It was a wonderful reminder of how essential it is to experience a movie like A Matter of Life and Death on the big screen, quietly sitting in intimate darkness, allowing for the glorious experience of the technicolor glory and the awesome grand scale to transport us away into a world of fantasy. It’s good therapy.

A Matter of Life and Death (aka, Stairway to Heaven) (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   british cinema   david niven   emeric pressburger   fantasy   michael powell