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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (4K restoration) movie review: paradise on Earth

A Matter of Life and Death green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
One of the most beloved British films ever is now even more lush, more gorgeous, more humanist in a glorious new restored edition.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): loved the movie before it was restored
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

A Matter of Life and Death, from the legendary writing and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is one of the most beloved British films ever made. And it’s easy to see why: It’s a deliciously preposterous romance between two gorgeous people whom you cannot help but root for as their love is threatened. It’s a profoundly humanist fantasy about our place in the universe and the importance of living a full life. And it’s a dazzling visual spectacle that is deeply viscerally satisfying even as it deals with big ideas and big emotions. This is a movie that sucks you in from all angles and keeps you warm and cozy in its cocoon.

The amazing sensory lushness of the film is on grand display in the brand-new 4K restoration now on British screens. (It’s coming to the US soon too, and it won’t be called Stairway to Heaven, as it was during its initial US release in 1946, but will retain the British title this time.) The glorious Technicolor is so rich and so juicy that the movie looks more real than reality. The black-and-white segments are so creamy and satiny as to seem actually edible. (Technical details on the restoration available at industry magazine Post.) But ah! The movie’s deliberate mixing of limited and unlimited palettes pops even more now, which only serves to underscore its humanism.

A Matter of Life and Death is a dazzling visual spectacle that is deeply viscerally satisfying even as it deals with big ideas and big emotions.
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For those who are not familiar with A Matter of Life and Death — and if you’re not, now is your chance to remedy that — the beautifully vivid color segments are the ones that take place in the real world, where, in England at the tail end of World War II, RAF pilot Peter (David Niven: Around the World in 80 Days) and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) fall in love, so quickly that it would be laughable if they somehow didn’t magically sweep you up in the headiness of it. They’re calling each other “darling” literally moments after meeting in person… and, sure, romances can get forged fast in wartime, and sure, their previous “meeting” over the radio the night before was pretty intense because he was about to bail out of his damaged plane over the English Channel without a parachute, and they both obviously presumed he was about to die. (Also, Niven was a decade too old, and looked it, to be playing a callow 27-years-young wannabe poet. But never mind.) If you might die tomorrow, why not fall in love instantly?

Heaven can wait: David Niven defends his life, and wants to go back to it.

Heaven can wait: David Niven defends his life, and wants to go back to it.

The thing is, though, Peter was supposed to die yesterday! He was not meant to survive a freefall to the sea and wash up on the beach in one piece. (We don’t see how he managed this.) But the emissary from the hereafter, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), who should have collected him missed him in the bloody English fog! So now all of the Other World is in an uproar, because mistakes like this simply do not happen. In a reversal of what you might expect from a fantasy, it is the scenes of the afterlife that are black-and-white. It’s certainly a lively place: Goring’s conductor is a hoot, and the “trial” that Peter stands Up There to determine whether he should be allowed to continue his earthly life involves impassioned intellectual debate. But next to the beauty of planet Earth and the possibilities of romance (and maybe the writing of some poetry!), the afterlife and its bureaucracy is just that little bit duller.

Does Peter actually get visits on Earth from Conductor 71? Does Peter actually visit the Other World to plead his case? Or is it all in his head, which appears to have taken a serious bump when he bailed? The film leaves that up to the viewer to decide — either scenario works well. What A Matter of Life and Death does not leave open to interpretation is the notion that a mortal existence full of books and table tennis and motorcycles and kisses, and dynamic people to share them all with, is far preferrable to a genteel afterlife. This is a movie that echoes in many that came after it, across genres — Albert Brooks’s dramedy Defending Your Life springs to mind, for one; so does horror flick The Sixth Sense — but I can’t think of one that is so resolutely on the side of fleshly, earthy living.


green light 5 stars

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A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) (1946) | directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
US/Can release: Dec 29 2017 (original release Dec 25 1946)
UK/Ire release: Dec 08 2017 (original release Dec 15 1946)

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements
BBFC: rated U (mild threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
posted in:
classics | dramedy | fantasy | reviews | romance

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    david niven, kim hunter, goring, and my favorite, under rated actor: Roger Livesy of the equally glorious I Know Where I’m Going…

  • SteveCrook

    Why should you expect the earth to be shown in B&W and the “other place” in colour. We can see that earth is in colour. Maybe the “other place” (never named as ‘heaven’) is in something that’s as far beyond colour as colour is beyond B&W? :)

    Steve

  • SteveCrook

    And Roger was also in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (of course)

    A very under rathed actor. Roger was mainly a stage actor in the UK & the USA. He played in a few other films but mainly played avuncular characters like the older friend of the hero.

    Steve

  • althea

    Thanks for this share, both of you! I didn’t know him, but his IMDB catalog is a treasure trove of things I’d love to look into. I love old British film and TV. This’ll be fun.

  • bronxbee

    yes, i’ve seen Colonel Blimp… not my favorite, but i love him.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    For the same reason Oz is in color, and Kansas in black and white. It’s a simple visual shorthand to make one place seem idyllic, and the other mundane. The choice here is, as MAJ says, a reversal form the typical choices made by filmmakers.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Niven was a decade too old, and looked it, to be playing a callow 27-years-young wannabe poet.

    Seriously. Look at that still. What was he when this was made, 45? 50?

    36?? What the hell? And yet here he is at 27 (as Bertie Wooster):
    https://i2.wp.com/twimii.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/anything-the-matter.jpg
    And here he is at 73 (looking just dapper AF):
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a7/David_Niven_4_Allan_Warren.jpg/800px-David_Niven_4_Allan_Warren.jpg

    It’s like he hit 50 fast, and just stayed there.

  • Because “Heaven” is supposed to be better than Earth. Paradise is supposed to be better than reality. And yet this movie suggests that maybe what we have here and now is better than the fantasy we’ve been sold as coming later.

  • Bluejay

    I had never heard of this film, but on your recommendation my family and I just saw it at the Film Forum. Absolutely wonderful in all the ways you’ve described. Thanks.

    The moment I actually choked up was (do I need to have a SPOILER alert for a 1946 film?) the introduction of the American jury at the “celestial” trial, where each member was pointedly of a different geographic and cultural origin but introduced themselves as “American citizen.” And it included an Asian American character played by an Asian American actor without a put-on “Asian” accent, something so many Hollywood films couldn’t manage decades later! We’re used to Americans patting ourselves on the back for being a nation of immigrants (at least until the bigotry of the Trump era has made it controversial), but it’s striking to see a British film celebrate that vision of American diversity (and offer a startlingly honest acknowledgment of the crimes of the British empire as well).

  • SteveCrook

    But you never see The Other Place (never named as “Heaven” in the film). All you see is the doorway leading to it from the receptionarea. Would you judge a city by its airport?

    Steve

  • We certainly DO see The Other Place. That’s where the trial takes place, and as it begins, we see an amazing vista that shows the landscape in which the arena sits.

  • SteveCrook

    Do you think that’s all of the other place? Just their main arena? That would be a boring place to spend eternity :)

    Steve

  • Do you think that’s all of the other place?

    Huh? I didn’t say that. I just pointed out that we do see more than just the entry space.

    I’m not sure what you’re point is with all of this. I was talking about the impact of the seemingly unusual choice to shoot The Other Place in black-and-white. What do YOU think the purpose of that was, if you disagree with my position on it?

  • SteveCrook

    You said that we see where the airmen & the other people arrive and then, where the trial takes place. That’s still not much of a view of The Other Place

    As for the decision to shoot The Other Place in B&W, I always assume that it’s really in something that’s as far beyond colour as colour is beyond B&W. Look at all of the moving patterns behind the Judge.

    I’m not really disagreeing with your position. I don’t know what your position is on it :)

    Steve

  • Bluejay

    As for the decision to shoot The Other Place in B&W, I always assume that it’s really in something that’s as far beyond colour as colour is beyond B&W.

    But according to your argument, if color is “beyond” b&w, and the Other Place is “beyond” earthly life, then shouldn’t it follow that the Other Place should be shot in color? If the director intended the afterlife to look unimaginably better than earthly life, I don’t think he would have filmed it using an older, old-fashioned medium that the audience of his time would have been already very familiar with.

    An equivalent today would be 3D as compared to regular 2D. You use 3D in scenes where you want to wow and dazzle the audience. But this film would have used 3D for the earthly scenes and 2D for the afterlife scenes, which isn’t what you’d expect. By doing so, the director seems to be pretty clearly making a point: our life here, RIGHT NOW, is amazing, and we should drink in every moment of it.

    I don’t know what your position is on it :)

    As she says in her review: “next to the beauty of planet Earth and the possibilities of romance (and maybe the writing of some poetry!), the afterlife and its bureaucracy is just that little bit duller.” Filming the afterlife in b&w conveys that dullness, compared to the vivid full-color scenes on Earth.

  • SteveCrook

    No, we know that Earth is in Technicolor. They just wanted some other way of showing The Other Place. The Wizard of Oz got it the wrong way around. We know that Kansas is in Technicolor. As for how to show The Other Place, they just needed it to be seen as different to Earth. They actually used bleached Technicolor shot on Technicolor film stock which (according to Jack Cardiff) gave a “pearly opalescence” to the transitions. Micky Powell responded “Throw open those pearly gates” :)

    As for MaryAnn’s description, I happen to disagree with anything that mentions “Heaven” or any mention of an afterlife. P&P were determined that there should be no mention of “Heaven” or anything religious in The Other Place.
    Yes, Dickie Attenborough says “It’s heaven isn’t it” but that was as an adjective, not as a noun.

    Also, mention of bureaucracy is often made in reviews but how else do you manage so many people arriving? You need a little bureaucracy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
    Just look at the American bomber crew, laughing and joking.
    “Do you have USO”
    “No”
    “OK, we’ll stay”

    And, one of my favourite scenes, as they go through the doorway. One says:
    “Home was never like this” to which the farm-boy responds with a drawled “Mine was”
    Bonar Colleano quite rightly says nothing to that :)

  • Bluejay

    The Wizard of Oz got it the wrong way around.

    You seriously would prefer that all the Oz scenes be in b&w? *shrug* To each their own.

    I happen to disagree with anything that mentions “Heaven” or any mention of an afterlife.

    MaryAnn’s use of “heaven” in her initial comment was in quotes, as shorthand for the afterlife. And it IS an afterlife: it’s the place people’s souls go to when they die. I don’t see why you have a problem with describing it as such.

    You need a little bureaucracy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    It is, however, DULL, which was the point of MaryAnn’s comment that I quoted. What we see of the afterlife is mostly bureaucracy and adjudication, as opposed to romance and poetry (and color) here on earth.

  • SteveCrook

    Just because I say that they got it wrong doesn’t always mean that I prefer the exact opposite :)

    > as shorthand for the afterlife. And it IS an afterlife

    Is it? That sounds like a very religious viewpoint, which I was trying to stay away from

    > [bureaucracy] It is, however, DULL

    But how long are most people there before they get their wings & go though the door?
    5 minutes? 10?

    Steve

  • Bluejay

    That sounds like a very religious viewpoint

    It’s not specific to any particular religion, but it IS a religious concept (the belief that individual consciousness survives the death of the body and goes to reside in a different place). I mean, that’s LITERALLY what happens in the film. What else would you call it? It’s not like “the other place” is just the coffee shop down the block, or even a physical country you can get to by plane.

  • SteveCrook

    > but it IS a religious concept
    I thought that was a philospohical concept that’s been hijacked by religious people?

    I’m British and therefore an Agnostic

    Steve

  • Bluejay

    You didn’t answer my question. How is the Other Place NOT an afterlife? Does it not meet the definition of what an afterlife is?

    I’m British and therefore an Agnostic

    Well, I’m an atheist. But not all British people are agnostic, and you don’t speak for all of them. :-)

  • SteveCrook

    > Does it not meet the definition of what an afterlife is?

    it might meet some people’s definition

    > But not all British people are agnostic

    I thought that’s why we invented the Church of England :)

    Steve

  • Bluejay

    it might meet some people’s definition

    But not yours?

  • SteveCrook

    > But not yours?
    No, I’m an agnostic, I don’t know. Saying you’re Atheistic is too prescriptive for me :)

  • Bluejay

    I’m not asking if you think the afterlife is real. I’m asking what you think the definition of an afterlife is, and if the Other Place meets that definition. But if you’re going to keep squirreling away from the question, I guess I’m done here.

  • My position is pretty clearly stated:

    this movie suggests that maybe what we have here and now is better than the fantasy we’ve been sold as coming later.

    You said:

    I always assume that it’s really in something that’s as far beyond colour as colour is beyond B&W.

    What in the film supports this?

  • I happen to disagree with anything that mentions “Heaven” or any mention of an afterlife.

    The Other Place is *literally* the afterlife! What is there to disagree with in this?

  • I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any afterlife. But CLEARLY, this movie is about a place that you go to after you die. It’s a fantasy. It’s not a documentary. But what else can The Other Place be called but an “afterlife”?

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