I read several professional reviews for A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a., Stairway to Heaven), unsuccessfully trying to find one that echoes my sentiments. I did, however, find a “user review” that does so precisely. Listed only as J.C. on the TCM ratings page, one reviewer describes the film as “original, but not great,” furthermore adding, “I thought I was going to love this movie, but the second half sags.” I couldn’t agree more. The opening scene in A Matter of Life and Death is as good as any I’ve seen. I was moved by it. It introduces the two main characters, and I took an instant liking to both of them. But the latter trial scenes tend to drag on, pushing the characters into the background; they are out of step with the rest of the film. This perhaps is partially attributable to the fact that the film was initially conceived as a propaganda piece designed to improve Anglo-American relations, which had become a bit strained by the end of the war. Caught up in telling a love story, and a very good one at that, Messrs. Powell and Pressburger seem to have forgotten this initial purpose and then been forced to find a way to fit it back in.
Still, it’s a great film, with marvelous performances, and a very good script. And here are my three reasons:
1. The sheer scope of it. One has to admire the ambition of these “Archer” films. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (highly recommended) follows a man up to death’s door and covers around 60 years. A Matter of Life and Death follows a man straight into the great beyond and spans the entire universe! The only movie I can think to match it in sheer audacity is Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and an argument can be made that Malick’s film was not nearly as successful.
2. Marius Goring is a hoot as Conductor 71, seeming forever like an escapee from Tartuffe.
3. And surely, this must be where Zeppelin got the title for Stairway to Heaven, right?