Combustible Celluloid
Own it:
Get the Poster
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Raymond Massey
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 100
Date: 12/25/1946

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Stairway to Heaven

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Released in America as Stairway to Heaven, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is one of the most enchanting movies you'll ever have the pleasure to see. The imagination of the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the men behind such brilliant classics as I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) and The Red Shoes (1948) -- knew no bounds.

A Matter of Life and Death can finally tingle the synapses once again, now that it's available on an imported British DVD, paired with another Powell/Pressburger classic The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

The British Ministry of Information commissioned Powell and Pressburger, also known as the Archers, to make this miraculous movie in an attempt to beef up Anglo-American relations, so it has a strange nationalist slant, with certain characters preaching the superiority of one nation over another. But it is so plainly human that it crosses all boundaries.

Nosediving in a malfunctioning plane, a British pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), speaks to a sweet sounding American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), and they fall instantly in love. In the morning, he inexplicably walks out of the ocean, alive, and meets the girl in the flesh. An angel turns up, claiming that Peter was supposed to have died and gone to heaven. But Peter argues that because of their mistake, he's now fallen in love and that he has a right to stay. Eventually, Peter's fate falls in the hands of his earthly doctor (Archers regular Roger Livesey) and the decision of a heavenly court.

Powell and Pressburger paint their cinematic Heaven in black and white and Earth in lovely Technicolor in an attempt to throw intellectuals off their guard, but also to show the joy of life itself.

The film also features astonishing visual effects, none more memorable than a "stairway to heaven," which escalates itself infinitely through the heavens, past giant statues of philosophers and other great thinkers.

Though many other Powell/Pressburger films from the same period are available in the United States on video and high-quality DVDs, this one has always had trouble. Three cheers for the new imported version.

DVD Details: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released this "lost" gem on a new 2009 DVD set with a commentary track by Ian Christie, and an introduction by Martin Scorsese. The two-disc set also comes with Powell's later film Age of Consent (1946). I can't say it's the world's most perfect double feature, but it's wonderful to have both films available on Region 1 DVD at last.

Movies Unlimtied