A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death Criterion Edition Cover
(Image via Criterion)

Peter Carter (David Niven) is an RAF pilot attempting to fly back to his base in England, but his plane is in awful shape. He has little chance of surviving the flight, but he has no other options; while his crew can bail out of the plane by parachute, his own parachute was destroyed during the mission.

As he spends what he thinks are his final minutes on the plane, Peter speaks with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator working in England. She does her best to reassure and advise him, but eventually he must jump without a parachute.

He should have died from the jump, but by some twist of fate, Peter wakes on the beach — very close to the base where June is stationed. The two meet, and quickly fall in love.

There’s a complication, though. Peter is visited by a man (Marius Goring) who explains that he was meant to die in the crash, and that he needs to accept his death, moving on to the afterlife. Peter, determined to stay in the living world with June, demands an appeal. He has three days to build his case and save his own life.

“This is a story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war. Any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental.”

A Matter of Life and Death was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

A Matter of Life and Death is one of those films I’ll forever be kicking myself for not watching sooner. The opening — which begins out in the universe, before closing in on Earth and showing a city on fire — is brilliant, ominous, and beautifully done. I was hooked from the get-go.

The mystery of what really happened to Peter and the black-and-white scenes of the afterlife are both entirely engaging and fascinating to watch. Was he truly meant to die, or is he experiencing some sort of post-traumatic stress or brain injury?

David Niven gives a fantastic performance here — probably my favorite I’ve seen from him yet. He’s very earnest, so the viewer buys into his interpretation of what’s happening, believes in what the doctors see as a fantasy. Not to mention, he has terrific chemistry with Kim Hunter, who is also great in her role as June.

A Matter of Life and Death Movie Still
(Image via Criterion)

And goodness, the colors! So bright and bold! To say that the film is beautifully photographed doesn’t come close to doing it justice. I bow to cinematographer Jack Cardiff!

The color palette gives the film a heightened, dreamlike feel, which works well with the more fantastical elements of the plot.

I like the fact that the film has a bit of a mystical quality, but doesn’t use it in a way that trivializes the war or Peter’s experience. The same goes for its humor. Peter makes a few wisecracks as his plane careens toward Earth — but even in its lighter moments, the film remains a startling, honest, and gripping story of war.

This film is the perfectly-blended combination of war film, romance, and fantasy. For all of its seriousness, A Matter of Life and Death ends on a good note; it warmed my frigid little heart! If you haven’t yet joined the Powell and Pressburger obsession brigade, I very highly recommend starting with this film. (It’s available on DVD and Blu from Criterion.)

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5 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

  1. Always fun to stumble upon a film like this, that just really grabs you. And this one does sound like a real winner…you’ve definitely got me interested in checking it out, and other films by Powell and Pressburger (looking at their list of films, I saw ‘The Red Shoes’ ages ago, and I’ve always wanted to see ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘Colonel Blimp’). And I’m guessing you own the Criterion version, and you picked it up recently at a sale!

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    1. I picked it up in one of the sales last fall — it had been recommended to me several times, so I bought it blind. This was one of those reviews with leftover notes from last year, haha! It ended up as my favorite discovery of the year, so of course I recommend you watch it as soon as possible! Black Narcissus is on my to-watch list, too.

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