Film4: Thursday 17 December, 2.50pm
A Matter of Life and Death was made the same year as It’s a Wonderful Life. And, like Frank Capra’s postwar masterpiece, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s poetic fantasy begins in the spheres, with an unseen narrator talking benignly about the stars. But here the sense of other-worldly serenity is violently interrupted by war. After bailing from a burning bomber without a parachute over the English Channel, RAF squadron leader David Niven hovers uncertainly between heaven and earth.
Niven’s celestial ‘conductor’ Marius Goring missed him in the fog. And Niven pleads for an appeal in the name of love. He’s fallen for Boston rose Kim Hunter, the last person he spoke to on the intercom before jumping from the stricken Lancaster. (Little known at the time, Kim Hunter was cast by Powell at the suggestion of Alfred Hitchcock, who had been running screen tests for Notorious.) A marvellous and moving fantasia on life and death and all the things in between, this is perhaps the high point in the extraordinarily rich partnership of Powell and Pressburger.
It’s certainly a matter for debate: they made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp before this, and followed it with Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman. Brilliantly shot by Jack Cardiff (his first feature as director of photography!) in a highly stylised mixture of Technicolor (it’s remarked upon) with black and white, there’s never been a British film quite like it.
Just look at that escalator stretching all the way up to the stars (the film’s American title was Stairway to Heaven) and the amazing massed ranks in the celestial court. Prosecuting Niven’s appeal is Raymond Massey, the imposing Canadian actor whose portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was the benchmark in the years before Daniel Day Lewis. He’d previously appeared with Niven in The Prisoner of Zenda and it’s an odd quirk that they both died on the same day: 29th July 1983. The humour is gentle, eccentric and erudite (the American servicemen are putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in a film that’s even dreamier than The Red Shoes. There are moments here to haunt our own dreams and, if we’re lucky, to shape our lives.