Posted in: DVD, Film Reviews

“A Matter of Life and Death” (The Films of Michael Powell) – DVD of the Week 1/6/2009

The Collectors Choice presents A Matter of Life and Death
The Collector’s Choice presents “A Matter of Life and Death”

I’m starting the new year with something old and something new. I’ve imported my “DVD of the Week” feature from my blog,, and reworked it into a focus on a single release, with links to further reviews and resources. And we start the year with the first essential DVD release of 2009.

Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (originally released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven) is as gorgeous and romantic as films come. The film opens with a celestial prologue and narration providing a sense of cosmic comfort of someone watching over it all, of some divine authority in charge. It plays like the British answer to the opening of It’s a Wonderful Life, which came out the same year (is it coincidence that the post-war era inspired such a need for heavenly affirmation?), but immediately swoops down from the majestic calm of the stars into the terror of World War II and a bomber pilot giving his farewell to life over the wireless as his plane burns furiously around him and he prepares to make a blind leap without a parachute. Powell gives the scene terrible beauty – the wind whips the cabin, the fire flickers around his face, the clouds have a texture so palpable they look like you could step out into the sky and walk to heaven on them – and an emotional power to match. Peter Carter (David Niven) is resigned to his fate but his heart beats with the desperate passion of a man determined to embrace every last sensation in the final seconds of his life. That combination of adrenaline-powered strength and mortal vulnerability gives him the permission and the need to embrace, if only through voice, the American girl (Kim Hunter) at the other end of the wireless. And she falls just as surely in love with him.

The stairway to heaven
The stairway to heaven

It would be a beginning that few directors could match with the drama that followed. Powell does. That emotional burst, that passion for life and love, is followed through with a struggle to hang on to life once Peter survives an impossible blind jump and meets the voice at the other end, falling impossibly in love while the clerks up above note that one soul is missing from the balance sheets. An aristocratic emissary (Marius Goring) in 18th Century French finery (asked how he ended up in heaven, he references the French Revolution and explains the scarf around his neck when he remarks, “I lost my head”) is sent to retrieve the missing soul, leaving the cool monochrome sheen of heavenly majesty for the bloom of color on Earth. The line “Ah! We are so starved for Technicolor up there” could as easily be applied today. This color has a surreal magic missing in modern films. Powell and Pressberger are as passionate about filmmaking as young poet Peter is about life. Their creativity is both fantastic and organic, their imagery spellbinding and gorgeous, and their scripting clever and witty. They never betray whether this heavenly world is real or all in Peter’s mind (the result of his blistering headaches) but neither are they coy in the play between the worlds. As Doctor Reeves observes, these visions are real to Peter, and so they are to him too. And to us. It’s a perfect romantic fantasy, a stunning creative achievement and one of my favorite films, and at long last on DVD in a gorgeous transfer that glows on the screen. We’re so starved from Technicolor here too.

It’s part of the second “The Collector’s Choice” release, a collaboration between Sony and The Film Foundation, a two-disc/two film set entitled The Films of Michael Powell. The second feature is Age of Consent, his 1969 drama about a British painter (James Mason) who flees England for Australia to go Gauguin on a tropical island and a local girl (Helen Mirren) who becomes his muse. Martin Scorsese provides video introductions for each film and Helen Mirren shares her memories of the film in a short interview. Michael Powell historian Ian Christie provides commentary on A Matter of Life and Death and Kent Jones does the honors for Age of Consent.

For more views and reviews:

Dave Kehr reviews the DVD for his New York Times “Critics Choice” DVD column.

Gary Tooze compares the new DVD with previous European DVD releases at DVD Beaver.

Parallax View friend Robert Horton reprints his essay on A Matter of Life and Death from Film Comment on his blog here.

Roger Ebert celebrated  the film when it was restored and revived in 1995.

The “Powell and Pressburger Pages” has a whole page of links for reviews and information here.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.