A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (1946)

I took another trip to the 1940s, and to England, and to something like heaven. But really, I was taking another trip to the land of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (see reviews of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes), who created some of the most intelligent, beautifully photographed and intriguing films of the 1940s. (Next up: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.)

It’s hard to describe A Matter of Life and Death (retitled Stairway to Heaven for release in the US, where distributors didn’t think that a title with “death” in it would work for a post-WWII audience). It’s got bits of It’s a Wonderful Life (released at nearly the same moment in 1946), the British Things to Come from 1936, a soupçon of The Seventh Seal (which wouldn’t be made for another 11 years) and a variety of medical and war dramas. There’s not another film I can compare it to, except in appearance, and even then only in the color sections.

Even the plot is unusual: a British pilot, Peter Carter, is about to crash and die, and has a last-moments conversation with a young American servicewoman on the radio. In a way that could only happen in movies, they “fall in love” in the few moments they have together. But then something goes wrong, or right, or something. There is a mix-up “up there” and he accidentally lives. The pilot, played by David Niven in his most romantic phase, is visited by something like the angel that made the mistake, and finally forces a kind of trial to allow him to keep on living and continuing the love relationship he’s developed with the young American woman.

The film is a wonder to look at. Jack Cardiff, the legendary cinematographer of Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, has created another Technicolor masterpiece with heartbreakingly beautiful images. He also did a color reversal of what was done in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. In this film, earth is in Technicolor, and “up there” is in lustrous black-and-white, created by filming in Technicolor originally and then developing the film to keep the colors out. For those only used to the Hollywood version of Technicolor, what the British do with it—especially Cardiff—is a revelation.

There are also unusual special effects—especially involving freezing the action—that are commonplace now, but were revolutionary then.

There are surprising directions taken by the plot. We get to know what we’d call “heaven,” a rather cool and austere place that is both futuristic and classical in look. (The woman who greets the new arrivals is played by Kathleen Byron, who tore up the screen the next year as Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. Also, look for future Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) in a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it role as a pilot.) What goes on up there bears little relation to what any particular religion actually believes about the afterlife, and the film makes the point that all that activity may just be in Peter’s damaged brain. (If you demand clear and final answers in films, avoid this one.) Then the film ends with a trial that somehow becomes something of a showdown between the British and the Americans, with Britain not always the winner. That set-up is anticipated by the arrival of a crew of Americans, who seem to embody the British criticisms of American GI’s as “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” Watching the various nationalities react—or fail to react—during the trial is a delight.

Two performances other than the solid work of Niven stand out, and for different reasons. Peter’s “angel,” called the Conductor, is played with a near-perfect French accent by Marius Goring, who wanted the role of Peter but was willing to accept this secondary one. Goring plays it just this side of fey, but it’s an intelligent and humorous performance that provides the lightness necessary to balance Peter’s character and predicament.

The other unexpected performance is from an unexpected actress. The female lead is none other than Kim Stanley, just a year away from her role on stage as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and five years before her Oscar-winning performance in the film version. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock recommended her to Powell based on her work feeding lines and cues to actors trying out for that director’s Notorious (1946). Powell and Pressburger wanted an all-American-looking girl, and she fits the fill. She also has dark hair, a big change for those who only know her as the blonde Stella. Here she is young and fresh and sweet, a far cry from her down-to-earth and slightly world-weary Streetcar character. She is listed quite late in the opening credits, but she carries a great deal of the film, and gets a more accurate credit at the end.

Canadian actor (really, Canadian—who knew?) Raymond Massey has an increasingly important role in the film, and shows early signs of becoming one of those actors who led with his voice and style of declamation rather than his acting abilities. But in contrast, we get a solid Roger Livesey, one of Powell and Pressburger’s favorite actors (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going)

It’s easy to say that there is no other film quite like A Matter of Life and Death. J.K. Rowling and actor Michael Sheen apparently count it as their favorite film, and in 2004 it was voted the second best British film made by a British film magazine. It’s a treat for those interested in the British-American “special relationship,” lovers of romantic war films, anyone that wants an early look at Kim Hunter, those interested in cinematographic beauty and special effects, and any film person caught by the resurgence of interest in these two writer/director/producers, who richly deserve the renewed attention.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 48+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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