A Matter of Life and Death

This article originally appeared in the May-June 1990 issue of Film Comment, as part of a series commissioned by editor Richard T. Jameson for a special Michael Powell tribute. I revive it here on the occasion of A Matter of Life and Death — which just happens to be one of my favorite movies — getting a new DVD release this week.

A Matter of Life and Death

by Robert Horton

amolad3Pea soup. As the fog swirls over the Channel, voices from the wireless float past each other, until a connection is made: an American flight controller, June (Kim Hunter), has picked up the voice of RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven), whose plane is going down. Their voices find each other in the haze, lock in, and Michael Powell is off and flying with the thrilling opening of A Matter of Life and Death.

Opening-proper, that is. The first image to glimmer onscreen was an establishing shot across the cosmos, which appeared as a misty blue abstraction — a sight that will be echoed later in the misty reddish abstraction that fills the screen after the celebrated point-of-view shot of Peter’s eyelid closing over the camera lens. The universe in a man’s mind: such an apt image for an artist, and so fitting for Powell, one of those great directors for whom movies were an abstract universe. Powell understood that a movie is a movie not in the way it tells a story, delivers a theme, houses fine performances, or records pleasing dialogue. Rather, movies live in the collision and collage of swatchs of color, sudden changes in angle, degrees of sound and music, shapes of landscape and body, and movement, movement, movement.

All of that is in the first conversation between Peter and June. June sits in a stylized space with red lights flashing behind her; she spends most of the sequence in white-hot closeup. Red-orange flames dance outside Peter’s cockpit window, the twisted metal of the plane’s interior framing him. He has no parachute, but he is about to jump anyway (“I’d rather jump than fry”). The Powell-Pressburger dialogue crackles with the immediacy of mortality, with the urge to get a few things said that need saying, before the end. Some of these words must appear as high corn, English-style, if read on paper; Peter dashes off some belated love to his mother, and observes that “it’s funny, I’ve known dozens of girls. I’ve been in love with some of them, but an American girl whom I’ve never seen and whom I never shall see will hear my last words. That’s funny.” But Powell stages the action so enthrallingly and fast, and Niven is such an unsentimental hero (even while quoting Walter Raleigh), that the sequence comes off brilliantly. The flames, the engine roar, the glow over June’s face, the matter-of-fact presence of the corpse of Peter’s radioman (“They’ll be sorry about Bob, we all liked him”), and the way Peter slips through an opening in the bottom of the plane, a hole shaped like a movie screen — these are the colors in Powell’s paintbox; this is the matter of life and death. Continue reading