In 1946, when they made A Matter Of Life And Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were at the cutting edge of cinema. They were arguably the most innovative directors working out of the United Kingdom, at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was finding his voice with such films as Lifeboat and Notorious, and David Lean was working on that more humble beacon of Englishness, Brief Encounter.
Powell and Pressburger's previous film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, had been heralded for its special effects make up and model work, which still holds up well today. Whether they felt the weight of public expectation, or whether they felt the urge to themselves, Powell and Pressburger pushed the envelope again in service of the story; The set design, use of stock, and in-camera trickery in A Matter of Life and Death came only 13 years after King Kong, but are light years ahead of that film. Thanks to Powell's and Pressburger's mastery of these techniques, and the enduring work of a young Jack Cardiff, on only his second major feature, Life and Death stands apart from other films of the period.
The directors used these techniques to create the quintessential depiction of the afterlife in movies, which has informed popular interpretations of Heaven ever since. The imagery is so familiar to modern audiences that first time viewers may wonder whether they are having déjà vu.
However, some concepts explored in the film may seem quaint by today's jaded standards. The nature of love at first meeting, the debate over the value of a human life, and an utterly non-cynical depiction of God and his angels: all are explored without irony or reservation. The audience's enjoyment depends largely on whether they can see beyond their misgivings on these topics, and view the film as an allegorical poem.
Roger Livesey gives a generous performance as the doctor fighting to save David Niven’s life, but his mannered style does not work as well as it did in Blimp. Marius Goring stands out as the deliciously French Conductor 71; charming, mischievous and petty all at once. Kim Hunter does passable work in a thankless role, but the soul of the film belongs to David Niven, with a portrayal of wonderment and hope that glints through the stoicism which is the stock of his Britishness. It is also worth keeping an eye out for a very young Dickie Attenborough in one of his first film appearances, as a recent casualty of war.
Gentle mockery of our French and American allies runs through the film. Raymond Massey plays a grumbling, recalcitrant Abraham Farlan, sour at the British for being the first casualty of the American War of Independence. Young American airmen stepping through the pearly gates head straight for a Coca-Cola dispenser. A French pilot whitters away at ten to the dozen about the unfair circumstances of his death, to which his British counterpart responds with a pat on the shoulder and "bad luck, old boy". It is Niven's central performance, married to these details, which makes A Matter of Life and Death one of the most quintessentially British films ever made.
The choices made by Powell and Pressburger in direction also mark this film out. Most notably in the earliest days of colour film, which was then a modern marvel, one world was in glorious Technicolor, the other in drab black and white. The stroke of genius was to shoot the realm of the living in colour, and Heaven in monochrome, reversing the expectations of the day.
Of course, now that contemporary audiences are so unused to black and white, it is the scenes in Heaven which feel dislocated and fantastical. In 1946, however, Europe was reeling from the end of the second world war. The vibrance of colour in the movie reflected the keen feeling of the time that life is the most precious thing we have, and that we should revel in it. The only element of the film which hints at the melancholy of death is the metronomic chiming of the piano score in Heaven. Other than that, the film is broadly very hopeful.
My recommendation is to give yourself over to the tone of the film. If you can allow for the ebbing pain of postwar Britain, and you should find this film every bit as charming, warm, and ultimately life-affirming as those who first watched it almost 70 years ago.