Briefed by the Ministry of Information to make a film that would foster Anglo-American relations in the post-war period, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came up with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, an extravagant and extraordinary fantasy in which David Niven stars as a downed pilot who has to justify his continuing existence before a heavenly panel of judges because he has made the mistake of falling in love with an American girl (Kim Hunter) when he really should have died.
National stereotypes are lampooned as the angelic justices squabble over his fate. In a neat reversal of expectations, the heaven sequences are black and white, while Earth is seen in technicolour. Daring cinematography mixes monochrome and colour, incorporates time-lapse images, and even toys with background 'time freezes' 50 years before ‘The Matrix’. Roger Livesey, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey lead the fine supporting cast in what is one of the undoubted jewels of British cinema.
“I have always loved the extraordinary imagination in these films by Powell and Pressburger, the predecessors to Ken Russell, who might have been another favourite, but we already have ‘The Music Lovers’ elsewhere in the programme. I could have chosen ‘The Life of Colonel Blimp’, but it’s a longer film. I had the privilege of inviting Michael Powell to Chichester for a day school on censorship I organised more than 40 years ago at the Bishop Otter College (as it was called in those days), as well as Stephen Murphy, the BBFC’s chief censor. We showed an extract from ‘Peeping Tom’. This was much before Martin Scorsese promoted Powell - such a charming man - unlike Ken Russell, with whom I also tried to have a Q&A at one of our Festivals. He was irascible and mischievous but such fun!” - RG