The collaborative efforts of British filmmakers Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger are some of the most celebrated films ever made. In their homeland, the films the pair made are often considered to be among the finest film to ever come out of Britain. The pair together shared the credits of producer, writer, and director on the 24 films they made together between 1939 and 1972—usually under the production company they created known as “The Archers.”
Some of their more celebrated films include: “The Life and Death of Col. Blimp,” “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and the film I’m going to talk about today, newly release on blu-ray by The Criterion Collection, 1946’s “A Matter of Life and Death.” I first saw “A Matter of Life and Death” earlier this year at the behest of a dear friend. Simply put, the movie floored it. Between the amazing color pallet—that I’ve never quite seen any other movie achieve—the story, the acting, this was one of those films that reminded me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
David Niven stars as RAF pilot Peter Carter, it’s near the end of World War II and Peter—the last on board surviving member of his bombing mission—is flying his burning plane back to England, trying desperately to reach base before it’s too late and he has to bail out. Peter has no parachute, having given his to another crew member, instructing them all to bail out.
As Peter tires to make contact with his home base, he gets a hold of an American radio operator stationed in England, June—played by Kim Hunter. In what Peter believes to be his final moments, he dictates a telegram he wishes to be delivered to his mother, and tells June he loves her. Before it becomes too late, Peter jumps without a parachute, as the plane crashes and burns.
The film then takes us from the war torn earth to the heavens and “the other world.” There, as we watch a parade of dead soldiers come to their
reward, the lone other member of the mission who stayed on board, and died, waits for Peter. However, Peter doesn’t show. An error caused Peter to be missed. Upon waking up on the Earth, by the beach, Peter assumes he’s dead in heaven. But soon realizes he is on the earth, meets June and indeed finds that he loves her.
Unfortunately for Peter, this throws off the balances in “the other world” and now a messenger is sent to retrieve Peter. However, Peter—now deeply in love with June—doesn’t want to leave her and finds himself tangled in an otherworldly trail for his life, as he fights to gain more time on the Earth so he and June can live happily ever after. All presented in some of the most lush three-strip Technicolor you’ve ever seen—outside of the heavenly sequences which take place in Black and White—subverting one’s expectations.
In addition to Niven and Hunter— who are both simply wonderful in the film—the cast is rounded out by Roger Livesay, Raymond Massey—who makes a very delightful appearance towards the end of the film—and in one of his first roles, a very young Richard Attenborough. I can’t begin to say enough about just how fantastic this movie is. I cry every time I watch it, usually starting about eight minutes in when Peter says “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving you.” Gets me every time.
The Criterion Collection brings “A Matter of Life and Death” to blu-ray in a new 4K digital restoration that is simply stunning. I’ve never seen another movie with color like the color of “A Matter of Life and Death” the blues are so blue they’re beyond blue. I used to think that no one ever did color better than MGM and their musicals, but that’s not true. Archers color is the finest color ever captured on film. So rich, so saturated, so vibrant.
This restoration was created from the original 35mm three-strip Technicolor negatives. Even as the film switches from Technicolor to Black and White, it looks sharp and clear. The color is so vivid, so breathtaking, this movie is a feast for the senses, and Criterion brings all of it out. The sound is sharp as well, presented in an uncompressed monaural track, sourced from a 35mm nitrate optical soundtrack print. It’s a stunning presentation all the way around.
Criterion has also loaded down this edition with a bevy of bonus features. Included are: An introduction from 2008 with Martin Scorsese, a 2009 audio commentary with scholar Ian Christie—which is a most lively and informative track. A new interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker—director Powell’s widow. New short feature on the film’s special effects with historian Craig Barron and visual effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw, a 1998 short film featuring the film’s late cinematographer Jack Cardiff, a 1986 British TV program on Powell, and a restoration demo. Plus, the booklet includes information on the restoration, and an essay by Stephane Zacharek.
This new blu-ray of “A Matter of Life and Death” is a must own for anyone who loves movies, or even has the vaguest idea that they might love movies. This is a movie to treasure, cherrish, and celebrate. I adore this movie and this new blu-ray is a knock out. If you’ve never seen “A Matter of Life and Death” before, trust me when I tell you this should be a blind buy for you. Fantastic movie, fantastic blu-ray.