In 1945, a damaged bomber is flying back to England from a mission over Germany. Peter Carter (David Niven: the definition of dashing) is the RAF pilot who remains in the cockpit, his parachute irreparably damaged. His distress signal finds the ears of June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator. In the minutes they have together, the pair begin to fall for one another. Peter jumps from the plane to certain death.
Except Peter doesn’t die. He washes up on the shore of a beach near to the base in which June is stationed, and the two meet in person. There has indeed been a rather large cosmic error. Perspective switches to the afterlife, in which Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) discovers that Peter Carter’s presence has been ‘invoiced’, but he has not himself arrived. Peter then has to make the cosmic legal case for the continuation of his life.
It may sound childlike and fanciful, but A Matter of Life and Death is an honest-to-goodness pleasure in which you can simply luxuriate. Niven and Hunter are a tremendously engaging pair of lovers, aided by excellent support from Roger Livesey as Dr Frank Reeves, the doctor who takes an astonished interest in Peter’s case. His character illuminates the central question of the film: whether Peter’s cosmic trial is illusory or not.
Lensed by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the film uses a steely monochrome for all the scenes set in the afterlife, which is bureaucratic and officious, and ravishing Technicolor for Earth, every detail of which seems to fire Peter’s desire to win the trial, and spend the rest of his life loving June.
But even with this characterisation, of Earth as colourful and glorious and the afterlife the reverse, the film humanises everyone involved. This is due to the wonderful writing by directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which is rich and intelligent and funny. At a certain point while watching, it became hard to choose between the qualities: the fabulous transitions between colour and monochrome, the brilliant performances, the extravagant sets, the lovely storytelling, or the writing.
In the end, I think the writing wins it for me; it became such a joy just to listen to these people annunciate their exquisite sentences. Released again in cinemas 71 years after its first showing, you simply must see it: it is one of the all-time greats.
Image: Park Circus