A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – A dazzling achievement from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

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A British RAF bomber aircraft returning after a mission from the skies over Germany during World War-II has on board, the last surviving member of it’s crew: a Capt. Peter Carter (played by David Niven). When he realizes that he is left with no parachute, he decides to send a last radio message which is caught by a female U.S radio operator named June. After maintaining communication for a while, he decides to meet with his fate head-on and bails out without a parachute. But he survives miraculously after a messenger sent from heaven called Conductor 71 (played by Marius Goring) makes a mistake and misses him in the thick fog.

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Conductor 71 approaches him and informs him that he should’ve died but now that he hasn’t, he is now supposed to take him to the “Other World”. Peter opposes this and tells him that he has fallen in love with the radio operator. He requests that he be allowed to make an appeal. Conductor 71 talks to his superiors and comes back with the news that his request has been granted and that he is required to take part in a trial in High Court which would conclude with a judgment on whether he should be allowed to live or not. Roger Livesy, who had previously worked with Powell and Pressburger on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, plays Dr. Frank Reeves, a friend of June who takes an interest in the case of Peter. He is introduced to Peter through June and he offers to take him to his home for a complete diagnosis.

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Reeves is willing to listen to Peter’s story but at the same time, he is trying to deduce if all this is the result of some fantastic hallucinations caused by Peter’s experiences in the war. Peter is allowed to pick as his Defending Counsel a choice from a long list that comprises some of the eminent thinkers who were well-known throughout history. The stairway to the “Other World” consists of 266 steps and is flanked on one side by the statues of the likes of Caesar, Plato and Abraham Lincoln. Reeves agrees to be his Counsel but when he is killed in a motorbike accident, Reeves too is transported to the “Other World” and this gives him an opportunity to stand as Peter’s Counsel in that world. Some challenges appear in his path, for e.g, the Prosecuting Counsel is an American who is heavily prejudiced against the British. He died of a British bullet and sees every Englishman in the same light.

Matter of Life and Death

Coming from the minds of the directing duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, two of British cinema’s most enduring giants, A Matter of Life and Death is a staggering work of art that manages to impress with both it’s grandiose scale, remarkable technical wizardry and highly imaginative storytelling. The film is replete with wonderful and complex ideas that stimulate your imagination. Powell and Pressburger have used every tool available at their disposal to explores these ideas in a way that has rarely been attempted by any other filmmaker during that time. The “Other World” is supposed to be Heaven but is not referred to as such and is depicted as a fully realized world colored in monochrome whereas the real world is shot in dazzling technicolor.

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It’s fascinating to see that whenever Conductor 71 communicates with Peter, time freezes. He tells him: “We are communicating in space; not time”. The French conductor is someone who was part of the French Revolution and died after he “lost his head”. This place also houses a massive record keeping system that resembles the computer servers of the modern world. There is also a Coca Cola machine. It’s not clear as to whether the story takes place inside the mind of Peter – as suggested by the scrawl that appears during the opening credits – or if it’s really happening. The transitions from technicolor to monochrome and back is truly mesmerizing.  It is one of those films that has the ability to make you fall in love with the magic of cinema all over again and also reminds you why you love cinema in the first place.

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