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If I should die before I wed,
I pray the Lord won’t keep me dead,
But let me live a longer life
So I can find and woo a wife,
For this film shows there is a chance,
Depending on the circumstance.
_________________________

MPA rating: PG

If it wasn’t obvious, yes, I am in full-on catch-up mode to finish my 2021 Blindspots before the end of the year. I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Matter of Life and Death (released as Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.), the oldest film on my Blindspot list and one that I had heard was as beloved in Britain as It’s a Wonderful Life is here in America. That’s not a bad comparison since they were both released in 1946, in the wake of World War II, and deal with a fantasy scenario of heavenly players appraising a man’s life.

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Before British airman Peter Carter (David Niven) jumps without a parachute from his damaged plane, he shares a brief but sincere conversation with an American radio operator named June (Kim Hunter). Somehow, he survives and wakes uninjured on the English shore the next day, quickly seeking out June to begin a relationship with this unexpected chance at life. However, the “Other World” realizes Carter should have died if not for the thick fog that kept his Conductor (Marius Goring, playing extremely French) from collecting him. While a doctor (Roger Livesey) investigates the survivor for brain damage, Carter must appeal to have his life extended, citing his newfound love of June and eventually appearing before a celestial courtroom to plead his case.

Considering I had never heard of it before last year, A Matter of Life and Death was actually a fascinating watch, one whose influence was present even when I didn’t recognize it. For example, the early conversation between Peter and June over the radio before his expected demise was definitely echoed at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey featured a suspiciously similar staircase lined with statues of famous people. However, the biggest inspiration borrower goes to last year’s Soul. Just like Inside Out was not without precedent (Herman’s Head, anyone?), Soul undoubtedly borrowed some of this film’s imagery, from the escalator slowly ascending to “another world” that is never explicitly called heaven to the large round portals that celestial workers look down through to view Earth below, not to mention the repeated name-dropping of famous historical figures. That’s not a slight, of course; I still love Soul, more than this film to be honest, but I enjoy being able to recognize cinematic influences. If anything, it helps me appreciate both the borrower and the original source even more.

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That being said, A Matter of Life and Death struggles at times to make the pacing as engaging as its script and imaginative imagery. I know it’s not uncommon in these old movies, but I found it a little hard to swallow that Peter and June would be all lovey-dovey, calling each other “darling,” immediately after meeting in person for the first time, a stretch that comes up in the trial too. Plus, the middle section loses some steam as the plot switches between Goring’s French aristocrat explaining things to Carter and the minutiae of the doctor’s theory about Carter’s medical condition. Similar to yesterday’s Blindspot Anthem of the Heart, there’s intentional doubt as to whether Carter’s celestial deadline and trial are actually real or all in his head, the result of a deteriorating brain injury. The ambiguity is handled better here, allowing enough room for either theory to be true or both even.

When the film really gets intriguing is during the trial of the last third, when a host of thought-provoking themes parade throughout the legal arguments. The prosecutor is an American killed during the Revolutionary War, whose belief in American exceptionalism is matched only by his prejudice against the British, Carter included. While I feel like the film spent more time than needed on the prejudice angle, it was a fascinating debate, with discussions of Britain’s checkered colonial history, America’s melting pot population, and the role of racism in deciding on one’s character. On top of that, the film is rife with poetry, inventive camerawork, and a rare mixture of black-and-white and color, leaving the Other World in pearly whites and shadows while Earth enjoys Technicolor, sort of a reversal of The Wizard of Oz.

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There’s quite a bit to appreciate about A Matter of Life and Death, and I feel that further viewings could make me admire it even more. Yet despite its dewy-eyed romance, it’s more cerebral than the sentimentality of It’s a Wonderful Life, which has also benefited from my watching it every year as both a Christmas favorite and my dad’s favorite film ever. One viewing didn’t make this an instant favorite for me personally (which could change in the future), but A Matter of Life and Death deserves its reputation and even greater exposure to American audiences.

Best line: (Abraham Farlan, the prosecutor) “You claim you love her.”
(Peter Carter) “I do love her!”
(Farlan) “Can you prove it?”
(Carter) “Well, give me time, sir. Fifty years will do.”
(Farlan) “But can you prove it?”
(Carter) “Well, can a starving man prove he’s hungry except by eating?”
(Farlan) “Would you die for her?”
(Carter) “I would, but, er, I’d rather live.”

Rank:  List Runner-Up

© 2021 S.G. Liput
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