The Masters  
The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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TV Guide review

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

A delightful and exquisitely photographed fantasy about an RAF pilot, Niven, who is forced to bail out of his flaming plane as it is dropping out of the sky. With all his fellow crew members either dead or having parachuted to safety and his own chute riddled with bullet holes, Niven gets on the radio and shares what he believes to be his last words with an American WAC, Hunter. Niven, a poet, has a romantic conversation with Hunter and falls hopelessly in love with her voice. When he finally jumps for his life, he lands in the ocean and is washed safely ashore. By some fateful coincidence he meets Hunter and the pair fall in love. Although Niven appears to be healthy, he actually is suffering from brain damage and must undergo an operation. Meanwhile, in heaven (photographed in dye-monochrome, while the real world is in Technicolor), it is realized that a terrible mistake has been made, that Niven, who was scheduled to die, has somehow lived. This discovery is made by Heavenly Conductor Number 71, Goring, a Frenchman who was beheaded in his country's revolution. While Goring and his superiors debate Niven's fate, Niven argues that because of their mistake and because he has fallen in love with Hunter, he should be allowed to remain on Earth. While Niven lies on the operating table, his appeal is heard by a group of heavenly judges led by prosecutor Massey, an American with strong anti-British sentiments, since he was the first colonial fighter killed in the American Revolution. Niven finally wins his case, emerges from a successful operation, and is reunited with sweetheart Hunter.

A fantastic accomplishment which shines with surrealistic cinematic bravura, Stairway to Heaven is a marvel of technique and imagination created by the collective minds of Powell and Pressburger, with a notable contribution from production designer Junge. Most remarkable is his monumental stairway which reaches majestically into the heavens and is peopled with a cast of history's dead. Chosen as the first of the Royal Film Performances, Stairway to Heaven garnered some critical acclaim in Britain but was generally attacked by stuffy detractors who felt it was anti-British (once again proving that the greatest harm inflicted on the always unstable British cinema is that imposed by British critics themselves, who prefer to cut down their finest directors, namely Powell and Pressburger, rather than build them up. In America, it was met with great enthusiasm and compared, somewhat unfairly, to the 1941 Robert Montgomery vehicle Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait. An immensely enjoyable piece of escapist entertainment, though not without important underlying themes, which only improves with age.

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