Whilst returning home to England after a mission over Germany during World War II, RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) reports back to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) and alerts her to the presence of his squad, who all bailed out of their severely damaged aircraft. With his own radio technician, Bob (Robert Coote), dead and no intact parac/hutes remaining, Carter knows he will not survive the return journey, but plans to eject anyway, preferring to jump rather than fry, but during his brie dialogue with June the pair develop an attraction. Suffice to say, Carter bails out and his plane crashes but, miraculously, he awakes on shore, fully alive. You see there has been an error in Heaven and, due to the heavy fog across the English Channel, Carter’s body could not be found. An agent of Heaven, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), is sent to retrieve him, but alas he has met in person with June and the two have fallen hopelessly in love, and therefore Carter is far from willing to accept his allotted demise, and instead intends to fight his case to the end.
Most films have a genre they can be assigned. Star Wars is science fiction. West Side Story is a musical. Jeanne Dielman is torture. A Matter of Life and Death is at heart a fantasy, but it’s also a comedy and a romance. And a war film. Plus a courtroom drama. It’s impossible to pigeonhole in one category, but it’s also pretty impossible to hate, because it’s just so darn charming. The premise is pretty complex and always in motion – this is a story within which the central obstacle adjusts as the plot develops, starting with Peter attempting to establish grounds for his appeal, then finding someone appropriate to defend him, before the actual trial itself, which keeps me interested and engaged throughout.
In terms of film-making it’s difficult to find many faults anywhere within this production. The script is incredible, with so much great dialogue it was impossible to catch all the zingers in one sitting, and I look forward to a re-visit to pick up on those I missed, especially in the opening radio conversation. The acting is superb throughout, even if this film helped set the stereotype that all RAF airmen were of the upper class type, when in reality this was far from the truth, it’s just that in film they were all played by David Niven, who couldn’t help but remind me of these sketches from Armstrong & Miller. The production design is also stellar, with the realm of the deceased being depicted in black and white in comparison to the colour of the living world, and the bridge between the two is a monumental escalator, depicted in such a way as to adequately express its sheer enormity. The waiting-room style purgatory area is also pretty great, with pretty secretaries, a coke machine, and an impossibly young Richard Attenborough gawking around.
The effects are interesting too, and I imagine might have been very impressive for their time, especially the use of freeze frames. Whenever Conductor 71 visits Peter on Earth, time around them freezes, which is used in a fun way, even if Kim Hunter has difficulty standing completely still in some scenes. The frozen scenes allowed for some good comedy moments too, such as Peter giving a somewhat horrified look at the medical equipment that will be used on him during an operation.
I still haven’t got over how much I love the premise of the story, especially that it was caused by a thick English fog, or a “ruddy pea-souper” as Bob calls it. Also, the red tape and bureaucracy of death was endlessly amusing, such as the end-of-the-day paperwork that lists 91,716 souls invoiced, but only 91,715 received, that kind of thing is terrific. I also appreciated some of the less predictable aspects of the plot, or rather the directions it took that differed from those I anticipated. For example Peter’s increased stay alive indirectly leads to the death of someone who otherwise might not have died, which I thought might have cleared Peter’s debt, as was the case in Final Destination 5.
The only issues I had with the film overall were some of-the-time problems that wouldn’t fly if the film were made today. For example before Peter goes to trial, fully aware that he might never return, he requests permission from the conductor to kiss the frozen June, saying that it doesn’t matter that she won’t know about it, which conjured up a distinctly rape-y vibe. Elsewhere, amongst the dead, people are pretty severely separated into groups based on their class, gender, race, profession and nationality, until everyone is sat in groups with only people who look identical to themselves. We don’t see this segregation take place, but those are the groups everyone sits in during the trial. You’d think the afterlife would be the last place to see such a Divergent-like existence, with people essentially boiled down to being nothing but a representation of the country they were from. To be fair this is a position the film strives to fight against, but it exists nonetheless.
These are relatively minor problems though, so aside from these time-based issues, this is a wonderful film.
Choose Film 9/10