A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents A Matter of Life and Death.

criterion logoAs his plane is going down in flames, doomed World War II pilot, Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) meets over the radio the love of his life, an American radio operator named June (Kim Hunter).  He miraculously survives the crash and the pair commence their romance, but Carter is troubled with a life-threatening brain injury treated by a village doctor (Roger Livesey) and a heavenly collector (Marius Goring) intent on escorting his errant soul to the other side.  Originally designed as a propaganda piece to promote better relations between Britain and the United States, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death became an English classic featuring delightful performances by its cast, accomplished Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and spectacular production design by Alfred Junge.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie
  • Martin Scorsese on A Matter of Life and Death
  • Thelma Schoonmaker Powell and Grover Crisp on AMOLAD and its restoration
  • Interview with cinematographer Jack Cardiff
  • A Matter of Fried Onions, Diane Broadbent Friedman on the medical foundation of AMOLAD
  • Behind the scenes footage, filmed during a visit to Denham Studios by Canadian soldiers
  • “The King and the Stars,” a Front Page newsreel by British Pathé on the 1946 Royal Command Film Performance screening, along with unused and unissued footage of the event and the press reception
  • New interview with author J. K. Rowling and actor Daniel Radcliffe in appreciation of the film
  • Two Lux Radio Theatre productions from 1947 (starring Ray Milland, Ann Blyth, and Nigel Bruce) and 1955 (starring David Niven and Barbara Rush)
  • The Hedda Hooper Show – This is Hollywood‘s 30-minute radio adaptation, starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, and Vincent Price
  • Screen Director’s Playhouse radio production from 1951, starring Robert Cummings and Julia Adams
  • Kinescope of the “Stairway to Heaven” TV adaptation for Robert Montgomery Presents, starring Richard Green, Jean Gillespie, and Bramwell Fletcher
  • Parody sketch from Big Train, featuring Simon Pegg, Kevin Eldon, Mark Heap, and Amelia Bullmore
  • Gallery of sketches and stills of Alfred Junge’s production designs
  • Sequence shot for Powell and Pressburger’s unmade The White Cockade, starring David Niven and Pamela Brown
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring behind the scenes photos, the script, and new essays by film critics Dave Kehr, Robert Horton, and Mark Kermode

The origin of A Matter of Life and Death (or AMOLAD as its was affectionately called by The Archers, that is the writing/directing/producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) came by a request made by Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information for a film that sought to improve the public relationship between America and the United Kingdom.  Production began on August 14, 1945, the same day as Japan’s surrender.  The conclusion of the war made the MoI’s request even more relevant.  England was full of American military personnel, some of whom were too proud at having “saved” their former colonial masters.  There was a sense of growing resentment among Brits over the Yanks’ late arrival to the war, but the reality was that the UK needed substantial American support if its economy was to recover and its infrastructure were to be rebuilt, and the British identity would need to adjust from its former position as centre of a global empire.  The Archers imagined this rapprochement in terms of a romance between a British pilot and an American radio operator, drawing on the knowledge and materials of Joseph Reidy, a surgeon and Powell’s brother-in-law, and the true-life account of pilots incredibly surviving terrible crashes, as well as likely being influenced by the work of Dr. Hugh Cairns, an Oxford University professor of neurology, and Journey Around My Skull, Frigyes Karinthy’s stunningly vivid account of his brain tumor and its treatment.

AMOLAD PosterAMOLAD is a medical fantasy, where the romance between Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter, recommended to Powell and Pressburger by Alfred Hitchcock) is threatened on a Technicolor Earth by a brain injury to Peter diagnosed by local physician Dr. Frank Reeves (played by P&P regular Roger Livesey) and in a monochrome afterlife where Conductor 71 (an 18th-century French dandy played by Marius Goring, another regular of The Archers) seeks to remedy his failure to collect Peter at his assigned time due to the appearance of a thick British fog.  While Dr. Reeves works to organize the operation necessary to treat Peter, the airman plans his defence before a celestial court convened to hear his plea to remain on Earth with his beloved.  Dr. Reeves becomes a central figure in both worlds, gradually bringing them together in an effort to save Peter and, in uniting him with June, defend his homeland and propose a new world based on the shared values of Britain and the United States.

Stairway to Heaven PosterPowell and Pressburger created a British favourite and a technical marvel with AMOLAD.  Its narrative operates at the level of the symbolic, with Peter and June standing in for Britain and America and Dr. Reeves defending the values of his homeland while also suggesting a new perspective for a post-war world.  The anti-British sentiment perceived at the time in the United States is approached head on, and while some critics rankled at these views being voiced onscreen, AMOLAD ably responds by celebrating England’s proud tradition of poetry and art sanctifying peace, love, and humanity.  Alfred Junge‘s modernist designs for the afterlife are a wonder, imagining this film blanc world as a bureaucratic utopia of equality and efficiency, one that seems intended to be non-denominational even if angel wings are handed out in clear carrying bags.  Jack Cardiff‘s work in Technicolor is masterful, able to exploit the medium to create a “pearly” other world, manage the tricky business of lighting and shooting large and complex shots in colour, and even transition between the two aesthetics – AMOLAD reveals these skills in the opening image of The Archers’ title credit that shifts from monochrome to colour.  Further, the film cleverly reverses the colour/monochrome-reality/fantasy dichotomy of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), implying the richness of Earthbound life and the sober obedience of heavenly administration.  The film was Cardiff’s first cinematographer credit, the result of Erwin Hillier (P&P’s photographer on A Canterbury Tale (1945) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945)) refusing to share credit with Cardiff, Technicolor’s top technician and originally meant to serve as a resource to Hillier who had no experience with the colour format – such are the starts of great careers.  Perhaps the film’s “biggest” star is “Ethel,” the 20 foot wide, 106 step escalator that functions as AMOLAD‘s stairway to heaven.  Strong supporting performances are also provided by Raymond Massey, Robert Coote, and Kathleen Byron (plus a brief, but noteworthy appearance by Richard Attenborough).

This post contributes to Cinemaven’s Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon.  When considering an actor-director relationship in A Matter of Life and Death, the natural choices are Roger Livesy or Marius Goring, actors appearing in multiple P&P films in prominent roles.  Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on The Archers and David Niven, a mutually beneficial collaboration that came at a fortuitous time for each.

The Way AheadMichael Powell developed a sudden appreciation for Niven after seeing Carol Reed‘s The Way Ahead (1944), one of two films Niven made during his military service and that was produced at the behest of the MoI to bolster popular support for the war effort.  As described in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, Powell observes:

It was a marvellous film and David was a revelation in it.  We had all known and loved him as the charming playboy, but here he was the real man, and a serving officer careful of his men. … We also saw, for the first time, the real David Niven: shrewd, kind, quick-witted and full of fantasy, the image of our hero Peter in A Matter of Life and Death.

Niven’s casting, at least as conceived of and described by Powell, was a proper meet cute.  While filming I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) in November 1944, while battering Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey with studio-created wind and water and tossing them about in a small, open motorboat, Powell noticed Niven on set, standing just a few feet away.  When shooting concluded and everyone dried off, Niven asked, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get in on it?”  Niven probably had no idea, but Powell immediately cast him as AMOLAD‘s lead in that moment.

For his part, Niven’s account of joining the production is much less enthusiastic.  He had returned to the UK and to military service at the outset of WWII (a rare example among British actors working in Hollywood).  He was proud to join the war effort but concerned over its impact on his career.  He uneasily kept up correspondence with Samuel Goldwyn in an effort to preserve his acting contract while out of the Hollywood spotlight.  Aware of the risk of being forgotten against the constant stream of up and coming talent, Niven remarked, “Six months is too long for an actor to be out of business – six years is almost certain disaster.”  Goldwyn kept up the contract, but ordered Niven to remain in England to work with P&P on AMOLAD.  As told by the actor, he was initially uncomfortable with the direction and wary of another propaganda picture:

At first I thought that Goldwyn was simply trying to sabotage my career before I could get back to Hollywood when I started on the picture by loaning me out to make this film I didn’t understand to start with.  But I’m glad I did it.  I got to find something inside me as an actor I didn’t know was there.  Or if I suspected it was there, I hadn’t had the opportunity to practise it before.

A Matter of Life and Death PosterNiven is great in AMOLAD, every bit the actor Powell saw in The Way Ahead and every bit the actor Niven believed he became.  His squadron leader is full of charm, confidence, sincerity, and compassion.  While the film received mixed, but generally positive reviews in England, Niven’s performance was embraced, assuring both the actor and the industry that he remained a bankable star.  (Niven’s casting is acknowledged by Powell as a major asset to expediting the film’s pre-production efforts.)  AMOLAD appears to have become something of a small cottage industry for Niven, as he reprised his role as Peter Carter in two subsequent radio productions of the film.

The film proved to be the high point in Niven’s collaborations with The Archers.  With it already in the can, Powell was convinced against his better judgment to begin production on a dramatization of the 1745 Jacobite rising and the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The film was to be called The White Cockade, but it never proceeded beyond a single shot sequence.  Despite being written by Pressburger, directed by Powell, designed by Alfred Junge, shot by Jack Cardiff, costumed by Hein Heckroth, and starring Niven and Pamela Brown, Powell assessed the filmed sequence as “dead” – “The people in it never loved, nor laughed, nor trod the heather.”  The White Cockade led to the production of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Anthony Kimmins, 1948).  Like AMOLAD, it was produced by Alexander Korda with David Niven on loan from Samuel Goldwyn, and based on BPC‘s poor reception, Powell’s negative assessment of The White Cockade seems well measured.

The Elusive PimpernelNiven and P&P would work again with 1950’s The Elusive Pimpernel (aka The Fighting Pimpernel), yet another project conceived by Alexander Korda and Samuel Goldwyn.  Powell was pressed by Korda to take on the project and work again with Niven, but the director was “filled … with boredom” and argued that Korda’s own 1936 film could not be surpassed.  Powell warmed up to the idea when imagining his version as a musical, and with Pressburger open to the idea and willing to let Korda’s pure profit-motive do the rest, the project went ahead with The Archers on board.  Niven would later claim disinterest in the project as well, and cite the threat of contract suspensions as the basis for his and Powell’s involvement.  Goldwyn refused the musical concept, imposed the casting of Margaret Leighton, and even denied final payment and American distribution, resulting in Korda bringing suit against the American producer, delaying American screenings until 1953, and eventually causing Niven to sever his contract with Goldwyn.

AMOLAD is thus a singular work between The Archers and David Niven.  Perhaps a reflection of Niven’s star power and P&P’s string of box office successes, the film was selected for the inaugural Royal Command Film Performance, an annual charity gala, and it has never diminished in its popularity and circulation the way other P&P films did, never requiring the rediscovery and reappraisal in the 1970s and 1980s needed for The Archers’ other works.  We’ve only managed to scratch the surface of AMOLAD here, failing to give proper due to the brilliance contained in the film.  We’ve barely expressed the mastery of Cardiff’s work in Technicolor here, the impassioned references to Shakespeare, Blake, and Bunyan (Peter is a rising poet when not in military service), or the film’s daring break from grounded British realism.  We’ve failed to give attention to AMOLAD‘s virtuoso flourishes including a camera obscura, a vast heavenly court, and the view from within a grand closing eye.  It is often too easily said, yet it is hardly more appropriately stated than here – space precludes me from fully describing the wealth contained in this film.

Thomas Campi The Railway ChildrenA cover treatment to a Criterion edition of AMOLAD should not just reflect its fantastically romantic premise, but also the very strong Englishness of the film’s character.  Thomas Campi is a versatile artist whose work regularly contains a liveliness that feels contemporary and often employs a style that feels familiar, even nostalgic.  In particular, his beautiful cover artwork for The Railway Children, a popular English children’s book by Edith Nesbit, hints at an understanding of traditional British sentimentality in keeping with the sensibility of AMOLAD and suggests him capable of rendering a tenderly inspiring representation of the film.

Credits:  A huge debt is owed in creating this post to The Powell & Pressburger Pages, to its entry on AMOLAD, to Michael Powell’s autobiography, and to Ian Christie’s excellent monograph for the BFI.

The Jack Cardiff interview comes from the Region 2 Carlton Visual DVD.  The Martin Scorsese introduction and the Ian Christie commentary are both included on Sony’s 2009 Region 1 DVD.  Powell’s widow and Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker is a friend of the Collection and a past contributor, and so we’ve included a discussion with Grover Crisp on AMOLAD‘s important 2000 restoration (see Thelma’s warm introduction of the film for TCM at a 2014 screening here).  We also imagined a special feature on Diane Broadbent Friedman’s analysis of Peter’s injury as a subarachnoid haemorrhage causing complex partial seizures.  The J. K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe’s discussion arises from a special feature included on a Harry Potter film collection wherein they discover that AMOLAD is both their favourite film.  To our knowledge, only the 1955 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film is actually known to survive, but we’re hopeful that the other radio plays and the TV version might be available, and that perhaps even the footage shot for The White Cockade might still exist somewhere.  The photos, script, and designs included in the booklet are meant to be drawn from Eric Warman’s 1946 book on the film.  We’ve selected Dave Kehr and Mark Kermode to provide essays given their admiration of the film and their relationship with the Collection, while we chose Robert Horton by virtue of his essay for Film Comment.

symbiotic-collaborations-truffaut-iiBig, big thanks to Theresa, the Cinemaven, for organizing the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations: The Star – Director Blogathon, for having MMC! contribute, and for letting us focus on a less notable cinematic collaboration.  AMOLAD is more than just a film we like or love.  It’s a movie, like Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), that would immediately find a place in my Criterion Top Ten if a Criterion edition ever came into existence.  We’re grateful for this excuse to write about AMOLAD, and we’ve naturally imagined perhaps our most expansive package yet for this great film.  With Blu-ray editions released in France and Germany and none in North America, perhaps a Criterion version is not such a far-fetched idea (although we must note finding no phantom page for David Niven on Criterion’s website).  Be sure to check out the other contributions to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, where two heads are better than one!

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16 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

  1. CineMaven January 22, 2016 / 6:29 pm

    Hi there…I see you…I GOT you. You’re IN. You’ll see yourself in the morning when you wake up. Thank you!!!! Thanks for participating. 🙂

  2. Silver Screenings January 23, 2016 / 3:24 pm

    Your site is dangerous. I have baking in the oven and a list as long as your arm with Things I Must Do Today. Yet, you have this wonderful tribute to David Niven and the Archers, AND you’ve posted this fascinating film. Oh dear. So much for the list.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post very much and will have to pause the movie to finish later. Thanks for sharing all this research with us. Your post could be a Criterion Extra of its own!

    • spinenumbered January 23, 2016 / 4:03 pm

      Thanks for, like, the nicest comment EVER! My love of baking does make me feel a little bad, but AMOLAD is probably worth it.

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) January 23, 2016 / 5:22 pm

    Some films stand apart as an “experience” and I would place AMOLAD among those few. I always smile when I see David Niven, whether in a film or a television ad for chocolates, but have never given his proper due as an actor. You have given me a new perspective and project.

    • spinenumbered January 23, 2016 / 6:05 pm

      Thanks. And I totally agree about Niven. He’s never an individual I think of as a great actor or someone I seek out, yet I always enjoy him onscreen.

  4. Christy's Inkwells January 23, 2016 / 6:05 pm

    A very entertaining and in-depth article. I enjoy all the links and references you’ve added. Thelma Schoonmaker’s intro is also a must-see! 🙂

    • spinenumbered January 23, 2016 / 6:07 pm

      Thanks. I actually feel like I barely touched on AMOLAD!

      • Christy's Inkwells January 23, 2016 / 6:15 pm

        It’s a great achievement to research such an important film, and deliver such a cohesive article. 🙂

  5. girlsdofilm January 27, 2016 / 11:24 pm

    Your reviews are some of my favourite – always so informative and filled with down-the-rabbit-hole links (in the best possible way, although it’s especially cheeky to include the whole film!). Ashamed to admit I’ve never actually seen AMOLAD… guess that’s my evening sorted 😉

    • spinenumbered January 28, 2016 / 1:46 am

      Thank you for the very appreciated compliment. I was very lucky finding a lot of interesting material connected to AMOLAD.

  6. CineMaven February 3, 2016 / 12:25 pm

    I’m a new devotee of Powell and Pressburger since “A Canterbury Tale” dropped me to my knees. You say you’ve barely touched on “AMOLAD” but you did sooo much more in framing it in connection with the bigger picture…collaboration. I’m happy you contributed to my blogathon with the symbiotic collaboration of P & P with Niven. You’ve written an articulate, well-researched informative piece which I enjoyed reading. Learned some things too, and that ain’t a baad thing either. Thanks again!!

    • spinenumbered February 3, 2016 / 2:29 pm

      Thanks very much! It was an inspired topic and I’m glad I got peer pressured into participating. Thanks again for some allowance in focusing on a somewhat frustrated collaboration. Cheers!

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