“Don't be upset about the parachute. I'll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones. I hope it hasn't gone all modern; I'd hate to have a prop instead of wings!”
Michael Powell is unquestionably one of the finest visualists to ever grace his talent upon the screen. Working with his partner Emeric Pressburger under the pseudonym “The Archers,” they put out classic film after classic film throughout the forties and fifties, some of the very best in British cinema. A Matter of Life and Death (retitled Stairway to Heaven for its US release) may just be their very best - a perfect summation of the types of beautiful vistas and unrestrained emotion and unflinching intellectualism that the two often mined in their cinema.
The film opens with a stunning pan of the universe, with a voiceover explaining just how big it is. From there we zip down to Earth, inside the cockpit of a bomber going down fast over England during the waning days of WWII. The lone survivor is a young RAF captain, Peter Carter, who manages to send one last transmission over the wire to an American ground controller named June. The two of them develop a brief bond, before Carter decides he doesn’t want to delay his demise anymore. He jumps from his aircraft, and miraculously survives to wash up on a beach the next day, where he comes across June on her bicycle for an afternoon ride. The two of them fall in love, but Peter is plagued by strange visions of angels and heaven and the afterlife. He receives visitations from one such “angel,” a Frenchman called Conductor 71, who was assigned to retrieve Carter as he fell from the plane and take him to the afterlife, but loses him in the thick English fog. Worried, June takes Peter to a doctor, who diagnoses him as having a severe brain injury, and schedules him for surgery. Taking place at the same time, a tribunal is called in Heaven, to decide whether or not Peter should be allowed to keep living past his sell-by date.
The entire attitude of the film can be summed up in the wonderful opening, where Peter makes his seemingly last transmission to June on the ground before jumping from his plane. It’s an incredibly emotional scene, but still seeped in that dry British wit that at once keeps the scene from becoming too sappy and manipulative, and gives the audience a liking to these two characters almost immediately. The film instantly brought David Niven back to a place of prominence, as the actor had abandoned Hollywood and hadn’t made a movie in six years at that point. After the release of A Matter of Life and Death, Niven was the biggest star in Great Britain, and it’s hard to see any other outcome, judging from his performance here. He’s charming and debonair and dryly funny in that way only British leading men can be. Coupled with an equally fantastic cast consisting of such solid players as Kim Hunter, Roger Livesay, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey, and Powell and Pressburger’s film is nothing if not thoroughly well-acted.
But as great as the performances are, the true star of the film is the incredible design on display. Powell and Pressburger alternate between color and black-and-white to differentiate between the real world and the afterlife, producing beautiful shot after beautiful shot - all in vivid Technicolor (something Conductor 47 breaks the fourth wall to note as he travels down to the real world early on). Modern-day cameras can capture high-definition at 4K resolution and a thousand frames per second, but nothing will ever top the look of three-strip Technicolor. There’s a richness and purity to the color that all the advances in film cameras in the years since can never seem to match. Upon this Technicolor canvas, Powell and Pressburger craft some unforgettable sights, such as the giant escalator leading up to Heaven (hence the American title) or the Swiss cheese-like potholes the denizens of the afterlife use to look down on the real world. In the last few years, movie special effects have been the province of chase scenes and untold wanton destruction, but here Powell and Pressburger use them instead in their creation of a world where a man presents himself before a jury of everyone who ever lived to make a case for life and love.
One of the great representations of humanity’s struggle with the knowable and the unknown is Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, in which the first man reaches his hand to touch that of God’s, but doesn’t quite make it - the greater mysteries of the universe forever just out of his reach. Ambiguity remains a powerful motivator for humankind as a whole; our great accomplishments are only achieved as long as there’s still something to reach for. So too does that same ambiguity lend A Matter of Life and Death its own power. Are the images of Heaven that Peter sees real, or merely hallucinations brought on by his brain injury? The answer is not important, but the question is.