One of the key complaints that can sink romantic films is that we’re asked to buy that people can fall in love within minutes of meeting each other, or that two characters who’ve spent an entire movie at each other’s throats can suddenly flip in an instant into an inseparable couple. It’s one of the most well-trodden tropes in cinema, whether it’s (half-)baked into the storyline or tacked on to satisfy meddling studio execs, who have presumably demanded the injection of “a little romance” into your hard-boiled crime flick or delightfully platonic comedy while chewing on an unlit cigar.
In Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, we’re not only asked to believe that two people could fall in love over the course of one radio transmission — before they’ve even laid eyes on one another — but proving that love becomes the key point in a court case. And not just any court case! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Life and Death, like many films from its era, uses fresh memories of the world at war as its jumping-off point. We’re introduced to Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) as the last man on board a crippled Lancaster Bomber, radioing in to Britain to give his report and confirm that he won’t be making it home. June (Kim Hunter) is the radio operator who takes his message; she’s an American helping the war effort in Britain, he’s poetic, eccentric, and doomed. He has no parachute, and with the plane’s fuselage burning around him he clings to June’s voice as the last beautiful thing he’s likely to encounter before bailing out — “I love you, June — you’re life, and I’m leaving you.”
Perhaps love can blossom at high speed under such unusual, overheated circumstances, but what good does it do anyone when one of the interested parties has only minutes to live? Well…every now and then, miracles happen. Cut to the afterlife, where Peter’s recently deceased engineer waits for him to arrive…and waits, and waits, as Peter wakes on the beach. At first, he assumes that the expanse of sand is his gateway to the next world — “I always hoped there’d be dogs,” he whispers wholesomely upon sighting one — and bumping into a naked boy surrounded by goats does little to dispel the illusion (I can confirm this is no longer a regular thing to encounter on British beaches, if it ever was). But when another plane passes overhead, he realizes the truth: somehow, he has cheated death. And not only that, he has landed near June’s radio tower.
Unexpectedly brought together in the land of the living, Peter and June find that they’re just as attracted to each other as they were in those fraught moments on the radio, but he’s only there through a heavenly administrative error, and such things must be corrected. And so, a theatrically French messenger descends from above to put things right. But naturally, now that he’s fallen in love, Peter is not quite as ready to leave the world as he was when desperately preparing to leap out of a plane without a parachute. And that brings us to the court case…
Trying to describe every element of this film’s plot would deprive it of its wonder, but A Matter of Life and Death is not just a high-concept romance — in fact, Peter and June mostly end up as supporting characters later in the film once Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) joins the action. He becomes a compelling and fascinating central figure, a very modern sort of doctor who travels via speeding motorcycle and uses a camera obscura to survey the town (in ways that very much resemble the administrators of the afterlife looking down). He quickly becomes fascinated by Peter’s “case” — or at least, wrapped up in trying to figure out whether Peter’s brush with the afterlife is legitimate or hallucinatory. The film treads a fine line throughout, and it would be possible to make a compelling argument for either. It also steers well clear of traditional religious imagery: there’s no mention of God and the only use of “heaven” is a sly joke from one of the administrators.
The final act of the film covers the court case that I mentioned earlier — Peter must prove that he truly loves June, or concede and accept his fate. On first viewing I considered this the film’s one (very small) weakness — the focus narrows from a snappy, fantastic and colorful ensemble piece into more traditional courtroom territory: the two characters assigned to the two sides of the case make their arguments as a somber judge looks on. But on repeat viewings, this finale has fascinated me more and more. The writing is so incredibly sharp, whether it’s interrogating the very nature of love or skewering the British — it turns out it’s near-impossible to pick an impartial jury when you’ve spent most of history terrorizing the rest of the world.
It’s a truly remarkable film, and one that feels like it could only be made in this exact period of time — there’s a willingness to go all-in on life, death, and everything else that sparkles with the hope and possibility of a world emerging from the shadow of war. It represents the Archers at the peak of their powers: the writing is unbelievably sharp, and the visuals are first-rate too; the escalator to the afterlife is an iconic image (cheerfully homaged in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) and the crisp black-and-white visuals used for the world of the dead contrast beautifully with the warm Technicolor of the living. Legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff somewhat outrageously made his debut on this film, capturing beautiful and striking images with and without color.
When a film is already this thoroughly canonized, it can be hard to know what to say about it — I dragged my feet on writing about this one, but as a Brit who generally finds it very hard to find pride in much of my country’s history or creative output, Powell & Pressburger are one of the glorious exceptions — and for me, this represents them at the peak of their powers. If you’ve seen it before, I’m sure you already know how wonderful it is. If not, assume that I’ve only scratched the surface.