A Matter Of Life And Death Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

A brilliant new restoration makes its debut on disc. 5 Stars

Powell & Pressburger’s wonderful 1946 film, which refuses to be pinned down into a single genre, makes its debut on Blu-ray in a beautiful new restoration produced by Sony and released by Criterion. Despite being over seventy years old, the film feels surprisingly modern in both its staging and performances, and is well worth revisiting today.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Released: 01 Mar 1947
Rated: PG
Runtime: 104 min
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron
Writer(s): Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Plot: A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court.
IMDB rating: 8.1
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 44 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Criterion Clear Keep Case (Scanavo)
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 07/24/2018
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 5/5

A Matter Of Life And Death is a wonderfully unique film, somehow both years ahead of its time and exactly of its time. As written, produced and directed by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film refuses to be easily categorized into any one particular genre; a case could easily be made for the film as a romantic fantasy, medical drama, humanistic comedy, and probably everything in between. The filmmakers use the fantastical concept to tell a story that comes closer to understanding the human condition than most straight dramas ever do.

The film opens up with RAF pilot and squad leader Peter Carter (played excellently by David Niven) trying to fly home on a badly damaged plane after a bombing raid. Though he’s kept the plane in the air long enough for his men to parachute to their safety, Peter knows that his parachute is busted, and that there’s no viable escape route for him. Whether he goes down with the plane, or tries to jump for it, he’s a goner. His final action is to radio in to the base to give a final report, where he is connected with an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter, also excellent) who is based in England. There’s instant chemistry between the two, but they both know that this is the only time they’ll ever speak, except… somehow Peter doesn’t die. He instead wakes up on a beach, and soon discovers that he’s right near the location that June was broadcasting from. He hurries in the direction of her base, and the two meet face to face and fall in love instantly. Meanwhile, in the Other World (the film’s version of an afterlife), it appears that the ledger doesn’t add up; they’re one soul short. It would seem that the London fog made it difficult for him to be spotted, and Conductor 71 (Marius Goring, in a delightful performance as a former French aristocrat who was executed during the French Revolution in life, and now serves as a guide of sort in the afterlife) missed his chance to pick up Peter. Before long, Conductor 71 is sent to Earth to retrieve Peter, who does not wish to die, and begs for a chance at an appeal. While arrangements are being made in the Other World for Peter to plead his case for why he should be allowed to remain on Earth, Peter begins to fall ill, diagnosed with a brain injury by Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, in another of the film’s great performances). While Peter must argue for his life to the powers that be in the Other World, on Earth he must also survive a challenging operation if there’s any hope for his survival.

The filmmakers wisely sidestep any questions as to whether the onscreen action is real, or a hallucination caused by Peter’s brain injury. It’s rare that a film can have things both ways and still succeed, but this is one instance where it works beautifully. Whether Peter is hallucinating a vision of heaven as his brain shuts down, or whether there is an afterlife that Peter is trying to resist the pull of, is entirely up to the viewer. Whether the story should be taken literally or metaphorically is of little importance; it’s whichever explanation the viewer needs it to be. Perhaps both are true simultaneously.

The film’s performances are all outstanding. As Peter, David Niven is absolutely perfect. His opening scene, as the plane is about to go down, does more than enough to ensure that he’ll retain the audience’s sympathy and attention for anything else that may follow. He plays Peter as a man who is smart enough to know that his explanations of an other world sound utterly preposterous, but open enough to understand that his survival is hard to explain without there being some kind of unlikely story behind it. Kim Hunter, as June, is every bit his match. Though the plot dictates that they must fall in love quickly, Hunter and Niven sell it easily, and her feelings for him are never in doubt. Roger Livesey gives a warm and tender performance as Dr. Reeves, who initially believes that there must be a medical explanation but eventually comes to see that the medical and the metaphysical may be more related than he thought. And as Conductor 71, Marius Goring is an absolute delight, chewing the scenery with great class, distinction and humor. There is simply not a single false note in any of the performances.

As good as the actors are on-camera, the behind-the-scenes efforts here are no less impressive. Powell and Pressburger’s script and direction show a great deal of trust for the audience; they know what needs elaboration and what doesn’t, and though the film has a complex set of rules for how the two worlds interact, it comes across as intuitive to the viewer. Their inspired choice to film the scenes on Earth in glorious three-strip Technicolor, and the scenes in the Other World in black and white, works as brilliantly today as it did then. As photographed by the great Jack Cardiff, both the color and black and white cinematography are visually striking and emotionally provocative. There’s a shot about midway through the film when Conductor 71 moves from the Other World to our own; the shot begins with a close-up of the flower on his lapel in crisp black and white, which then turns to color as he arrives on Earth. It’s the kind of thing that could be accomplished digitally today with little effort, but would have been incredibly difficult to pull off seamlessly in 1946; it’s astonishing how perfect that shot looks, even by today’s standards. The same could be said for much of the film. And speaking of astonishing, the film’s best known set piece, the giant stairway connecting the two worlds, remains a remarkable feat of imagination and engineering. It might seem like an obvious idea today, but at the time, no one had ever quite done that before, and it’s a breathtaking effect.

So much of A Matter Of Life And Death might seem familiar to a modern audience, even one that has never seen the film. Part of that may be from how often the ideas first presented here have been recycled since its original release, whether in film, television or literature. But whether this is the viewer’s first time seeing a story like this, or the one hundredth, there’s something remarkably fresh about the film. With incredible performances, brilliant designs, and breathtaking cinematography, A Matter Of Life And Death is a masterpiece that lives up to its reputation.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

Criterion’s presentation of A Matter Of Life And Death, from a new 4K restoration prepared by Sony, is nothing short of astonishing. It is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Technicolor sequences look absolutely stunning, with gorgeous use of color that’s expertly reproduced here. The black and white sequences are equally impressive, with perfect sharpness and clarity. Though the liner notes detail the challenges the restoration team faced, it is to their credit that their work is entirely seamless. This is one of the most beautiful examples of Technicolor available on Blu-ray.

Audio: 5/5

The monaural audio is presented in an uncompressed PCM 1.0 track which is simply flawless. Dialogue is well recorded and easy to understand within the mix. Music and effects also sound fantastic. There are no issues whatsoever with hiss or any other age-related artifacts.

Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.

Special Features: 4.5/5

Audio Commentary from 2009 featuring film scholar Ian Christie – Christie’s insightful commentary is delivered in a pleasant manner and has lots of good insight into the film’s production and deeper meanings. He does at times end up narrating the onscreen action, but there’s still a lot of value here.

Interview from 2008 with filmmaker Martin Scorsese (9:16, HD) – A rapid-fire but loving tribute to the films of Powell & Pressburger.

New Interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker (director Michael Powell’s widow) (32:38, HD) – Rather than provide an in-depth review of this extended interview, I will simply share the four words that I jotted down in my notepad as I was watching: warm, insightful, articulate, wonderful.

The Colour Merchant (10:20, HD) – This short documentary from 1998 is focused around an interview with cinematographer Jack Cardiff about the film’s photography and use of color. It appears to be an upconversion of an SD master but still looks quite good. Cardiff’s comments are well worth checking out.

Special Effects (31:18, HD) – This featurette includes new interviews with visual effects supervisor/film historian Craig Barron and visual-effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw, and provides insight into the film’s brilliant effects work and production design.

The South Bank Show: Michael Powell (54:59, HD) – This 1986 television program features a wide range of clips from the director’s films, with Powell himself hosting and providing commentary. The style of the documentary is dated, but the recollections are worthwhile. Upconverted from SD.

Restoration Demonstration (4:39, HD) – Clips of the film from before and after the new restoration are shown together.

Booklet – The booklet features an essay from film critic Stephanie Zacharek and extensive notes about the restoration.

Overall: 5/5

A Matter Of Life And Death is a wonderful film from the legendary team of Powell & Pressburger. The presentation of the film itself is truly outstanding. A generous array of bonus features do a thorough job of examining both the film’s production, meaning and place in film history. (The only thing missing is a trailer.) This is easily one of the year’s best disc releases for both longtime fans of the film and newcomers alike.

Published by

Josh Steinberg

editor,member

10 Comments

  1. So glad you got to review this, Josh. A brilliant assessment of an extraordinary film.

    Fully agree with your insight that it was so ahead of its time and yet exactly of its time. Another aspect that to me seems years ahead of its time is the incredible score and that mesmerising piano theme.

    My copy arrived a couple of weeks ago and I was glad that both my son and daughter (in their twenties) were here with us to enjoy together. My daughter in particular was completely blown away by all aspects of this film and couldn’t quite take in the fact that it was made just after the war. She’s seen so much of our vast collection of classic films, yet she was completely unprepared for this.

  2. I agree, what a wonderfully eloquent review Josh! I'll be picking this up in the near future, as it's always been a sentimental film for me, and an emotional experience to watch. Not just because the emotive forces at play are just so genuine to me, but because I "knew" someone like Carter, at least I associated him with David Niven's character the first time I saw this film. This man was also a WW2 Canadian veteran of RAF Bomber Command, since deceased. Just last week (August 18) I was thinking a lot about him when I suddenly realized that He had been shot down 75 years to the day ( and taken prisoner) on a bombing sortie to Germany. Believe me, I'm no mystic, but this kind of thing rattled my cage…but then again, we seemed to have a strangely mystic "friendship", full of extraordinary coincidences.

    Please bare with me, this is a bit long…

    I grew up in a big old house in my hometown. Generations of families had lived there in the past. One day in 1966 when I was 10 and playing in our front yard, an older guy came to the gate and told me that he and his family had lived in our home many years before. He seemed friendly and I thought about giving him a tour of the house, which I supposed I probably should not have done as I was home alone at the time…but it was so obvious to me that he was sincere in having lived there during the 1920s through to after the war. When I heard that, I felt like I already knew this stranger, suddenly seeing him as the young boy he had been then. You see, our garage walls were literally papered with old newspaper cuttings from the '20s and '30s…along with hand drawn doodles of various comic book and sports stars of those days, obviously done by the young boys who had lived there at that time. After touring the house and before going to the garage, I asked him a question that startled him, "Was Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers your favorite baseball player?" He had a confused look on his face and then said yes, but his older brother was even more of a fan and had written fan letters to the famous baseball star and received his autographed letter in return…he asked me, incredulously, how I could possibly know that? I soon showed him the garage where their "clubhouse" newspaper clippings and drawings still festooned the walls, much to his surprise. He told me a wealth of details of their life together there, more than 20 years before, and we were able to pry one of his elder brother's drawings off the wall for him to take with him. At the time all I knew about these old baseball, hockey and movie stars that were their childhood heroes was within those clippings that I had read and been fascinated by. A pleasant mystery as to who Jimmy Foxx, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean, the long since defunct Montreal Maroons and New York Americans hockey teams were and who their obviously adoring fans had been in this clubhouse of wonders those many years before.

    Among the things he told me was the story of his older brother. Part of his nostalgia in seeing the old house was because his elder brother had just passed away. I learned that his brother had been shot down over Germany and taken prisoner, spending nearly two years as a POW. He returned to our hometown, and this house, after the war but never really recovered his physical or emotional health till dying in his 40s. The stranger thanked me for the tour and drawing and bid me goodbye, never to be seen again. I was fascinated in finally being able to associate real people with our garage clubhouse of mysteries and couldn't wait to tell my folks when they came home. My father was also a WW2 veteran and had married my mom in 1942. I was the last born and very much an afterthought, born many years after my own elder brothers. My parents were the age of my friends grandparents. One of my uncles had also coincidentally been a POW in Germany during the war. Thus, anything associated with the "Greatest Generation" really pulls at my heart.

    Fast forward about another 20 years. I finally saw A Matter of Life or Death on a PBS airing in the 80s. Loved the film, even with it's faded technicolor sequences, and was really touched by the beauty and sentimentality of it. The imagery of David Niven in the flaming cockpit of his plane really startled me. That same week while browsing a used book store, I purchased some old, brittle and yellowed copies of my hometown newspaper that they had for sale. I was very pleased with my find, as these kinds of things were rarely seen anywhere. When I got around to looking at them in detail, I was startled and shocked to see the 1943 story about a local airman who had just been confirmed as alive by the International Red Cross and now a prisoner of war in Germany. There was my old address of our house, his full name and age, and a photo of him! I was astounded at the coincidence of my finding this random decades old newspaper that meant so much to me in a city of 800,000 people! I proceeded to try to find out more about him, in these pre-internet days, going to the library and Royal Canadian Legion to find out more details of this man I had never met but felt as though I knew.

    Why do I associate the film with him? He was the lone survivor of a crew of 6 men on his Halifax bomber. I found out that as the pilot, he maintained control of their burning plane for as long as he could for the others to bail out by parachute. Only then did he himself abandon the aircraft. The terrible irony being that all 5 of his crew men simply disappeared into seemingly thin air, never to be found or seen again. Probably drowned in the darkness of the Baltic sea. Despite his heroic actions, none of them survived, and he died a little bit every day afterward because of it. Never marrying or having children of his own till his own premature death 20 years later. I found out this had happened on the famous night bombing raid on the German V2 rocket test site on August 18, 1943. Thankfully, a very successful raid that set back the German rocket program and probably saved countless innocent civilian lives in the rest of the war. But it had cost RAF bomber command one of the bloodiest nights of the whole war, with hundreds of airmen missing.

    For his crew, having disappeared into thin air, it was though they had ascended that magical stairway to heaven, but without him. Like David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, he had stayed with the burning plane as long as he could. The images from the film where Carter struggles to keep control of the burning plane affected me strangely, and within days I had found that old yellow newspaper story about a man who had actually done that kind of thing in real life. A man whom I never met, but had slept in the same house he had as a young boy…and I knew that Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers was his favorite ball player, and that the Montreal Maroons were his favorite hockey team. And that I had met his younger brother briefly one day and given him the gift of his brother's decades old drawing of a cowboy on a horse, his tribute to Tom Mix…such is one of the unexplained mysteries of my life. As I said, I am very much NOT a mystic, so I'm at a loss to explain this…but I think it's appropriate that such a magically mystic fantasy as A Matter of Life and Death has this special power of association in my life…to a hero I never met, but knew nonetheless…

  3. This is a great review! There is no way to overpraise this unique work of art. It is the Hamilton of its day and forever, as time has not diminished what it achieves. Powell and Pressburger were a team that created and integrated the most imaginative and intelligent elements of film. It’s hard to choose the best, but A Matter of Life and Death is probably the greatest among their other great works.

  4. Flashgear

    I agree, what a wonderfully eloquent review Josh! I'll be picking this up in the near future, as it's always been a sentimental film for me, and an emotional experience to watch. Not just because the emotive forces at play are just so genuine to me, but because I "knew" someone like Carter, at least I associated him with David Niven's character the first time I saw this film. This man was also a WW2 Canadian veteran of RAF Bomber Command, since deceased. Just last week (August 18) I was thinking a lot about him when I suddenly realized that He had been shot down 75 years to the day ( and taken prisoner) on a bombing sortie to Germany. Believe me, I'm no mystic, but this kind of thing rattled my cage…but then again, we seemed to have a strangely mystic "friendship", full of extraordinary coincidences.

    Please bare with me, this is a bit long…

    I grew up in a big old house in my hometown. Generations of families had lived there in the past. One day in 1966 when I was 10 and playing in our front yard, an older guy came to the gate and told me that he and his family had lived in our home many years before. He seemed friendly and I thought about giving him a tour of the house, which I supposed I probably should not have done as I was home alone at the time…but it was so obvious to me that he was sincere in having lived there during the 1920s through to after the war. When I heard that, I felt like I already knew this stranger, suddenly seeing him as the young boy he had been then. You see, our garage walls were literally papered with old newspaper cuttings from the '20s and '30s…along with hand drawn doodles of various comic book and sports stars of those days, obviously done by the young boys who had lived there at that time. After touring the house and before going to the garage, I asked him a question that startled him, "Was Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers your favorite baseball player?" He had a confused look on his face and then said yes, but his older brother was even more of a fan and had written fan letters to the famous baseball star and received his autographed letter in return…he asked me, incredulously, how I could possibly know that? I soon showed him the garage where their "clubhouse" newspaper clippings and drawings still festooned the walls, much to his surprise. He told me a wealth of details of their life together there, more than 20 years before, and we were able to pry one of his elder brother's drawings off the wall for him to take with him. At the time all I knew about these old baseball, hockey and movie stars that were their childhood heroes was within those clippings that I had read and been fascinated by. A pleasant mystery as to who Jimmy Foxx, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean, the long since defunct Montreal Maroons and New York Americans hockey teams were and who their obviously adoring fans had been in this clubhouse of wonders those many years before.

    Among the things he told me was the story of his older brother. Part of his nostalgia in seeing the old house was because his elder brother had just passed away. I learned that his brother had been shot down over Germany and taken prisoner, spending nearly two years as a POW. He returned to our hometown, and this house, after the war but never really recovered his physical or emotional health till dying in his 40s. The stranger thanked me for the tour and drawing and bid me goodbye, never to be seen again. I was fascinated in finally being able to associate real people with our garage clubhouse of mysteries and couldn't wait to tell my folks when they came home. My father was also a WW2 veteran and had married my mom in 1942. I was the last born and very much an afterthought, born many years after my own elder brothers. My parents were the age of my friends grandparents. One of my uncles had also coincidentally been a POW in Germany during the war. Thus, anything associated with the "Greatest Generation" really pulls at my heart.

    Fast forward about another 20 years. I finally saw A Matter of Life or Death on a PBS airing in the 80s. Loved the film, even with it's faded technicolor sequences, and was really touched by the beauty and sentimentality of it. The imagery of David Niven in the flaming cockpit of his plane really startled me. That same week while browsing a used book store, I purchased some old, brittle and yellowed copies of my hometown newspaper that they had for sale. I was very pleased with my find, as these kinds of things were rarely seen anywhere. When I got around to looking at them in detail, I was startled and shocked to see the 1943 story about a local airman who had just been confirmed as alive by the International Red Cross and now a prisoner of war in Germany. There was my old address of our house, his full name and age, and a photo of him! I was astounded at the coincidence of my finding this random decades old newspaper that meant so much to me in a city of 800,000 people! I proceeded to try to find out more about him, in these pre-internet days, going to the library and Royal Canadian Legion to find out more details of this man I had never met but felt as though I knew.

    Why do I associate the film with him? He was the lone survivor of a crew of 6 men on his Halifax bomber. I found out that as the pilot, he maintained control of their burning plane for as long as he could for the others to bail out by parachute. Only then did he himself abandon the aircraft. The terrible irony being that all 5 of his crew men simply disappeared into seemingly thin air, never to be found or seen again. Probably drowned in the darkness of the Baltic sea. Despite his heroic actions, none of them survived, and he died a little bit every day afterward because of it. Never marrying or having children of his own till his own premature death 20 years later. I found out this had happened on the famous night bombing raid on the German V2 rocket test site on August 18, 1943. Thankfully, a very successful raid that set back the German rocket program and probably saved countless innocent civilian lives in the rest of the war. But it had cost RAF bomber command one of the bloodiest nights of the whole war, with hundreds of airmen missing.

    For his crew, having disappeared into thin air, it was though they had ascended that magical stairway to heaven, but without him. Like David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, he had stayed with the burning plane as long as he could. The images from the film where Carter struggles to keep control of the burning plane affected me strangely, and within days I had found that old yellow newspaper story about a man who had actually done that kind of thing in real life. A man whom I never met, but had slept in the same house he had as a young boy…and I knew that Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers was his favorite ball player, and that the Montreal Maroons were his favorite hockey team. And that I had met his younger brother briefly one day and given him the gift of his brother's decades old drawing of a cowboy on a horse, his tribute to Tom Mix…such is one of the unexplained mysteries of my life. As I said, I am very much NOT a mystic, so I'm at a loss to explain this…but I think it's appropriate that such a magically mystic fantasy as A Matter of Life and Death has this special power of association in my life…to a hero I never met, but knew nonetheless…

    Randall, thank you so much for sharing that wonderfully moving experience, and citing the memories of that man’s heroism for posterity.

  5. Josh, thanks for the great review as always. I always eagerly await for your next review as they are brilliantly composed. I'll be picking up this bluray.

    Randall, thanks for the beautiful post. Amazing story.

  6. Thanks guys, glad to have poured that out.. It's by far the longest post I've ever put on HTF. Among the many strange coincidences in my story is the Criterion release of this film coinciding with the 75th anniversary of my "friend"s worst and most heroic day of his life. The trigger to my telling this strange but true story was Josh's beautiful review for this wonderful film.

    How to explain it? I can't, and thinking about it sends shivers up my spine and my eyes glisten with tears for a man I never met, but have always felt I have known dearly. And I was meant to "know" him. The old house we both grew up in 30 or so years apart is long gone. My childhood bedroom was almost certainly his own too.The garage "clubhouse" with it's walls papered with child hood whimsy is gone also. Everyone who actually knew him in life would be gone now. My discovery of his private suffering born out of the heroic sacrifice of his life seemed to be preordained by some mystic force. And part of the catalyst being this wonderful film that so powerfully reminded me of his story. Especially the disappearance of all of his crew, as though they themselves had ascended the fabled stairway to heaven shown in A Matter of Life and Death. All that is left are my memories and my brittle yellow newspaper story I was meant to find in another head spinning coincidence.

    If I actually get to meet him someday in the afterlife, I want to talk to him about Jimmy Foxx, the Detroit Tigers, the Montreal Maroons, and what Tom Mix meant to him…

    Rest in peace, George Gnam, 415 Squadron RCAF, Halifax X2898 shot down on the Peenemunde raid August 18, 1943. POW Stalag Luft 4B Germany.

  7. Flashgear

    Thanks guys, glad to have poured that out.. It's by far the longest post I've ever put on HTF. Among the many strange coincidences in my story is the Criterion release of this film coinciding with the 75th anniversary of my "friend"s worst and most heroic day of his life. The trigger to my telling this strange but true story was Josh's beautiful review for this wonderful film.

    How to explain it? I can't, and thinking about it sends shivers up my spine and my eyes glisten with tears for a man I never met, but have always felt I have known dearly. And I was meant to "know" him. The old house we both grew up in 30 or so years apart is long gone. My childhood bedroom was almost certainly his own too.The garage "clubhouse" with it's walls papered with child hood whimsy is gone also. Everyone who actually knew him in life would be gone now. My discovery of his private suffering born out of the heroic sacrifice of his life seemed to be preordained by some mystic force. And part of the catalyst being this wonderful film that so powerfully reminded me of his story. Especially the disappearance of all of his crew, as though they themselves had ascended the fabled stairway to heaven shown in A Matter of Life and Death. All that is left are my memories and my brittle yellow newspaper story I was meant to find in another head spinning coincidence.

    If I actually get to meet him someday in the afterlife, I want to talk to him about Jimmy Foxx, the Detroit Tigers, the Montreal Maroons, and what Tom Mix meant to him…

    Rest in peace, George Gnam, 415 Squadron RCAF, Halifax X2898 shot down on the Peenemunde raid August 18, 1943. POW Stalag Luft 4B Germany.

    Fitting too that you shared this story on a day when the world is mourning the passing of another brave airman who once had to ditch his stricken craft.

  8. Thank you all so much for the kind words today and for sharing your thoughts and connections to the film. I was out all day and not checking HTF as often as usual and it was incredibly heartwarming to read all of these warm comments. It’s a privilege to be able to write for you.

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