A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (1946)
December 4, 2022 5:55 AM - Subscribe

A British wartime aviator who cheats death must argue for his life before a celestial court, hoping to prolong his fledgling romance with an American girl.

97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes

#78 on BFI's 2022 list of "Greatest Films Ever Made".

"[O]ne of the most audacious films ever made" - Roger Ebert

"A Matter of Life and Death is a visually extraordinary film" - Peter Bradshaw

posted by Law of Demeter (8 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I first saw this as a child. I enjoyed this then and liked it in new and different ways each time I've seen it since. The imagination of the storyline, the use of colour as a marker for the real as opposed to the mind/heaven, there is some good dialogue in there though some is pretty dated. The Lancaster scene now gets me in the emotions in a way it didn't as a kid. It is also a piece of art which I think I've interpreted in different ways over time and which is open to being interpreted in different ways, about seizing opportunities, seizing love, worthiness, maybe even survivor guilt.

There are some good breakdowns of the film. Iain Christie's book for the BFI is well worth a.read.

Trivia wise, the film was the first royal premiere film in the UK.

More trivia wise, it was funded as part of wartime propaganda to try and improve relations between the UK and visiting US personnel.

Finally, the female lead, Kim Hunter, went on to become a damn dirty ape.
posted by biffa at 8:51 AM on December 4, 2022

So, if you've seen the final scene of the first Captain America movie - the scene where Steve is talking to Peggy as his plane is going down - you've seen the first scene of this film. The Captain America scene was a direct homage.

I got a big kick out of how they had "heaven" in black and white instead of Earth - you'd think they would do it the other way round. "Heaven" looks more like an airport lobby - except for the Judge's lectern in that celestial court discussed above, which I am convinced looks like Pride Rock from The Lion King.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:41 AM on December 4, 2022 [3 favorites]

I've also wondered how much of an influence the colour choice was on Wenders for Wings of Desire. There's maybe more of a obvious reason there since it's made clear the Berlin angels don't experience any sort of physical sensation.

On a different note, earlier this year I was.lucky enough to spend a couple of days at the beach where Carter washes up, Saunton Sands. It's pretty enough to make him think he's in heaven. Very much worth a visit.

The same beach was used to film the video for Robbie Williams 'Angels' which it would be nice to think was somehow intentional. It was also used for beach scenes in Tom Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow and Pink Floyd's The Wall.
posted by biffa at 10:11 AM on December 4, 2022

My favourite film. I can talk about it for hours.

One of favourite stories is that they used three-strip Technicolor for the entire movie, even the scenes set in The Other World. They thought of using normal black-and-white, but the cinematographer - Jack Cardiff - insisted that Technicolor could do the whole job, and you would get the monochrome effect simply by printing the Technicolor reels without the dyes. It was also the best way to get the smooth transition between colour and black-and-white.

Powell asked what the three-strip would look like without the primary colours. The reply: "kind of pearly".
posted by daveje at 12:57 PM on December 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

Love this film!
posted by Coaticass at 1:12 PM on December 4, 2022

I love all of the Technicolor Archers' films but this might be my favorite. Just rewatched on a crappy print on some second tier streaming channel, maybe Hoopla, but even in non-pristine shape, it's an amazing film.
posted by octothorpe at 1:40 PM on December 4, 2022

"I love you, June - You're life and I'm leaving you."

When I was a child, the Second World War was the single most important thing that had ever happened - that was the 1970s, after a quarter of a century of media recontextualising people's experiences. This film is the first of those recontextualisations - a year before, the plight of Peter Carter would contemporary, but by the time of the film's release it was history.

Although it's set during the Second World War, it definitely catches the spirit of the period immediately following, when it seemed that it might be possible to build a new country. And to be fair, it was and they did after a fashion. Maybe there's something slightly clunky about Dickie Attenborough enraptured by the possibility that he might be c clerk, but their heart was in the right place.

And, of course, the afterlife scenes (and, in particular, the semi-eponymous staircase) are absolutely stunning, as is the coup de cinema of the first five minutes, closing in on the doomed bomber from way out in space. I can still remember the experience of stumbling across that opening probably fifty years ago, and being transfixed by the film.

For a long time it was my favourite Archers film, and possibly my favourite film, but it was slowly supplanted in the former category by Colonel Blimp, and in the latter category by... I don't know, I don't really do that any more.
posted by Grangousier at 3:07 PM on December 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Never sure what I think of this one. They have some fun with language. But the romance doesn't really work for me and some of the "the British are so quirky" is a bit tedious. Another rave review here: Criterion.
posted by paduasoy at 1:36 AM on December 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

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