As a movie snob, it can sometimes feel like I’ve seen all the good movies out there. A ridiculous notion, I know. Still, when I do randomly come upon a spectacular film that I had yet to see, I can’t help but feel like I’ve uncovered treasure.
One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was to introduce classic films to a new generation; to appeal to my peers and give them a reason to give a movie made before 2000 a second look. The movie I want to discuss today is one that I feel should be required viewing for anyone who says they’re interested in film.
A Matter of Life and Death, also known by the name Stairway to Heaven , was made in 1946 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I’ve discussed another Powell/Pressburger film on this blog, one of my favorites, The Red Shoes. Strangely, I had yet to see many of their others films.
The film follows Peter D. Carter (David Niven), a British wartime aviator who we meet as he’s hurling towards the earth. Knowing he’s going to die, he spends what he believes to be his last minutes talking to June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator. He wakes up on a beach and happens upon June, who’s cycling home. You could call it love at first sight – it doesn’t matter how it happens, they fall in love. The only problem is Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French – like, of the French revolution – angel who tells Peter he was meant to die. In love, Peter fights him on it, asking for an appeal before the celestial court…and he gets one!
Here’s why you need to watch A Matter of Life and Death ASAP!
Guys, David Niven. Can we just talk about how amazing he truly is?! The plot in this movie is truly bonkers, but somehow, David Niven sells it. He makes you feel every emotion.
Kim Hunter, who’s most famous for her role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, is completely relatable in this film. She makes June special enough that you understand why Peter would do anything to stay with her, even after only knowing her for, like, 20 hours.
Marius Goring was so multi-talented. He’s wonderful in The Red Shoes, but his comedic chops are on display in this movie and he delivers! Agh, he was just fantastic.
And Raymond Massey adds some much fun humor as Abraham Farlan, the prosecutor for…heaven, I guess.
Jack Cardiff. Jack Cardiff. Jack Cardiff. ❤️ 💛 💚
I mean, technicolor was on his side, but man, have you ever seen cinematography this gorgeous?
Many films have danced around the afterlife, or heaven, or as in the case of A Matter of Life and Death, the next world. It’s a fantastical imagining of what might happen when your time comes. In this movie, heaven is black & white and its angels have some real interesting personalities.
Powell and Pressburger were clearly trying to comment on the time period they were living in as well as the relations between countries. This movie came out in 1946 when tensions in the world were high.
In the court scenes, the prosecutor for heaven tries to prejudice the jury against Peter for being British. The prosecutor’s American. Peter’s lawyer, Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) makes a case stating that the jury then should be made up of Americans – he still thinks the jury will find in favor of Peter!
It’s a comical scene but there’s real sentiment behind it. When you put relations between governments and different nationalities into the context of an afterlife, it makes you realize how ridiculous our differences are, a lesson we still could take a page from today.
If you’ve followed my blog, you know I’m a fan of the romance. Like Mindy Kaling, I don’t know where this obsession of watching people fall in love came from, but nevertheless, it’s there. And this movie delivers on the romance front by showing just how simple it can be.
They’re both put on trial by the celestial court and asked to prove their love for the other. How do you prove love? Peter says, “Well give me time, sir. Fifty years.” They’re asked if they would die for the other. Indeed, is there any other question that matters.
Also, they’re played by David Niven and Kim Hunter – that helps…obviously!
It’s a beautiful, original, thought-provoking, fantastical love story!
It’s rare to see a movie so willing to take chances, to tell a story in a non-conventional way. Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s personal editor, was married to Michael Powell in his later years. In a feaurette of the film, Schoonmaker said this was Powell’s favorite movie that he made because he just got to play, like in the silent days.
I was taken by this quote from Roger Ebert’s 1995 review of the film, “Today’s movies are infatuated with special effects, but often they’re used to create the sight of things we can easily imagine: crashes, explosions, battles in space. The special effects in “Stairway to Heaven” show a universe that never existed until this movie was made, and the vision is breathtaking in its originality.”
A Matter of life and Death is an example of what makes the art of movie-making so special. It makes you feel through images and dares to imagine a world that does not exist. I was blown away watching it a few days ago. It became an instant favorite. Just…watch it and I swear you’ll understand!