A Matter of Life and Death

I had a very rare treat.

Where I live, on the east coast of Canada, we have no repertory cinema.  There is no art house movie place, no AFI, no BFI, no FI of any kind that showcases classic and independent films.  We may get one of those Fathom Events screenings on occasion, but that’s about it.

So colour me shocked when I heard from a buddy of mine that Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death was going to be playing for a six day limited engagement here in Halifax.  This was an extremely rare opportunity to see one of the best films from one of my all time favourite filmmakers (known together as The Archers).  I couldn’t miss this, kids and responsibilities BE DAMNED!

So, last night, my buddy and I went to the 9:40 PM show (what a shitty time slot on a weeknight, eh?).  And it was evident immediately that AMOLAD, like most films from the era of intense Technicolor, was meant to be seen on the big screen.

AMOLAD is a story of cosmic reach, an intimate love story, a gripping court room drama, a war time tale, a manifesto on the need for international cooperation and understanding, a medical drama, and a work of high fantasy all at once. It should be a mess, but it is anything but.  I have always thought of this film as a mature version of The Wizard of Oz, where two universes exist side by side, and the reality of one is more than likely a construct in the mind of the protagonist.  Except in this film, the “real” world is one of intense colour, whereas the fantasy land of the afterlife gray scale monochrome (but no less breathtaking).  The effects are low-tech, but staggering in the sweeping ambition of world they create.  There are sets, hundreds of extras, composited shots, and matte paintings, but they are seamless with the rich, painterly Technicolor and monochrome images.  The integration of the visual effects is amazing.


So, anyway…Emeric Pressburger is rightly cited as one of the best screenwriters in the history of film.  He had a whimsical approach, and was able to bring a great deal of magic and fun to his topics, but his words as delivered by the actors also rang with tremendous depth and truth.  And he had a deft touch that cut right to the point.  The best illustration of this is the opening moments of the film, after the extended journey through the cosmos to the skies over Europe at the end of the Second World War.  We are immediately introduced to June and Peter (Kim Hunter and David Niven).  The former is a radio control operator on the ground, and the latter is a Lancaster Bomber pilot who’s plane is crashing.  They have a radio exchange that lasts a few short minutes, and in that time, we see them meet, chat, fall in love, and learn all about who they are.  This scene is so crucial to making the audience believe in their love, because that is what the whole damn movie is about!  The lighting and colour in both environments for the characters is rich and bold, leaping off the screen and setting a mood and an intense visual feast that is consistently met throughout the rest of AMOLAD.

This scene is immediately followed by the monochrome world of the afterlife, never called Heaven directly, but it is a heaven of a sort, where people who have died find themselves.  It is a highly structured, bureaucratic office.  There is a reception desk, staffed my Archers regular Kathleen Byron, a large sign in book, reams of file cabinets, and everything runs like clockwork.  You pick up your cellophane wrapped wings on the way to the next station, and people are processed easily and efficiently.  This is a fully realized fantasy world, with expansive and stunning establishing shots and vistas that definitely evoke a sense of modern wonder.


The crux of the plot is that, as Peter’s plane crashes, his conductor (played with charmingly excessive delight by Marius Goring) loses him in the fog over England and fails to bring him to the afterlife.  Thus, Peter remains on Earth and immediately finds June.  Love has found a way into their hearts, and Peter refuses to adhere to the bureaucratic demands of “heaven” because he has found love and life in the time he has been given when he should have died.

I won’t get into the weeds of the plot too much, but I will point out that the other major role belongs to Roger Livesey, who plays Dr. Reeves.  Reeves is a wonderful man played wonderfully by Livesey, an intelligent and philosophical doctor who respects his patient (Peter), recognizes the signs of neurological damage, and engages with Peter as an equal who he must do everything in his power to help.  Much of the science in AMOLAD is reportedly quite accurate and sensitive for the time in which it was made, and the Archers never half-assed on the research when they made films.  There is a medical procedure to help Peter later on in the film, and it’s relatively authentic looking.

The cosmic nature of Peter’s predicament is intertwined with medical science, which leaves it somewhat up to the audience if they are watching Peter’s hallucinations, or if indeed what he is experiencing is absolutely true.  The battle between Peter’s fate and whether he should be allowed to live because he has found the love of his life is grand, sweeping, old fashioned romance, but the film is dotted with magnificent exchanges between characters that reveal who they are as people, what constitutes reality, and how what a person knows informs how their fantasies are shaped.


The courtroom drama element is fantastic.  The court itself is a massive, dreamlike set, full of people from every race representing the whole of humanity.  Love is a concern for all the world, you see, and the attempt to make June and Peter’s case one of national and jingoistic fealty is discarded and rejected by The Archers.  The only thing that matters is love between a young English airman and a young American radio controller, who fell in love when they should never have met due to the universe deciding it was time for one of them to be dead.

Powell and Pressburger had a consistent run of great films throughout the forties.  From The Life and Death of Col. Blimp through to The Small Back Room, The Archers created wildly expressive and intelligent works of cinema, that were artistic and entertaining on equal measure.  A Matter of Life and Death was their first collaboration with Jack Cardiff, who was a Technicolor technician that became one of the greatest cinematographers of the old process, creating remarkable lighting schemes that generated vivid images.  His three films with  The Archers (AMOLADBlack Narcissus, and The Red Shoes) are, to me, some of the most gorgeous films ever made.  And while my personal favourite is Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death is certainly one of their very best, most whimsical, and most delightfully accessible films they made as a team.