One of the most beautiful, creative, thoughtful and romantic films ever made, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is far and away my favorite of the films of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger. It’s the sort of fantasy film that sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but instead works—seemingly with no effort at all—from start to finish. The premise is almost pure 1940s. In fact, one aspect of its plot—the story hinging on the bungling of a heavenly “conductor” (Marius Goring)—is almost certainly adapted from Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).
The plot centers on R.A.F. bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), who bails out of his crippled plane without his parachute and washes up on the beach alive—but he wasn’t supposed to. He was meant to die. The problem is that he’s back in the world of the living and, more, he’s fallen in love with the American radio operator (Kim Hunter) he sent his final message to. What follows leads to him being put on trial by a heavenly tribunal to decide whether he should live or die. That may not sound like much, but in this film it’s pure gold.
Being that this is a Powell-Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death is visually stunning and surprisingly modern (their 1940s films look and feel like they were made 30 to 40 years later than they were). It’s also almost overwhelming in the filmmakers’ constant decisions to play against expectations. The scene where Peter washes ashore, for example, seems to conform to the possibility in his own mind that this could be the afterlife—it’s just odd enough—but then you’re jolted out of the notion. The very idea that our earth is in Technicolor and that heaven is in black-and-white is at odds with the usual concepts of fantasy. It’s rather like the anti-Wizard of Oz (1939), and in itself, that’s a statement as well as a stylistic flourish. The effects tend to be deliberately unreal, but somehow it never seems bogus. It seems exactly right in keeping with the tone of the film. If you never see another Powell-Pressburger film, you owe it to yourself to see this one.