Blu-ray Review: A Matter of Life and Death

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | CAST: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey
RELEASE DATE: July 24, 2018 | PRICE: DVD $13.82, Blu-ray $22.97
BONUSES: commentary, archival materials, new featurette and interviews   1/2
SPECS: NR | 104 min. | Fantasy | 1.37:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

The great British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) 1946 A Matter of Life and Death remains, 70-plus years after it was made,  one of the great, adult afterlife fantasies that also happens to be quite funny, too. (Take that, Here Comes Mr. Jordan) Its tale of an RAF pilot (David Niven, The Bishop’s Wife) who survives his downed plane crash and then falls in love with an American radio operator (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire), only to then have to deal with a messenger from the afterlife who arrives to correct the clerical error that spared his life, is as passionate about love, loss and sacrifice as it is subtly positive about the simmering tensions between the U.S. and England during World War II.

Well-remembered for its modernist production design (featuring a dizzyingly evocative “Stairway to Heaven,” which was the film’s release title in the U.S.) and its dazzling cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff (who depicts Earth in lustrous Technicolor and the “other world” in silvery black-and-white), A Matter of Life and Death still works best (for me, at least) as a richly humanistic work that proposes the power of love can transcend time and space as well as, literally, life and death.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition of the classic contains a bunch of archival supplements that were ported over from previous DVD editions. Highlighting the new bonuses is a fresh 30-minute interview Thelma Schoonmaker, director Powell’s widow (and Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor). She dives deep into the film (which she quickly offers was her late husband’s favorite) and discuses all aspects of its production–cinematography, art design, script development, British/American relations as depicted in the film and, again, its themes of love and sacrifice. Powell was such high-minded, positive man, she declares, that at his request, his tombstone was inscribed “Michael Powell – Film Director and Optimist.”

Buy or Rent A Matter of Life and Death

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.