A Matter Of Life And Death

A Matter Of Life And Death


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

"This is the universe. Big, isn't it?"

A Matter of Life and Death is undoubtedly one of the best films ever made - cheerful, whimsical, fantastical and full of human warmth and cheer. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, one can own high quality DVD versions of Technicolor masterpieces The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, with informative extras.

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But A Matter of Life and Death tops them all. Nearly every moment drips with style, loving enthusiasm and balls-to-the-wall filmmaking skill. In the Second World War, RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) has to bail out of his bomber, having been shot down while returning to base. Trying to raise his command on the radio, he falls head over heels for the American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter) before casting himself out. Miraculously, he survives the plummet - and meets his lady in the flesh. But Heaven had other plans.

Powell and Pressburger mine the heavenly situation with wit, intelligence and infectious good humour, delivering a solid-gold screenplay using the archetype of a courtroom drama, blending it superbly with melodrama, a red-blooded romance and a great buddy story. They set up a situation where the audience can accept their cinematic sleight-of-hand and the obvious and crafty special effects used. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's audio commentary on 1998's Dark City, discussing overt visual effects that have an apparent artistry and stylised magnificence. P&P's open revelations on special effects work superbly, and since we buy into the story and use our imagination, they involve us more than invisible special effects would.

Jack Cardiff, in his first collaboration with Powell, shoots from the hip. He presents the real world in a sumptuous Technicolor palette, emphasising the romantic union, filming with filters to give the film a dreamlike fantasy texture. Cardiff, in the pre-film chat explains Powell loved, drew on the creative ideas of the crew, which probably explains the glorious "David Fincher, eat your heart out" shot of the inside of Niven's eyes closing under general anesthetic. The black and white scenes in the heavens boast several of the most audacious shots and ideas of film history. The shot of the trial uses incrementally distanced paintings to show the sheer magnitude of celestial upheaval, as stunning and creative as the audaciously corny talking galaxies in It's A Wonderful Life.

It rare that I get to enjoy the sublime perfection of a team of filmmakers in such complete command of their craft. When it happens, most of my critical faculties fall apart. This film was partially restored by the British Film Institute in 1995, saving it from the elements. Sony Pictures further undertook a complete photochemical restoration in 1999, restoring the soundtrack using digital tools to eliminate hiss and crackle. The result reveals the real brilliance of the film.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2006
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A wartime aviator begs a celestial court to let him escape death so he can be with the woman he loves. Out on re-issue in cinemas.
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Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Writer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Bonar Colleano, Joan Maude, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey, Robert Atkins, Bob Roberts

Year: 1946

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


EIFF 2005
London 2017

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If you like this, try:

It's A Wonderful Life