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A Matter of Life and Death

One of the great wartime romances is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1945, known in the US as Stairway to Heaven). David Niven is an RAF pilot shot down before his time; as his plane crashes, he radios for help, where specialist Kim Hunter is on the line; improbably, the two fall in love in moments before his death.

But miraculously, Niven’s character survives — or does he? It will take a heavenly tribunal to decide his fate, presided over by a stern Raymond Massey, before the lovers are reunited. One of the war’s most lavish fantasy spectacles, making full use of 3-strip Technicolor at its most lavish, A Matter of Life and Death deserves to be seen on a theater screen, so that every last nuance of Powell and Pressburger’s extravagant vision has full opportunity to entrance the viewer.

As Powell and Pressburger noted in the “manifesto” for their film production company, The Archers:

“One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers.

We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.”

Words to live by.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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