If given the choice of viewing, most of the time I choose horror or sci-fi or action, mostly because they’re easy and fun and they’re genres which engage my mind (or not) and I can shut down my other functions. I tend not to watch too many sad or romantic movies because they engage my heart and I’m afraid of my own emotions and like to live as a robot.
But I’m not a robot; I like to feel things, I like to experience some love and magic in my movies, and for that there were no better filmmakers than Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and perhaps their finest work–1946’s A Matter of Life and Death–might also be the most romantic movie ever made.
If you’ve never seen a Powell & Pressburger movie, you’ll be immediately struck by the sumptuousness of their productions, full of rich, velvety technicolor photography (often, and indeed in this case, courtesy of the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff) and the way in which they blend the fantastical with the real. While both men are credit as writing, directing, and producing, it was the British-born Powell who directed and the Hungarian-born Pressburger who wrote, producing together under the title of the Archers. When you see their logo of an arrow hitting a bullseye, you know you’re heading into a magical world.
On the heels of WWII, the Archers were approached by the British government to make a movie about the continued relationship between Britain and America. Though the two countries had been allies, the relations between the Americans stationed in the UK and the British people hadn’t been the best. To build off of this, Pressburger focused on a story he’d heard of a bomber pilot who bailed out without a parachute and somehow survived. It all weaved together into a story of life, death, afterlife, and fellowship, and the unending power of love.
The film begins with a narrator telling us about the universe, and then we focus in on Britain, circa 1945, as an airman named Captain Peter Carter (David Niven), a poet and writer before the war, makes what he thinks will be his final transmission, to a young American female officer named June (Kim Hunter). His plane is on fire, all of his men have bailed out except for his gunner, and his own parachute is shot to pieces. Through the course of this very fraught but somehow upbeat conversation, he confesses his love for June, a woman he’s never met, and jumps out rather than burn up.
We then cut to “the other place,” a version of heaven full of bureaucracy and paperwork, but still remarkably pleasant. Peter’s gunner is waiting at the entrance for him…except he never shows up. You see, the soul charged with guiding Peter to the next realm–a 17th century Frenchman known in the film as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring)–misplaced him in the thick English fog. Peter instead awakens on the shore, completely fine, and makes his way toward the village, where he meets June. Once she realizes who he is, they both declare it a miracle and fall immediately in love.
The problem with this is twofold: Conductor 71 needs to retrieve Peter to balance the books, and he only has a few days to prepare for his trial, something the Other Place has never allowed before. On the other hand, he may just be a man with a severe brain injury, and it’s up to June’s good friend, the brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to determine what the problem is. In either case, there’s a very great risk that this new love will have to end prematurely, even though it only truly began because Peter was meant to die but didn’t.
There’s a lot happening in the plot of the movie, but Powell and Pressburger keep it remarkably lively and intelligent. First, they made the amazing choice to have Earth in rich, vibrant color and the Other Place in monochrome, something which you’d imagine would have gone the other way if less fanciful minds had made the movie. Cinematographer Cardiff painstakingly transitioned between the black & white and the color by increasing or decreasing the color, by hand, frame by frame, for some of the most impressive dissolves in movie history.
But on a thematic level, this separation is much more evocative. Because it’s the “living world,” where Peter and June are together and happy, that is bright and colorful, while the afterlife (or just a brain hemorrhage-induced fever dream) is the grey and humorless one. The movie is about fighting for your life and your loves, so why shouldn’t that be the more visually appealing?
Following the film’s amazing opening, where these two people in close-up talk to each other for the first and possibly only time, the truth and fervency of the love between Peter and June is never in question. You buy it, fully and totally. Yes, it’s quick and rushed and sparked off by coincidence and divine non-intervention, but they quickly see right into each other’s hearts and it’s completely believable. It’s wartime, they’re star-crossed in a number of ways, and yet it’s the firmest bond in the movie.
The fight, the struggle of the movie is to convince the powers that be that love is worth overcoming death. Peter goes on trial, with the prosecuting counsel a revolutionary American named Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), who has a personal hatred of anyone British (makes sense, really), and initially a jury full of historical figures from countries that have been persecuted by Britain. But Peter’s counsel–I won’t spoil who it is for people who haven’t seen the movie–argues that Britain and America need to come together, and petitions to have the jury replaced with all Americans, who end up all being immigrants who became American citizens. It’s an amazing moment in the movie, and one that resonates in today’s American climate exceedingly well.
Because the movie isn’t just about the romantic love between two people, it’s about the love between fellow humans, and the common ground that love can be. Farlan initially resents Peter for beguiling an American woman from the great city of Boston, but ultimately he realizes the power of love transcends differences, accents, nationalities, and even life and death. Both Peter and June would die to save the other, and that is a universal kind of romance.
So whether Peter is truly having a celestial experience based on red tape and heavenly mistakes or if he just hit his head when he somehow didn’t die from jumping out of a plane, the themes and messages of A Matter of Life and Death are just as strong. It’s a movie that will make your heart open with the possibilities of the universe and the unending strength of human togetherness and affection.
A Matter of Life and Death is available in a glorious Blu-ray edition from Criterion, with an audio commentary from 2009 by scholar Ian Christie, an interview from 2008 with director Martin Scorsese, a new interview with Oscar-winning editor and Michael Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker, a piece about the movie’s extensive and impressive special effects sequences, and some archival interviews with Powell.
This is a movie you need to watch, many times, because it’s purely and simply one of the finest films of any genre, of any age.