Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and rapturously romantic as movies come.
The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration that offers the sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty—the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them—and an emotional power to match.
Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.
Few directors could satisfy the promise of that opening. Powell does. That emotional burst, that passion for life and love, is followed through with a struggle to hang on to life once Peter survives an impossible blind jump and meets the voice at the other end, falling hopelessly in love while the clerks up above note that one soul is missing from the balance sheets. An aristocratic emissary (Marius Goring) in 18th Century French finery (asked how he ended up in heaven, he references the French Revolution and explains the scarf around his neck when he remarks, “I lost my head”) is sent to retrieve the missing soul, leaving the cool monochrome sheen of heavenly majesty for the bloom of color on Earth. The “Ah! We are so starved for Technicolor up there” could as easily be applied today. This color has a surreal magic missing in modern films.
Powell and Pressberger are as passionate about filmmaking as young poet Peter is about life. Their creativity is both fantastic and organic, their imagery spellbinding and gorgeous, and their scripting clever and witty. They never betray whether this heavenly world is real or all in Peter’s mind (the result of his blistering headaches) but neither are they coy in the play between the worlds. As Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) observes, these visions are real to Peter, and so they are to him too. And to us. It’s a perfect romantic fantasy, a stunning creative achievement and one of my favorite films.
It placed in the number 78 spot in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.
Not rated, fine for all audiences
Also on Blu-ray and DVD in a deluxe Criterion edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
A Matter of Life and Death (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
A Matter of Life and Death (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Films of Michael Powell: A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) / Age of Consent [DVD]
It was originally released on DVD as part of the second “The Collector’s Choice” release, a collaboration between Sony Pictures and The Film Foundation, a two-disc/two film set entitled “The Films of Michael Powell.” The second feature is Age of Consent, his 1969 drama about a British painter (James Mason) who flees England for Australia to go Gauguin on a tropical island and a local girl (Helen Mirren) who becomes his muse. Martin Scorsese provides video introductions for each film and Helen Mirren shares her memories of the film in a short interview. Michael Powell historian Ian Christie provides commentary on A Matter of Life and Death and Kent Jones does the honors for Age of Consent.
Criterion presents the film’s Blu-ray debut (as well as a new DVD edition) in a newly restored 4K restoration and special edition package featuring an introduction by Martin Scorsese and commentary by Powell historian Ian Christie (carried over from the previous DVD) plus a new interview with Thelma Schoonmaker (Powell’s widow), short documentaries on the film’s special effects and on cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and a 1986 TV documentary on Powell’s career.