Briefed by the Ministry of Information to make a film that would foster Anglo-American relations in the post-war period, innovative filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came up with A Matter of Life and Death, ... more »an extravagant and extraordinary fantasy in which David Niven stars as a downed pilot who must justify his continuing existence to a heavenly panel because he has made the mistake of falling in love with an American girl (Kim Hunter) when he really should have been dead. National stereotypes are lampooned as the angelic judges squabble over his fate. In a neat reversal of expectations, the Heaven sequences are black and white, while Earth is seen in Technicolor. Daring cinematography mixes monochrome and color, incorporates time-lapse images, and even toys with background "time freezes" 50 years before The Matrix. Roger Livesey and Raymond Massey lead the fine supporting cast. This is one of the undoubted jewels of British cinema. --Mark Walker« less
Lewis P. (Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY Reviewed on 10/9/2010...
'Life and Death' is no 'Wonderful Life'
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I simply cannot understand why so many people consider 'A Matter of Life and Death' (aka Stairway to Heaven) a cinematic masterpiece. I mean there are some who have the audacity to compare this light weight, dated fantasy-comedy to the great 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Seriously, do you really feel that a one-dimensional character such as Peter Carter can be compared to the fascinating and multi-dimensional George Bailey? Compare how artfully the relationship between George and Mary develops in 'It's a Wonderful Life' to the superficiality of the immediate bond between Peter and June in 'Life and Death'. After the mistake in the afterlife allows Peter to survive the fall from his stricken aircraft, we're treated to the ridiculous coincidence of Peter landing on the beach right next to where June lives and wouldn't you know it, he runs in to her right away. Yes, I know this is a fantasy, but the way they just fall in love right on the spot is not only way over the top but also suggests a severe lack of character development in the screen writing department.
After the intriguing introduction in which an emissary (Marius Goring's 'Conductor 71') is sent down to earth to convince Peter Carter to return to the afterlife following a bureaucratic snafu, we're treated to the further interesting complication of Peter's refusal to leave earth coupled with an offer to appeal the order of return in front of a heavenly tribunal. But before we arrive at the climax, the big trial scene, there's a long stretch in the middle of the movie where little happens. I'm referring to all those repetitious scenes where June's neurologist pal, Dr. Reeves, is attending to Peter, attempting to analyze the root of his 'hallucinations'. Instead of employing non-invasive psychotherapeutic techniques, Reeves eventually puts Peter at risk by concluding that his hallucinations are due to a prior brain injury and orders immediate surgery. Kim Hunter as June has little to do except make like a statute every time Conductor 71 comes down to earth (you'll notice that Hunter has a great deal of difficulty standing still during all those freeze frame scenes).
It also seemed a bit coincidental, that Dr. Reeves, trained as a neurologist, suddenly morphs into a most articulate defense attorney following his awkward death after he's hit by an ambulance while driving his motorcycle.
'Life and Death' was supposedly written to mend British-American relations, severely strained during the war. The Brits apparently felt the Americans should have entered the war earlier and never could appreciate the privations the civilian population suffered due to bombing raids and rationing. Despite the replacement of the 'anti-British' jury with an All-American group who votes to extend Peter's time on earth, Reeves and Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey's first American victim of the Revolutionary War) exchange some rather nasty comments regarding each other country's weak points. Farlan's diatribe is basically the highlight of the trial scene and because of that, the Americans come off much as more mean-spirited than their British counterparts. Despite their attempt to mend Anglo-American relations, to my mind Director Powell and his co-writer, did more to harm such relations than help them. In the end, Peter Carter gets the American girl and not the other way around.
Despite all the clever cinematography by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, 'Life and Death' turns into a nice little piece of agitprop in its Third Act, unable to decide whether it's pro or anti-American. As for the fantasy element of the film, Peter's restoration is utterly predictable as the Massey straw man fires softballs inside the feel-good arena.
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Brilliant, intelligent fantasy
lexo-2x | 04/28/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I know this movie under its original UK title, A Matter of Life and Death, and it's one of the finest, wittiest meditations ever on the relationship between earth and heaven, law and justice, England and America. Bomber pilot Niven finds himself in a rapidly disintegrating aircraft, shortly to come down over the sea. His last radio message is to an American WAC, Kim Hunter, who falls in love with him during their brief conversation. Then they lose contact, the plane comes down and Niven is washed up on a beach - but much to his surprise, he's not dead. He meets Hunter and they connect. However, up in heaven, things are not well. Niven should have died, and a heavenly messenger (Marius Goring as a deeply camp French aristocrat) is sent to earth to persuade Niven that he's in the wrong place. Meanwhile, Niven is suffering appalling headaches. His doctor (lovably blurry-voiced Roger Livesey) diagnoses a brain injury. On earth, Niven must have a difficult operation. In heaven, he must go on trial for his right to stay alive. Powell and Pressburger made the movie as part of a wartime propaganda effort to defuse tension between American servicemen stationed in Britain and the British people, who occasionally resented the Americans' higher pay, better uniforms and general chutzpah. But the film-makers exceeded their brief by several degrees. This is a lovely bit of movie-making; one of the wittier conceits is that life on earth is depicted on sumptuous technicolour, while heaven is in silvery black-and-white (the normal practice would have been to have it the other way round). Niven is a live wire, Livesey is as gruff and cuddly as ever, Goring is bright and cheeky (when he first arrives on earth and the rose in his buttonhole turns from grey to crimson, he sniffs it and sighs "Ah! Technicolor!"), Raymond Massey is cragginess incarnate, plus there's the gorgeous ice-queen Kathleen Byron as an angelic receptionist...ahhh. They don't make films as mad and as intelligent as this any more. (Well, maybe Trainspotting.) Great stuff."
Little Known Masterpiece Should be Released on DVD
Peter T Webster | Holderness, NH United States | 03/26/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I was a film student when I came upon this movie, on television, completely by chance. I'd never even heard of it; director Powell's "Peeping Tom" and "The Red Shoes," yes, but not his "Stairway to Heaven." The opening sequence had me in tears; it's a lovely mini-movie on its own. The rest of the picture held me spellbound with its delicate blending of earthy humanity and star-dust spirituality. Later, I discovered I'd not really seen the real "Stairway to Heaven." TV prints were all black & white, while the theatrical version was color with black & white fantasy sequences. Now I long to own it and share it...AND I WANT IT ON DVD! Hear my plea, Columbia Pictures! I've recommended this movie to many people and some have even tracked down one of the few remaining copies on VHS and bought it. Put it out on DVD and I will sing it's praises 'til "Stairway to Heaven reaches the top 1000 on Amazon's Sales list."
Moving, funny, beautiful, and profound all at once
Robert Moore | Chicago, IL USA | 01/03/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"For about a decade, beginning in the late 1930s and extending into the late 1940s, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted a number of brilliant and beautiful fantasy films, from THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD to THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP to I KNOW WHERE I AM GOING to THE RED SHOES. But of all of these films, my personal favorite is the amazing fantasy about the meaning of love and death A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATHSeveral reviewers seem to be mildly confused about the country of origin of these films, including the film here. These were not Hollywood films. Powell and Pressburger formed their own production company, dubbed the Archers, and subsequently used other studios as distributors. One of the reasons that I am stressing this is the fact that I do not believe that British cinema from the forties and fifties has received its proper respect. There were a large number of superb filmmakers working in Great Britain during that time, often making films that were more striking and imaginative than were being produced in Hollywood.The casting of this film is remarkable. David Niven, who actually appeared in far fewer first rate films than one might expect, given his celebrity status, is marvelous. Along with his turns in BACHELOR MOTHER and RAFFLES, this is easily my favorite David Niven film. One reason that some reviewers may be under the impression that the film was made in Hollywood was the presence of Kim Hunter and Raymond in the film. This was one of Kim Hunter's first significant roles, playing the part of a young American woman who falls in love with a man who should have died. Raymond Massey, however, was no stranger to British film, having starred in the first great British Sci-fi film, THINGS TO COME, as well as other productions such as THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. But for me the delight of the film is seeing Roger Livesey, who appeared in many of The Archers best films, in another role. Visually, this is a stunning film. The gigantic staircase upon which Niven and Marius Goring sit while trying to decide who would defend Niven in his appeal to heaven for a reconsideration of his death. And several of the scenes in heaven are remarkably striking. This is one of those films that even casual fans of movies cannot afford to miss."
Suzan Kinslow | In the desert of Arizona | 01/12/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I know that Amazon.com won't be happy to hear this, but for those of us that have been searching high and low to get a copy of this delightful movie, I found a catalogue that carries it (and as of this date 1/12/00, it's on sale)! Critic's Choice Video mail order is the place to go...."
Seriously, what's going on?
YLD | anderson in | 11/20/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I adore this movie. Even despite its heavy toned moralizing, it is a colorful, off balance, headturner of a film.
So where's this DVD? I got a notification from amazon about its release around a year and a half ago. And still it sits in limbo. I've got my twenty dollars in hand, just itching to plunk it down for this pristine ghostly romance.