A Matter of Life and Death


$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey.

You say it’s the Criterion banner hanging over Sony’s ace restorer Grover Crisp and his colleagues — after they’ve put their all into one of the end-all-be-all’s of three-strip-Technicolor achievements? If so (and it is), you’re probably safe even plundering your 401k for the emergency funds to bet a stash that we’re talking a visual banquet you don’t get everyday or, in some cases, even every year.

Speaking pigmentarily (did I just make up a word?), you can usually tell at once — from the intensity of flame on RAF squadron leader David Niven’s downed bomber — how good any print of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger A Matter of Life and Death is going to be. In this case, the red is right, and it’s easy to see why so many film folk have, be they Elvis fans or otherwise, such burnin’ love for this picture. Powell himself, in fact, rated it the personal favorite of the multiple all-timers he did with Pressburger — who was primarily the duo’s writer, though they always shared an unusual joint on-screen credit.

Actually, there are several Powells (whether filmed with his longtime partner or not) that my own self prefers, from The Thief of Bagdad through Peeping Tom. But that’s mostly a matter of favored subject matter, and I will say this: You can watch 1946’s Matter multiple times and always see something new or (this is quite true in my case) be affected by a shot or minor detail that didn’t make a direct hit previously. P&P’s celestially-bent fantasy is a marvel of invention, starting with the fact that Heaven is in black-and-white and the earthbound scenes are in electric three-strip — though, as Stephanie Zacharek points out in the accompanying Criterion essay, the former is never referred to as Heaven per se (something that had eluded me). This said, the film’s U.S. release title did end up being changed to Stairway to Heaven because “death” was perceived to be even less of a marquee magnet than it’s always been, what with wartime losses so burned into recent memory.

The deal is this. Niven is preordained to die in the crash but miraculously survives due to a transportation hangup by an upstairs emissary of death (Marius Goring going full French-dandy route and looking as if he belongs in one of stage productions from Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise, which began hitting U.S. theaters about a month before Matter/Heaven did). In the meantime, Niven has fallen instantly in love with (first) the voice and (soon thereafter) the full human form of a Boston-bred air communicator (Kim Hunter) who had “talked him down” to what both assumed would be as soothing a journey as possible to his unambiguously imminent death. A logical reaction to a) Niven’s survival; and b) the appearance of Goring would be that the former needs some kind of doctor — a need soon fulfilled by a Hunter buddy (the great Powell-Pressburger veteran Roger Livesey), who turns out to have great deal of knowledge about neuroscience for one who buzzes around the countryside on his motorbike. (I got a feeling that David Lean must have remembered some of these scenes when shooting the great opening to Lawrence of Arabia.)

So this is one of the beauties of the movie. You can look at the story clinically — as in that the idea that Goring’s pressure from upstairs superiors to whisk Niven away as planned is all in the latter’s overactive mind and thus justification for brain surgery. Or you take everything here at face value and believe the fantasy — which is easy to do because cinematographer Jack Cardiff and the production designer were working at the peak of their powers and are constantly putting something scintillatingly fresh into the frame. Even the title card is unlike anything from 1946; it’s more in ’50s Invaders From Mars mold.

This is true even though Matter was Cardiff’s first film as chief cameraman — as well as the fact that it was actually the same production crew’s next film (Black Narcissus, my favorite movie from the year of my birth) that ended up getting both of them their Oscars. Just the heavenly waiting room where the dead check into and await their fates is a marvel of detail — and these scenes aren’t even in color. Niven’s own fate is to face trial (a full tribunal is more like it) over whether his Brit self will be able to enjoy a mortal’s life with a love who’s Yankee-bred — an amorous match-up that particularly offends Niven’s Brit-hating prosecutor (Raymond Massey, in the kind of uptight hard-ass role he used to own).

In addition to Zacharek’s infectiously enthusiastic essay and a carried-over 2009 commentary from film scholar/P&P biographer Ian Christie, the extras here are almost a primer in what and how to go out and get germane supplements. There’s Martin Scorsese’s bouncy intro (about 10 minutes) from 2008 — he a Powell fan/disciple and then a personal friend whose longtime editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) eventually married the then elderly filmmaker. What’s more, we get Schoonmaker herself, whose observations sometimes touch upon the P&P movies’ editing — a subject about which she knows plenty (Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed).

Cardiff was the greatest color cinematographer ever — period — so there’s a short featurette specifically on Matter labors from Craig McCall, who directed 2010’s masterful Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Visual effects pro Craig Barron — his credits merely include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — is here for discussion of the design and matte work, as is Harrison Ellenshaw; they first met Powell as youngsters when working on The Empire Strikes Back. And then there’s Powell himself for an hour from one of the best episodes of Britain’s “South Bank Show” that I’ve seen — an elaborately produced affair (I’d almost bet that Powell called some of the shots himself) that was done when he published the first volume of his memoirs. I remember my old film prof William K. Everson, who almost never gave ‘A’ grades, calling that volume either one of the five best film books or the best director bio he’d ever read. (Can’t remember which one it was, so this might help explain why I was always praying a ‘B’)

Even though it’s much maligned today, I’ll always have significant affection for Michael Todd’s once overpraised Around the World in 80 Days — due in large part to Niven’s turn as Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, who burned into my childhood mind that one should be prompt and always on time. This said, I have to concede that Matter boasts the most charming performance the actor ever gave, and later in life, Niven told Powell that Matter’s was the favorite role of his career. This one charms as well, which isn’t easy to do when the subject is death. But, in fact, the real subject here is the all-dominant power of love, which I suspect is he reason that Matter still gets to a lot of people emotionally and was even commercially successful in U.S. theaters at the time amid a banner year for movies that positively humiliates what I see polluting my nearby multiplex as we speak.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’