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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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Original at BBC Movie pages

A Matter of Life and Death (U) Camera

Dir: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough
and Roger Livesey, Marius Goring, Ray Massey etc

Length: 104 mins

A downed World War II pilot faces a Heavenly trial in this re-release of Powell and Pressburger's classic British fantasy

On the face of it, A Matter of Life and Death, made in 1946 and originally commissioned as a propaganda movie to promote harmony between Britain and America, is hardly likely to pack out the aisles of your local Multiplex. Admittedly times have changed, but it's still a pity because this isn't merely a film of, and about, its own time.

Life and Death It starts with David Niven, the archetypal stiff-upper-lipped Brit, as a fighter pilot [Bomber pilot] who is about to crash-land. [Not crash land, just crash] He radios his base, has a heart-to-heart with an American air controller, and they fall in love in true Hollywood style. After the crash, a peculiar angel materialises to escort him to Heaven. Niven, with his American sweetheart and Earthly pleasures in mind, refuses to shake off his mortal coil. A celestial trial ensues, during which (for some reason), the bonds that unite Britain and America are scrutinised by illustrious figures from each country's past.

Still doesn't grab you? Fair enough. But it remains A Matter Of Life And Adeath undiminished in so many ways, from the Jacob's Ladder-esque intrigue surrounding the airman's confusion (did he imagine the whole thing just to confront the trauma of war?), to the flourishing film-making (Heaven is in black and white, Earth is lush and Technicolourful - asking sly questions about what can be relied upon to tell the truth). There are stark reminders, too, about the decimated world outside the cinema. When an angel appears on Earth, the action freezes in an uncomfortable, surreal tableaux.

As peacetime propaganda, it captures perfectly the sadness and uncertainty that faced the shifting post-war world. As an inventive, touching and at times epic movie, it cries out to be seen by more than just a handful of nostalgic film students back in Blighty.

Owen Bailey

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