Set during World War II in England, A Matter of Life and Death was originally released as “Stairway to Heaven” in the United States due to its use of an escalator to depict the connection between Earth and the afterlife. In his autobiography, Director Michael Powell mentions that he felt this missed the point of the film although in retrospect, it does highlight one of its most spectacular visuals.
Nothing Like the Old School
A Matter of Life and Death was mostly filmed at Denham Studios and D&P Studios. Select scenes, such as the one involving a beach, were shot on locations in Surrey and Devon. It stars David Niven as Peter David Carter, a pilot who cheats death after jumping out of his severely damaged Lancaster bomber. A heavenly court is called to assess his situation and to decide on his fate while he remains stuck in limbo. The cinematography is remarkable. Monochrome and Technicolor scenes were used to depict heaven and earth respectively, a decision which is not only bold, it also ended up being wildly successful. The seamless transitions, believable acting and attention to detail shines through — it cements the film as a magnificent classic.
Familiar Setting, Unfamiliar Direction
The story starts out much like any war epic would. Peter Carter is a Squadron Leader for the British Royal Air Force. During a mission in Germany, he attempts to fly his burning plane back home. Revealing nothing about his damaged parachute, he gives his crew orders to bail out. During those critical moments, he manages to connect to an England-based American radio operator named June (Kim Hunter). He is unfazed by his dire predicament and an instant bond forms between pilot and operator. After jumping without a parachute seconds before his bomber crashes, Peter miraculously survives. He washes ashore and as fate would have it, he ends up near June’s base. They meet in person, of course, and the two of them fall madly in love. However, it seems a divine error was made. Heaven sends Conductor 71 (Maurice Goring) to explain the mishap to the lost soul and to guide him up the stairs. The Conductor does so, urging Peter to accept his death, but having found someone to live for, Peter refuses. A celestial tribunal is held to oversee the case, during which time, Peter gets to live his life. Eventually, his appeal is granted. Peter is given three days to choose a counsel to defend him — the condition being, he or she must be among those who are already dead.
With some of the most iconic scenes in a film, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are no doubt among the most gifted filmmakers of all time. Their creativity and masterful skill is apparent throughout the motion picture. Details — such as dry cleaner bags containing fresh wings for new angels — truly set the film apart from modern day offerings that have nothing of value aside from grand explosions and tacky fan service. The wit of the script is nothing short of entertaining, with its humor retaining a classy, undoubtedly clever and lasting appeal.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a movie that limits its world to the familiar, but those are a dime a dozen. A Matter of Life and Death proves that you don’t need to dumb things down or have access to a seemingly endless amount of money to be remembered. Simply put, this film is thought provoking. Not only does it transport its viewers to a fantastic world with its vision, it also doesn’t waste time with pretentious and trivial dialogue. In fact, the opening sequence succinctly summarizes the romantic aspect of the film with the words: “I love you, June. You’re life, and I’m leaving it”.
Beyond the Film
As a testament to the story’s versatility, it has since been adapted into several different forms, including radio plays for the Lux Radio Theatre and the Screen Director’s Playhouse series. A live performance of it has been aired on Robert Montgomery Presents, an American television show which starred Richard Greene. It was also turned into a musical titled “Stairway to Heaven” in November 1994 at Islington as well as a play performed in London’s National Theater.
The Man for the Job
Though Rick Blaine is Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic role, his portrayal is magnetic and wonderfully mysterious. Ingrid Bergman was amazing as Ilsa. Her honesty translates beautifully on the screen, with the unveiled ending lending a hand in making every scene with her even more convincing. Promised a top billing along with Bogart and Bergman, Paul Henreid was good but a sense of disconnect could be felt throughout as he did have trouble getting along with his co-stars. On the other hand, watching Claude Rains’ portrayal of the “poor corrupt official” Captain Louis Renault, was thoroughly entertaining. He remarkably snatches a few of the scenes and makes it his own.
Bogart and Bergman never had another opportunity to work together, but their chemistry here is indeed one of the best cinema has to offer, classic or otherwise. Nobody can deny that each character’s motive remains to be mysterious, their delivery utterly perfect. The movie endures the test of time and it will continue to be one of the few films that deserve to be watched a second, even a third or a fourth time.
Behind the Camera
The actors may have ensured the film’s success but the director is no less a genius. Michael Curtiz was able to deliver such a complicated plot in the most irresistibly engaging way possible. As a result, he won an Oscar for Best Director. The film also won Best Picture and Writing (Screenplay) and was immortalized as a true classic.
Though World War II is long past, Casablanca remains a timeless tale of love. It is not only directed flawlessly, it is also deliciously delivered, with countless memorable lines and scenes. In fact, the film’s witty dialogue is easily one of the best of all time and it continues to touch and transport its viewers to a romantic period in history, decades later.