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A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), aka. Stairway to Heaven — starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Roger Livesy, Raymond Massey

A Matter of Life and Death (1946), aka. Stairway to Heaven – starring David Niven, Kim Hunter – a truly great movie that everyone should watch

A Matter of Life and Death is an excellent movie, with both a compelling story and frankly excellent acting. The basic plot has an RAF pilot (David Niven) being shot down during World War II, spending his final minutes talking with an American military radio operator (Kim Hunter).  But despite his parachute having been ruined by enemy gunfire, he miraculously survives the crash. The two begin falling in love with each other, as David Niven begins having fantastic visions of being summoned to the afterlife — since he shouldn’t have survived, after all. But David Niven’s character now has something to live for and requests the opportunity to present his case. Is the heavenly summons real, or a result of a concussion from two years prior, combined with his near-death experience?

A Matter of Life and Death, aka. Stairway to Heaven, starring David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger LivesyThe movie never tells, and in a real sense, it doesn’t matter. There’s a growing problem, with Niven getting physically worse, and a caring psychiatrist (Roger Livesy) seems to be his only hope. Until the psychiatrist dies the night before Niven’s brain operation …

In short,  A Matter of Life and Death (known as  Stairway to Heaven in the U.S.A.) is an excellently acted, directed performance that’s absolutely riveting, and highly recommended. I rate it (a very rare) 5 stars, and hope that you enjoy it as well.

Editorial review of  A Matter of Life and Death, courtesy of Amazon.com

A true marvel, A Matter of Life and Death is one of the best films by the storied English filmmaking team known as the Archers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Among other felicities, this 1946 fantasy has one of the most crackling opening ten minutes of any movie you’ll ever see: after a deceptively dreamy prologue, we are thrown into the conversation between an airman (David Niven) whose torched plane is about to crash in the English Channel, and an American military radio operator (Kim Hunter) operating the radio on the ground. Their touching exchange, made urgent by his imminent death, is breathtakingly visualized (you have never seen a WWII plane interior quite as vividly as this).

What follows is glorious: Niven’s death has been missed by an otherworldly collector (Marius Goring) — €“all that thick English fog, you know ” — and so he gets to argue his case for life before a heavenly tribunal. The heaven sequences are in pearly black-and-white, the earthly material in stunning Technicolor (the color is the cause of a particularly good in-joke). The Powell-Pressburger brief on behalf of humanity is both romantic and witty, and the wonderful cast is especially enriched by Roger Livesey (the star of Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), as a doctor with a camera obscura and an enormous heart.

Movie quotes from  A Matter of Life and Death

June (Kim Hunter): Received your message. We can hear you. Are you wounded? Repeat. Are you wounded? Are you bailing out?
Peter (David Niven): What’s your name?
June (Kim Hunter): June.
Peter (David Niven): Yes June, I’m bailing out. I’m bailing out but there’s a catch, I’ve got no parachute.


Peter (David Niven): [over radio] Where were you born?
June (Kim Hunter): Boston.
Peter (David Niven): Mass.?
June (Kim Hunter): Yes.
Peter (David Niven): That’s a place to be born, history was made there. Are you in love with anybody? No, no don’t answer that.
June (Kim Hunter): I could love a man like you, Peter.
Peter (David Niven): I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving you.


Peter (David Niven): Don’t be upset about the parachute, I’ll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones. I hope it hasn’t gone all modern, I’d hate to have a prop instead of wings!


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): A weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad.


Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): One is starved for Technicolor up there.


Peter (David Niven): June, are you pretty?
June (Kim Hunter): Not bad.
Peter (David Niven): Can you hear me as well as I hear you?
June (Kim Hunter): Yes.
Peter (David Niven): You’ve got a good voice. You’ve got guts too. It’s funny — I’ve known dozens of girls: I’ve been in love with some of them, but an American girl whom I’ve never seen and who I never shall see will hear my last words. That’s funny. It’s rather sweet.
Peter (David Niven): June, if you’re around when they pick me up, turn your head away?


Peter (David Niven): [to dead radio operator] So long, Bob. I’ll see you in a minute. You’ll know what we wear by now — a prop or wings!


Peter (David Niven): Look at her.
Bob: Holy smoke! She looks like a nice girl.
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): She is a nice girl.
Bob: Hardly your type, Skip.
Peter (David Niven): I’ve fallen in love with her. Her accent is foreign, but it sounds sweet to me. We were born thousands of miles apart, but we were made for each other.


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): [talking to Peter] I’ve got bad news for you.
June (Kim Hunter): Then why the grin?
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): You’re going with me.
June (Kim Hunter): Where to?
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): [talking to both June and Peter] To my house, for two reasons, first I want to meet this chap next time he drops in and second I like a nice girl around the house and she only come to see me to borrow a book, and she’s a slow reader


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Ah, there’s June. She walks in beauty, like the night — Only she’s cycling and it’s daytime.


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Tell me, do you believe in the survival of human personality after death?
Peter (David Niven): I thought you said you read my verses.
[to June]
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Do you?
June (Kim Hunter): I don’t know, er, I’d never thought about it, do you?
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): I don’t know, I’ve thought about it too much.


Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): [On the Stairway to Heaven, passing by various statues representing important figures in history, points to a statue of Abraham Lincoln] What about him?
Peter (David Niven): Lincoln? No, it’s hardly fair to drag him in. I don’t believe he’d be prejudiced.
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): Plato. How would you like to be defended by Plato? Nobody knew more about reasoning than Plato.
Peter (David Niven): He was eighty-one when he died, he might be too old to think love important.
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): You think so? Anyhow, Plato had very elementary ideas about love.
Peter (David Niven): Besides, didn’t he quote Sophocles when somebody asked him if he was still able to appreciate a woman?
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): What did the old boy say?
Peter (David Niven): Well, he said, uh, “I’m only too glad to be rid of all that. It’s like escaping from bondage to a raving madman.”
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): [scoffs] These Greeks, cold as their marble. Now, if he had been French … Richelieu, for example, irresistible at eighty. How about Richelieu?
Peter (David Niven): No, I never liked him much in “The Three Musketeers”.


Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): [speaking with strong French accent] Your time was up. But they missed you because of your ridiculous English climate.


Chief Recorder: Don’t you know that any slip must be reported immediately?
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): I lost my head.
Chief Recorder: Not long in the service?
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): I joined in the so-called Second Germinal of the so-called glorious French Revolution.
Chief Recorder: I see. Natural death?
Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): I lost my head.


The Judge: Members of the jury, as Sir Walter Scott is always saying — In peace, Love tunes the shepherd’s reed; In war, he mounts the warrior’s steed; In halls, in gay attire is seen; In hamlets, dances on the green. Love rules the court, the camp, the grove, and men below, and saints above; For Love is heaven, and heaven is Love. Will you please consider your verdict.


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Sir, may I bring you up to date? We are living in the 20th century, not in the 18th.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): May I bring you up to date, sir? We are not alive at all.


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Milord, I submit that this court is concerned with the life and death of Peter Carter and not with past history or present plumbing.


Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Be careful, Doctor Reeves. In the whole Universe, nothing is stronger than The Law.
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): Yes, Mr. Farlan, nothing is stronger than The Law in the Universe, but on Earth nothing is stronger than Love.


Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Child, where were you born?
June (Kim Hunter): In Boston Sir.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Do you know this man?
June (Kim Hunter): I think so.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): You think so?
June (Kim Hunter): I only met him a few days ago.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): You hardly know him. How can you think you love him?
June (Kim Hunter): But I do love him.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Nonsense my child.
Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): I object. Council will withdraw the expression.
June (Kim Hunter): It’s all right Frank. he’s right. There’s no sense in love.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Wisdom still flowers in Boston.


Conductor 71 (Marius Goring): Ah, these English! What is the good of kissing a girl if she does not feel it?


Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Your smile is not unattractive, sir. Did you use it to enamor this young American lady?
Peter (David Niven): I love her sir.
Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey): Answer the question.
Peter (David Niven): Would you repeat the question? It, erm, had “enamored” in it.


Doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesy): The rights of the uncommon man must always be respected.


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


[last lines]
[waking up after operation]
Peter (David Niven): Hello.
June (Kim Hunter): Hello.
Peter (David Niven): We won.
June (Kim Hunter): I know darling.