There are personal faves and there are personal faves. If you asked me to fillet the list of 100 films and extract just ten - ten movies to represent what is truly essential to me in cinema - Powell and Pressburger's 'A Matter of Life and Death' would be one of the first, if not the first, I reached for.
I absolutely, completely, wholeheartedly bloody love this film.
The opening balances the metaphysical with the human element: the camera pans through the depths of space. "This is the universe," intones an unseen narrator, his voice almost the drone of a lecturer; "big, isn't it?" A whistlestop tour of nebula clusters and supernovas ends up at a blue-and-green globe, turning steadily, reassuringly on its axis. The camera swoops down, through fog; somewhere below, there is a glowing fiery mass. The narrator's voice changes, becomes more intense: "It's night over Europe, the night of 2nd May 1945. That point of fire is a burning city. It had a thousand-bomber raid an hour ago." Radio static, dashes of morse code, klaxons - harsh noises now fill the soundtrack: the sounds of the mid-twentieth century. The sounds of a world at war. A snippet of Churchill's immortal speech - "this was their finest hour" - is buried among them.
Every time I watch 'A Matter of Life and Death' - and I have honestly lost count of how many times I've seen it - the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention by this point ... and we're only a couple of minutes into the film.
What happens next slays me. Every time.
A voice floats out of the night, that of a young woman: June (Kim Hunter), an American WAAF stationed at a coastal base in England. She is receiving, over the radio, the last words of Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven). Carter is certain they'll be his last words: the skipper of a shot-to-ribbons Lancaster bomber, his crew have bailed out on his orders, his radio operator is dead, one engine is blazing uncontrollably, and he's about bail out himself ...
Carter: ... but there's a catch. I've got no parachute ... Don't be afraid, June. It's quite simple: we've had it, and I'd rather jump than fry. After the first thousand feet, what's the difference? ... June, are you pretty?
June: Not bad, I -
Carter: Can you hear me as well as I hear you?
Carter: Good. You've got a good voice. You've got guts, too. I was lucky to get you. It's funny, I've known dozens of girls, been in love with some of them, but an American girl who I've never met and never will, will hear my last words.
June: Perhaps we can do something, let me report it, Peter.
Carter: No, no-one can help. Only you. Let me do this is my own way. I want to be alone with you, June. Where were you born?
Carter: There's a place to be born! History was made there. Are you in love with anybody? No! No, don't answer that.
June: I could love a man like you, Peter.
Carter: I love you, June; you're life and I'm leaving you.
I love you, June; you're life and I'm leaving you. I get tears in my eyes at this point. Every time. I sincerely believe that if you don't at least have a lump in your throat during this sequence, it can be taken as scientific proof that you're simply not human.
So: Peter Carter plummets from his aircraft. Washed up on the beach the next morning, he's convinced he is dead and in Heaven, an impression strengthened during a pastoral encounter with a shepherd boy surrounded by animals. Then a Mosquito roars overhead and Carter realises that he's alive. He spots a woman in WAAF uniform cycling along the beach and goes hoving off after her to get directions. She is, of course, June. Neither can understand why Carter is still alive, but this mystery is soon eclipsed as they fall in love.
Which is nice. But not for Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), the angel charged with collecting Peter Carter's soul for onward transmission to Heaven*. Up before a celestial tribunal to account for his ineptitude, Conductor 71 blames "your ridiculous English weather". He is instructed to visit Earth, explain the situation to Carter and conduct him to the afterlife. Carter, with good reason, refuses. "I'm in an entirely different position," he explains, demanding a right to appeal. Conductor 71 threatens to use force. "You could always try," Carter laughingly responds, one of the great put-downs in cinema. When Conductor 71 disappears, Carter is struck by a blinding headache and almost passes out. June, worried that he's hallucinating, arranges for him to see her friend, village doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey).
Reeves and Carter form an ersatz father-son relationship (Carter's biological father died in the First World War) which plays out in counterpoint to the romantic relationship between Carter and June. Meanwhile, Carter receives subsequent visits from Conductor 71, informing him that he has been allowed to appeal and can appoint anyone who has ever lived as his defending counsel. He is cautioned that the case for the prosecution is being headed by Abraham Farland (Daniel Massey), the first American killed by a British bullet in the war of independence and therefore ineffably prejudiced against all Englishmen.
While Carter frets over his indecision in appointing counsel, and worries that Farland's case will outweigh his, Reeves arrives at a diagnosis and determines that the key to Carter's condition is the winning or losing of his case. Reeves convinces a practiced neurosurgeon that the complex operation necessary to save Carter must occur immediately.
The operation is scheduled for that very evening. A storm lashes the village. The ambulance is delayed. Reeves clambers onto his motorcycle and tears off into the night to locate the medicos. Losing control of his machine, he swerves in front of the ambulance and is killed outright. Conducted to Heaven by 'Pilgrim's Progress' scribe John Bunyan, he is given over to the care of Conductor 71 who tells him Carter has requested Reeves represent him at the court of Heaven. Reeves agrees and goes head-to-head against the rabidly anti-Anglo Farlane to plead Carter's right to live and to love.
'A Matter of Life and Death' was the eighth and last of Powell and Pressburger's collaborations to be made during the wartime and funded by the Ministry of Information as a propaganda film. Their first film together, 'The Spy in Black' was a why-we-need-to-be-in-the-war film; '49th Parallel' was a why-the-Americans-need-to-be-in-the-war film; 'A Canterbury Tale' was an importance-of-the-home-front film. 'A Matter of Life and Death' was pitched as a film designed to reconcile the differences between English and American allies. By the time Powell and Pressburger completed it, the war was effectively over, not that this makes an iota of difference.
Powell and Pressburger took the propaganda film and made it art, in a way that perhaps only Hitchcock's 'Foreign Correspondent' equals (and I think 'Foreign Correspondent' will be the next film I write about on The Agitation of the Mind).
Let's pause to define art. Here's my definition (feel free to agree, disagree or leave comments): a true work of art functions, equally and simultaneously, on an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional level, the cumulative effect being the betterment of those who experience it.
Let's take these one at a time:
1) Aesthetic: the film is utterly gorgeous to look at. Powell entrusted the cinematography - ranging from the glorious technicolor of the here-and-now to the austere black-and-white of the Heaven scenes - to genius-in-waiting Jack Cardiff. It was his first gig as DoP. Cardiff rose to the challenge admirably and transformed P&P's concept into inspired actuality.
2) Intellectual: as fanciful as some of the conceits in 'A Matter of Life and Death' are, the screenplay never entirely veers into fantasy. The closest contemporary equivalent I can find is Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth', in which the boundaries between the real world and a supposedly imagined one are transgressed at one point only and even then in such a manner that enough ambiguity remains that the viewer can take the film as reality or a fantasy ... and it still function as powerfully given either reading.
3) Emotional: it's about a man who defies Heaven to be with the woman he loves. 'Nuff said.
4) The betterment of those who experience it: I've never met anyone who avowed a deep affection for 'A Matter of Life and Death' who didn't believe in love, who didn't appreciate cinema.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most unique film-making partnerships. 'A Matter of Life and Death', in my opinion anyway, represents their highest achievement. It does everything cinema should do, everything art should do, and speaks to the heart, the mind and the soul with equal intensity and sincerity.
*In the interests of context, I should point out that I'm an atheist. I do not believe in Heaven or life after death. As regards 'A Matter of Life and Death', however, this matters not one jot. It's a beautiful, life-affirming work of film art and, as far as I'm concerned, that's all that matters.