The idea of melodrama is something that has its grounding solidly within the romance genre and tends to branch out in minimal ways to other genres. This is a pretty consistent thought about the stylistic choice, unless, of course, one is referring to the works of the beloved and highly influential masters of Technicolor Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose works are no stranger to this blog. As I imagine most people did, I came to this duo via The Criterion Collection who have done an excellent job of bring many of their films to homes of cinephiles seeking out the most mesmerizing and stellar of movie experiences. Yet, the film I had the joy of catching up with recently, their 1946 pseudo-war film A Matter of Life and Death, also known as Stairway to Heaven, has yet to receive the illustrious Criterion touch. As such it went off of my radar for quite some time, but when I heard its mention first on an episode of Filmspotting regarding "romantic gestures in film" only to be followed by its inclusion as one of the hundreds of clips in the all-encompassing Story of Film miniseries, I knew that both its unique narrative and its visual style were something that I needed to witness. Imagine, if you will, a film that has some of the grandly woven romantic offerings of the best World War II romance stories, but with the surrealist eye of Cocteau. Moving perfectly between black and white and the Technicolor cinematography which made the duo famous, A Matter of Life and Death is serene, fantastical and easily one of the most artistic moments in all of cinema. It is clear where other directors would draw heavy influence, whether it be the obvious borrowing by Wim Wenders for Wings of Desire or in more subtle ways for a variety of East Asian romance film. A Matter of Life and Death, however, does not simply stop at looking amazing, it continues on to be a perfectly pitched story of sacrifice and acceptance of loss that is so masterfully acted it is really a surprise it has not received a larger awareness, because in some ways it is a better film than The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, both of which are definitive masterpieces. I have allowed myself almost a week to let the film wash over me to before I was certain, but I know definitively that this is my new favorite work within the romance genre.
A Matter of Life and Death begins in the midst of a sky fight between Axis planes and a handful of British pilots, most notably Peter Carter (David Niven) whose realization that he will inevitably be gunned down and die leads him to seek solace in the radio assistance of American woman June (Kim Hunter). While he is initially playful with her reciting poetry and telling her she has a wonderful voice, the imminence of death lead to the two confessing their shared hopes for love. Tragedy is not avoidable, however, and Peter's plane does crash. This event is followed by a transferring of the narrative to the black and white world of what is assumedly the afterlife, where a variety of deceased figures deal with the incoming deaths, many of which are soldiers. The bookkeeper, as well as one of Peter's fellow pilots note his absence, despite it being clear that he could not have survived the crash. At this point Peter's assigned aide to the afterlife Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) admits to having missed grabbing him due to the thick British fog. This realization then leads viewers back to Earth where a Peter who has survived his crash navigates the land, only to instantly run into, of all people, June. The two seize the inconceivable occurrence as a sign to pursue their love, realizing quickly that their feelings are quite real. Yet when Peter begins seeing visions of Conductor 71 and smelling fried onions, the concerned Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) steps in to help diagnose Peter's visions. Reeves comes to the conclusion that Peter has suffered from serious head trauma that, if not treated, will result in his death. This narrative in reality begins paralleling Peter's own experiences with Conductor 71 who says that he can be afforded a trial to justify his staying on Earth, one that allows him to pull from any person in the history of time to serve as his defendant, but it must happen in the upcoming hours, coincidentally at the exact same time as his surgery. Finding it difficult to choose a counsel, Peter is hesitant, but when a motorcycle accident takes the life of Doctor Reeves he appears in the afterlife and reluctantly agrees to help Peter. What unfolds after is a trial between Peter and the laws of the afterlife that transcends space and time, where he is to convince those in attendance that he should be allowed to pursue love that was allowed to blossom as a result of the miscalculation on the part of the conductor. Heated and heavily semantical, Peter, along with the help of a brief dream induced visitation by June, convinces the jury of his deserved chance and the two are given their lives on Earth, where he survives his tricky surgery and the two are assumedly to live a long and love-filled life.
What makes A Matter of Life and Death both a great romance and an important moment in cinema is that it manages to take its subject matter and extend it to a large scope, considering not only what grounds a persons notions of love, but what causes a person in a different setting to have feelings of animosity. We are shown the relationship between June and Peter as one entirely of adoration, that goes against the societal norms of British folks marrying one another and Americans staying within the states, although as history certainly showed, that was far from the case. Similarly, the film analyzes the, then, deeply seeded resentment between some loyalist British and Americans as to their relationship to one another, despite fighting on the same side of a larger war that questioned the value of human life on a scale larger than mere nationality. Powell and Pressburger manage to deal with the questions with a precise combination of levity and seriousness that shows how entrenched distrust can cause for sadness to more than a single person and, further, how the seeming simplicity of two persons and their shared love can extend well beyond their rather personal experiences. By pulling from a wide net of historical narratives and centering it with the era of World War II, where combat casualties were high, the film becomes both a reflection and expose on the nature of how love forms quickly or slowly depending on time allotments and how in its most enriching experiences it can take on an otherworldly feeling of importance. I claim to be no scholar on the ethics/philosophy of love, nor fully aware of its biological process, but having lived long enough to know that it is a real feeling and one that ebbs and flows according to the aforementioned factors, I can affirm that, for me personally, this film really gets the beauty entrenched within true love and passion paints the film both narratively and visually, making it first about a love between characters and secondly about the very love of using cinema to share a worldview. A Matter of Life and Death, much like its story, extends between at least two worlds of thinking and manages to combine them into a shared moment of wonder.
Key Scene: The film, as noted earlier, was also called Stairway to Heaven. There is a scene in the film that makes this name obvious and boy is it a feat of movie technology.
This film is hard to come by, I would suggest seeking it out by alternative methods or patiently await a Criterion release, it should only be a matter of time before it makes their prestigious list.