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, A Matter of Life and Death, first surveys the rim of the cosmos, the starfields as rich as George Lucas'. Soon it cuts to an RAF pilot, Peter (David Niven), in a bomber in thick fog, his plane plummeting, his parachute tattered. Cut to Kim Hunter, as an American radio operator named June. Her face, seen in close-ups, emits warmth and life enough to fill up those chilly starscapes. Before he crashes, they fall in love.
But he doesn't crash, and Powell and Pressburger 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. 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.
Soon, the plot kicks in. A waistcoated 19th-century French aristocrat (Marius Goring) turns up to collect him. Turns out Peter actually should have been spirited away to the afterlife, but that fog confused everyone. Peter must make the case to the powers on high that he deserves to keep living.
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. The film — like all of their best — bursts with tantalizing ideas, surprising connections, suggestive flights of fancy. It ends, somehow, with one of cinema's greatest celebrations of American diversity.
Michael Powell, Emeric PressburgerDavid Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Bonar Colleano, Joan Maude, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey, Robert AtkinsMichael Powell, Emeric PressburgerMichael PowellUniversal Pictures