Epic and intimate, surveying nothing less than the breadth of creation and the first spark of new love, the opening reel of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 astonishment first surveys the rim of the cosmos, the starfields as rich as George Lucas’, the space between the pricks of a lovely blue rather than the black of the void. As so often happens in movies, an explosion shatters the interstellar silence. In A Matter of Life and Death, we’re told in wry voice-over that someone must have started splitting atoms.
A Matter of Life and Death takes place a year before its release, in a world still at war, in a country steeling its mettle. Moments in, our heads filled with galaxies, it cuts to an RAF pilot in a bomber in thick fog, his plane plummeting, his parachute tattered. Facing death with the ol’ stiff upper lip, Peter (David Niven) “Maydays” around on his radio until he reaches someone, anyone. Cut to Kim Hunter, as American radio operator June, in a facility lit by cinematographer Jack Cardiff the red of The Last Jedi’s throne room. Her face, seen in close-ups, emits warmth and life enough to fill up those chilly starscapes. In quick, tender moments, before he crashes, they fall in love.
But he doesn’t crash, and Powell, Pressburger and Cardiff (making his first full collaboration with the British writer-director team) have more miracles to unveil. They show us a pip-pip bureaucratic afterlife, a modernist heaven (shot in luminous black-and-white) so British it would never have the temerity to call itself heaven. Everyone there is smiling, even the new arrivals; except for the staff, they’re all dressed for wartime. It’s a soothing fantasy but also a devastating reality: There’s so many of them.
Absent, though, is Niven’s Peter, who wakes up in the next unforgettable location: in the surf of a wide and empty beach that he at first mistakes for the great beyond. A naked local boy (!) points him toward civilization. Not long after Peter realizes — with impeccable calmness — that he’s not dead, that he now can enjoy a life with his new American love, the plot kicks in. A waistcoated 19th-century French aristocrat (Marius Goring), complete with boutonniere, turns up to collect him. Turns out Peter actually should have been spirited away to the afterlife, but all that fog confused everyone.
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American viewers might expect light comedy or solemn moralizing to follow from this premise. Peter must make the case to the powers on high that he deserves to keep living the life that they missed their chance to snuff. After all, in those extra minutes, he and June won each other’s hearts. The case, we learn, will go to trial. But Powell and Pressburger are after something richer than the laughs of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and more expansively philosophical than It’s a Wonderful Life. They regard death and what follows with a reserved awe, and the film — like all of their best — bursts with tantalizing ideas, surprising connections, suggestive flights of fancy. The most famous scenes here involve a grand staircase that stretches across the firmament. Its steps move upward as an escalator does; when one still-living character gets called to stand on it, just for a moment, she ascends with it, drifting irresistibly upward even though she belongs down here.
The trial, when it comes, is fascinating theater, expanded by the best of midcentury special effects. As in their other collaborations with Cardiff, 1947’s Black Narcissus and 1948’s The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger employ dazzling process shots to expand their sets, to situate their characters and their dilemmas in a world more convincingly wide than had been seen on screen before. Their technique remains so effective that you can see its influence still in the biggest films of this year: Their countryman Christopher Nolan attempts a brawnier conflation of sensation and thoughtfulness in Dunkirk, a film that (like Joe Wright’s similarly expressive Darkest Hour) serves as a sort of prequel to A Matter of Life and Death: How many of the British soldiers thronging the horizon-wide crowd shots in the trial sequences were boys who died on that French beach? Rian Johnson, meanwhile, has even put tiny alien versions of the nuns from Black Narcissus onto Luke Skywalker’s sad-dude island.
Powell and Pressburger’s film is touched with eternity, but the specifics of that trial are fascinatingly of the year of production. Curiously, it’s an American patriot of the 1776 revolution (Raymond Massey) who serves as the attorney arguing that Peter must stay dead and not enjoy a half-century of marriage with June. The Yank’s case comes down to national enmity: Why make an exception for a Brit who, in his time on Earth, would subject a good American woman to the clammy drabness of the Isles? He points out that the jury is certain to rule against Peter, as it’s comprised of souls from countries that England has warred with or colonized. Peter’s lawyer (Roger Livesey) asks for a new jury to be seated and, after some goading, consents to one populated entirely by Americans. This is his and the film’s master stroke: To the shock of the American patriot, an American jury of 1945 comes from all races and creeds, and is entirely open about the possibility of love and friendship between the upstart nation and its former ruler.
This cosmic/civic pageant remains overwhelmingly powerful, a reminder from across the pond that the strength of America is in its diversity, its capacity for forward thinking and humanistic decency. It’s an ideal to aspire toward, no matter how often this country manages to disappoint.