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.

The rest of the film is the flicker through Peter’s mind as he hangs in the balance between existence and the end. Inexplicably surviving the fall, he washes ashore and falls in love with June, much to the consternation of the otherworldly conductor (Marius Goring) who was supposed to take him to heaven but missed him in that fog. When Peter appeals his case, a trial is held in the celestial (monochrome) world, with an Anglophobic American from Revolutionary days (Raymond Massey) arguing against Peter, and June’s friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey) making the case in favor of an extension for the young poet-flyer.


Livesey and Niven

Throughout, Powell and Pressburger maintain a sublime, utterly calm balance on this most enormous of issues. The desire for life remains sharp and stubborn, but the prospect of death is met with implacable good nature, as exemplified by Peter’s “dying” words. Even the conductor, who is constantly trying to trick Peter pearly-gateward, is scarcely disappointed when his best efforts fail. Dr. Reeves, who fiddles with a camera obscura and take an intense interest in Peter’s point of view (“I know about your eyes”), would appear to be one of Powell’s most complete self-portraits; one of the most civilized human beings in moviedom (especially in Roger Livesey’s brandy-smooth performance), he still savors the pagan sensation of riding his motorcycle too fast — the habit that eventually costs him his life. When he reaches heaven he is barely perturbed by his own demise, and powerfully flattered and pleased that Peter has chosen him as his supernal advocate. Death is taken by these characters as a fact of life; grace is something more meaningful, and perhaps just as permanent.

Death courses through Powell’s autobiography like one of the rivers he describes following along to the sea — an avowed passion of his. By “autobiography” I mean not only Powell’s lovely first volume of memoirs (a dreamy and genteel book, intriguingly shot through with cords of steel) but also his films; the name of the book, after all, is A Life in Movies. In this film, death even gets title billing (except in America, where the distributor imposed the alternative title Stairway to Heaven). A Matter of Life and Death stands as Powell’s most playful and — despite his description of AMOLAD as “a joke about life and death” — serious rumination on the end of things. The last line of A Life in Movies is “And then there will be nothing left for me but the open sea.” Peter Carter comes out of that sea after he has fallen to earth, and thinks he is in heaven. It is a beautiful English morning on the coast. The tide has gone out, leaving streaks and pools of water across the sands. A hound sitting in the dunes spots Peter and howls at him. Peter calls him over. “Oh,” he says, “I always hoped there would be dogs.” There are dogs in Michael Powell’s heaven.

2 Responses

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I have just published a book on the neurological basis of the film A Matter of Life and Death–entitled A Matter of Life and Death:the brain revealed by the mind of Michael Powell. The accuracy of the neuroscience was a deliberate artistic choice and demonstrated remarkable scholarship, in my view. But the presence of neuroscience doesn’t reduce the wonderful story to just a mechanistic explanation of an hallucination. I think that it only strengthens the multiple levels of meaning within the film and the multiple levels of enjoyment and possibility.

  2. […] given their admiration of the film and their relationship with the Collection, while we chose Robert Horton by virtue of his essay for Film […]

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