A Matter of Life and Death (or Stairway to Heaven in the USA) tells the story of Peter Carter, and RAF pilot in the second world war whose plane is shot down. Knowing that he’ll die anyway because the parachutes are gone, Peter has a last conversation with June, the radio operator who answers his mayday, then leaps from the plane. Something goes wrong, and he doesn’t die! Peter seizes this second chance, finds June, and they fall in love. Mistakes do occasionally happen in heaven though, and now Peter must appeal the mistake of his survival so that he may live a full loving life with June.
David Niven’s character Peter is very brave and calm. Initially he is perfectly at ease at the prospect of jumping out of a crashing plane to hasten his death; then after an initial confusion is very accepting that he must appeal to a higher authority the mistake that he’s still alive! Somehow Niven manages to convey this perfectly, and given how bizarre the concept is, I didn’t doubt his character or situation at all. Kim Hunter is good as June, the voice on the radio that Peter speaks to as his plane is crashing, and then the girl that he falls in love with after he doesn’t die. Actually the most interesting thing about Kim Hunter was seeing her face; I’ve only seen her performances behind a chimp mask in the Planet of the Apes series! It is also worth mentioning a good performance by Roger Livesey as Dr Reeves, a very “proper” doctor who completely believes Peter’s story, and ultimately acts for the defence in the appeal for Peter’s life.
All of the scene transitions are done really well. Clearly there are several matte paintings of some of the larger sets to give a sense of scale to heaven, but the imposition of live action into them as the camera was on the move was really good. Particularly striking is the black & white of heaven contrasting with the colour of the real world. I’m not sure if that is to represent everyone being pegged as either good or evil in the afterlife, but again it leads to some effective scene transitions as colour bleeds back into a shot. There is also a very ambitious behind-the-eyes shot as Peter falls asleep; the red of the eyelids bleeds out as the camera pans down to huge columns and then we notice that there are hundreds of tiny people milling about in front of the huge heavenly columns. Pretty cool, and still impresses 66 years later.
Ultimately the success of the film depends upon believable characters, so that the audience can get on board with the concept of appealing against death, and the ability to convey the afterlife with a suitable sense of scale without reverting to cliches. I think A Matter of Life and Death succeeds on both accounts. The main trio of characters are portrayed by really good actors who are all committed to the plot; additionally the vision & production of the film give a suitably mighty backdrop to the events.
And she's buying the Stairway to Heaven