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Love Stands Between Life and Death: The Story of Peter and June

by Tony Nash

(Mild Spoiler to Spoiler Free Review)

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A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) PG (1946) *****

David Niven: Pilot Capt. Peter D. Carter

Roger Livesey: Dr. Frank Reeves

Raymond Massey: Lt. Abraham Farlan

Kim Hunter: June, An American Servicewoman

Marius Goring: Conductor 71

Robert Coote: Pilot Bob Trubshaw

Joan Maude: The Chief Recorder

Kathleen Byron: One of the Angels

Abraham Sofaer: The Supreme Judge/The Surgeon

Richard Attenborough: An English Pilot

Bruno Colleano: An American Pilot

Written, Produced, & Directed by: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Synopsis: During WWII, Pilot Peter Carter bails out of his burning and crashing plane into the Atlantic Ocean. He somehow survives and is united with whom he thought was the last voice he would ever hear: June, an American attaché to the RAF. Up in Heaven, it’s discovered Peter wasn’t meant to survive the jump, and Conductor 71 is ordered to bring him up. After Peter declares he’s found new reason to live, the Conductor informs him he can plead his case. Peter asks June for help and she enlists Dr. Frank Reeves, a brain specialist, who’s very curious about the case.

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British auteurs Powell & Pressburger’s epic Fantasy Romance is one of the more underrated love stories of the 20th century. Two people, a British Royal Pilot and an American Servicewoman, informally meet as the Pilot’s plane is going down over the Atlantic, and both are certain he won’t make it. When he does survive, all seems to feel anew and they fall in love. Obstacles come into play when forces from the Other World inform the Pilot he’s unintentionally cheated death, and must go to Heaven. His refusal in the name of love sends shockwaves and leads to a Trail, a rarity. The question the film puts to both the characters and viewers is if love is strong enough to override Nature itself. Setting the film in the world of the living and the world of spirits proved a unique and intriguing combination that hadn’t been done before. Adding to the allure and mystic of the film was having the Earth-bound scenes filmed in color and the Heaven bound scenes in Black and White, leaving audiences to wonder if the Heaven scenes are only in Peter’s mind or if they’re really happening. By not giving any immediate hints as to whether what the audience, and Peter is seeing is reality or the man’s ingenious imagination as the result of an injury, Powell and Pressburger create an interesting illusion that is both intriguing and unusual.

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Oddly enough, it’s never explained exactly how and why Peter survived bailing out into open sea if the events were truly the result of his imagination. The audience of course can easily deduce that it was pure luck Peter managed to land in the ocean safely without fatality or that he wasn’t as high up as he previously believed, thus allowing his fall to not have as high an impact when he landed. The latter theory can sometimes have its flaws in that the apparatus in Peter’s plane indicate he’s in fact high up in the air, though because his plane has been riddled with enemy bullets, whether the instruments froze in their most recent numbers or they went out of control is still up for debate. With all these what ifs and uncertainties, what exactly is the cause for Peter’s survival will probably forever unknown.

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David Niven, one of the most popular émigré actors from England to the US, usually known for his stuffy bombastic roles, is a surprising delight as Peter Carter. A Romantic and Poet at heart, Peter is also a fighter willing to do whatever it takes to prove he has a reason to have his life span expended after falling in love with June, and learns that having meaning and something to look forward to is what makes life grand. Niven plays Peter as witty, charming, and a dreamer, but always keeping his feet firmly planted in reality, never expecting too much out of life, but not without a feeling that some things defy even his sense of reality. What Niven does to make the character even more interesting is that what’s going on around him isn’t completely out of the realm of the ordinary. Even though the whole plotline is ambiguous to reality or fantasy, Niven has Peter never going beyond what could be seen as the purely fantastic, everything, even how the angels behave is rooted in the realistic and the purely plausible. This aspect from the script and in Niven’s acting add to the dream-like atmosphere surrounding the film, giving it the mystique Powell and Pressburger intended for the film.

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British character actor Roger Livesey and Canadian-Naturalized American Raymond Massey make for great supporting characters and adversaries in the film. Livesey’s Dr. Reeves believes Peter’s story, but also knows a brain injury is adding problems for Peter’s health. Livesey plays Reeves as a man of medicine and science totally bewildered and amazed Making sure to keep up with Peter’s imagination, Reeves encourages Peter to fight and plead his case to the forces that may or may not be around them. Livesey playing the character as classically British adds a bit of charm and gives indication to the battle he’ll have to wage to make sure Peter’s life is spared. Raymond Massey is a roguish delight as Abraham Farlan, Peter’s main accuser in his case. A veteran of the Revolutionary War (and supposedly its first causality), Farlan hasn’t lost an ounce of his dislike of the British, even with seeing their accomplishments and how they’ve made the world better from Heaven, and tends to gain a personal victory by having Peter’s plea reversed. In showcasing time stands still in Heaven, Farlan’s main personality is that of an Independence seeking attitude and firmly anti King George III, and while clearly aware things are a lot different since his death, maintains how he felt in life. When Livesey and Massey’s characters have their bout in the tribunal, each will learn something about themselves and the other, and also realizing that there are certain things that even the Universe itself has no control over.

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Kim Hunter, an American character actress most famous for her work on A Streetcar Named Desire and the first three Planet of the Apes films is a sheer pleasure as June. An American attaché working with Britain’s RAF, June finds herself falling for a pilot she’s never seen before, but must comfort in some way as his plane is going down of the Atlantic. When she unexpectedly sees he’s survived as she’s biking through the seaside, she instantly feels the connection she began to wonder about when she spoke to him via the radio. Hunter plays June as a down to earth girl who, while certain Peter’s visions are hallucinations, is convinced Peter isn’t losing his mind when he explains what he’s seeing. Her thoughts in regards to Peter show she truly is in love with him as she fears for his life as the tumor in his head slowly becomes more and more of a danger. When the Tribunal asks for her to testify in Peter’s defense, Hunter has June giving a very sympathetic, but very much calm and rational, speech about how she feels.

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By turns fascinating and confusing, A Matter of Life and Death remains a unique entry into British cinema in that it shows people from all walks of life coming together to see if a couple can defy what has been deemed Natural Law via their love and be allowed to remain together until their final years. Each cast member, especially the four primary characters, all give fine performances within the film, giving a nice bit of depth and realism to the piece. The use of both black and white and Technicolor and the near flawless transitions from one to the next is equally amazing, heightening the dreamlike quality of the film. It might be for everybody, but it is most certainly a film that lovers of love stories will find heartwarming and lovers of Fantasy will find interesting and different, and very worthy of at least one viewing by everyone.

(My favorite British film of all time, and my 2nd favorite Romance film ever, I highly recommend this film for both general viewing and as a good date movie [this also depends on the couple of course]. The colors and black & white cinematography by Jack Cardiff compliment each other greatly, and David Niven gives probably the finest performance of his career. The Criterion Collection once again shows why it’s one of the best when it comes to the preservation of Important Classic and Contemporary Films with fine visual and audio transfers and a good bit of extras.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

For more information

IMDB/A Matter of Life and Death

Wikipedia/A Matter of Life and Death

The Criterion Collection/A Matter of Life and Death

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview

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