In "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946) Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is struggling home in his damaged Lancaster bomber. He knows he isn't going to make it, and attempts to call his base before baling without a parachute into the freezing English Channel. By chance he makes contact with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator working alone in a RAF control tower. In the moments before fire destroys Peter's plane and he is forced to jump to his death, a bond is formed between them.
The next morning, Peter is washed up alive on an empty beach, near the tower where June works. She comes across him as she returns home from work and neither understand how he can possibly have survived. As it turns out, there has been a mix up in heaven, Peter should indeed have died, and an escort (Marius Goering) is sent to take him on to the afterlife. However, in the extra 20 hours he has been on earth, he and June have fallen in love.
Pleading that this love is the result of the oversight, Peter prepares a defence for a celestial court in which he will win, or lose, his right to stay on earth with June. Opposing him is a notoriously anti-British American lawyer (Raymond Massey) and defending him is his doctor, played by Roger Livesey, who has died in a motorcycle accident shortly before the trial. The trial takes place while Peter undergoes a dangerous operation on his brain.
There is an undercurrent throughout the film of "Is it real, or is it imagined?". The question is never answered, because it simply doesn't matter.
A Powell and Pressburger film, the movie is visually stunning from start to finish. From the opening shot of the Earth travelling through space, to an eyelid closing over a camera, indicating Peter's anaesthesis for the operation, Powell's innovative use of both camera and special effects are surprising even today. The magnificent moving stairway to heaven, from which the film takes its American title, the surprising choice to film heaven in black and white, and Earth in glorious Technicolor, (both to reflect Peter's passionate desire to live, but also to show a more optimistic future for Britain, after the horrors of WWII) are all remarkably modern.
Pressburger's articulate script adds to the poetic, dreamy nature of the film. His writing employs elements of the supernatural and offers an alternative vision of heaven, whilst grounding Peter and June's love affair firmly in the reality of war-torn Britain. The script plays with dramatic conventions, drawing on subjects as wide-ranging as cultural imperialism and the emotional power of the senses.
The performances are all spot on, Niven's poetic pilot, Hunter's pragmatic American, Roger Livesey's open-minded doctor, Marius Goering's sympathetic 17th century dandy, and Raymond Massey's skilled, but embittered American lawyer all do justice to the sensitive script and the outstanding visuals of the film.
The key to the film can probably be shown as well in the following quote as any other way:
Abraham Farlan: You claim you love her.
Peter Carter: I do love her!
Abraham Farlan: Can you prove it?
Peter Carter: Well give me time, sir. Fifty years will do.
Abraham Farlan: But can you prove it?
Peter Carter: Well, can a starving man prove he's hungry except by eating?
Abraham Farlan: Would you die for her?
Peter Carter: I would, but, er, I'd rather live.
A lovely, romantic, movie.