A Matter of Life and Death

Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946. Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote. Classics.
A Matter of Life and Death

On the DVD for A Matter of Life and Death, Martin Scorsese tells a story about how, when he was growing up, the filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger sort of felt like some mythical, lost duo of directors whose work was massively overlooked and re-edited, only to be fully appreciated in the '80s once Scorsese had the power to do so. Watching their films now makes that story seem almost under-exaggerated as every film that comes out on DVD is confoundingly innovative, as if it will be made ten years into the future. And this is no exception to the film, A Matter of Life and Death, a rich, complicated fantasy that leaves so many similar films of the time in its dust.

David Niven plays WWII fighter pilot, Peter Carter, who makes one last radio call to a female soldier, June, as his plane is crashing. Coming to terms with his death, Niven uses the call to calm his nerves and over the course of the conversation the two fall in love, having never met.

Peter: Are you in love with anybody? No, no don’t answer that.

June: I could love a man like you, Peter.

Peter actually survives the crash and finds June. Elsewhere, in some sort of afterlife (which we are told any resemblance to any other worlds is purely coincidental) an angel is reprimanded for not collecting Peter, who was suppose to die. When Peter finds this out and they try to re-collect, Peter argues for a second chance and as a result, they set up a trial.

The two most striking things about this film is both its visual creativity and how much deeper and complex the story goes. Powell and Pressburger always pushed how film could look on screen, whether it be through rich colors and outlandish art design in The Tales of Hoffmann, or with stark shadows and meta-camera work in Peeping Tom. And in Life and Death, every trick in the book is thrown in with glee. I almost giddily shrieked at a POV shot of Peter being put under for surgery, eyelids and eyelashes fully within frame. And while the premise for this film is serviceable enough, a whole new dimension is added as you discover if the Heaven storyline is real or not. Without giving too much away, once the trial begins there is a very scary and very sad reality to the whole situation, despite such a fantastic setting. Powell and Pressburger weren’t ahead of their time, they were ahead of ours.

Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 30, 2010 5:59pm
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