Analysis And Review Of Preston And Pressburger's ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’

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Powell and Pressburger’s acclaimed ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1943) was released during a period of hostility between American servicemen stationed in Britain before D-Day and the British public. Notably the film’s title was changed for American and audiences to “Stairway to Heaven”, a move, Roger Ebert points out, that was not favourable with Powell, feeling it “detracted from its point”. This particular sequence features the interaction between David Niven’s fighter commander Peter: in the supposed final moments of his life and the dutiful Boston born American telephone operator June played by Kim Hunter.

Upon ordering his crew to bail out of the wreckage Peter finds himself alone in the burning aircraft with no other option but to jump to his presumed death. However, within the latter half of the sequence (set in Heaven’s waiting room) we find this may not have been the case. With the establishing shot of the plane’s explosion the directors create a sense of unease for what the viewer is about to witness. The eye is immediately drawn to the saturation of colour employed under Jack Cardiff’s cinematography. Low key lighting is used in the following shot which pans to the destruction caused by the explosion. Here to highlight the impact, a pool of white light scarcely illuminates the rubble of the plane’s interior. Powell and Pressburger follow this with the garish close-up of the corpse of Robert Coote’s Bob. Striking contrast in colour is displayed here between the murky green surrounding rubble and the crew member’s scarlet stained handkerchief. Such contrast is reinforced further with the blazing orange inferno visible in the background of the shot.

Indeed, Cardiff’s use of intense colour is an integral part of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, with filming delayed due to the lack of colour film stock cameras available during this austere period. With one continuous sweep the camera pans to an extreme close-up of David Niven’s protagonist, Peter who from his very introduction is depicted as the quintessentially dashing Englishman, beginning conversation with June by quoting Andrew Marvell’s rallying ‘An Horatian Ode’: “Viewers are suddenly deterred from Peter’s suave persona however, as with the abrupt turn of the head we are exposed to his injury. Cardiff brilliantly contrasts the striking train of blood passing from Peter’s head with his pasty visage. Indeed, this is cleverly matched in colour with June’s lipstick in the following shot, as the audience is introduced to her character. The pair evidently have instant chemistry, a conscious decision made by Powell and Pressburger whose aim was to “write a story which will make the English and American’s love each other” 2 having been approached to write the film order to improve Anglo American relations which had become someone fractured at this stage of the war. Upon inspecting dialogue, the audience cannot help but be captivated by the counterbalance of Peter’s charm and June’s pragmatism tinged with remorse as she carries out her job. June in this instance is representative of women during the war, who played a crucial role at home undertaking jobs normally attributed to men. The choppy switch in location between the inferno and command centre matches the reverence of dialogue between the pair. Furthermore, the continuous pale red flash of the warning light adds to the sense of dread at what is about to take place. Directors employ an extreme close-up of first June, whose expression captures her desperation to attempt to save Peter mixed with helpless despair toward his inevitable fate. Indeed, the dim illumination of June’s face by the desk light aids establish tension. Upon cutting back to Peter this sombre moment is counterbalanced with his charm as he asks her “are you pretty?”

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The extreme close-up shot of Peter’s own face reveals his sense of pragmatic acceptance toward death. Disparity is evident here between Peter’s peaceful demeanour, and the doomsday setting emphasised by the continuous raging fire in the background. The intensity of the ensuing conversation between the pair has been scrutinised by critics of the period branding it “wooden” 2 However, this heightened emotional response I believe is attributed to the intensity of the situation. Within the pairs final moments of conversation directors employ Peter’s voice as a sound bridge as June is evidently struck with sorrowful regret for what may have been after their brief exchange. Upon Peter’s signing off the scene is eerily quiet, punctuated with the constant tick of the stop watch. As the narrative progresses the camera cuts to Peter’s jump from P. O. V perspective. Once again, the darkness of the abyss into which Peter descends (perhaps emulative of the finality of death) is juxtaposed with the vibrancy of flames. Continuity editing is employed after Peter’s descent with the camera moving seamlessly to a high angle shot of the sea. Here once again colour is utilised to allude to a sense of despair with the murky grey undertones and fog like haze which encapsulates the scene contrasted with the white lapping waves. Cardiff however manipulates this as gradually the colour builds in vibrancy, climaxing as the camera cuts to Peter’s listless body floating to shore. The subsequent long shot used here enhances the breadth of the ocean he must navigate for survival. Additionally, Alan Gray’s music in the minor key builds upon the sense of unease, emulative of the movement of the waves rising and falling. The crescendo chanting of the single word “wings” emphasises the stirring of uncertainty. Here the fade is employed as the symbolic image of the flock of wings is superimposed onto the screen. Interestingly the saturation of colour dims entirely with Heaven presented entirely monochromatically.

Powell and Pressburger subvert here the typical vibrant presentation of the other world observed in films of the time: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for example. Heaven is presented as rather sleek and clinical with the rounded, white parameters of the set. The shot which focuses on Bob waiting on Peter’s arrival is interpolated with the ascension of single filed soldiers dispersing into the room. Directors next move to the introduction of the Angel whose character is depicted as rather austere from her outset with immaculately maintained rigid appearance shown in the close-up shot. This is counterbalanced with the moment of humour as she quickly quips Bob’s smirk with her steely glare, enhanced by the rapid camera movement. A subsequent instance of light-heartedness comes in form of the shot of the band of soldiers filtering into the room. Here the rallying music creates a sense of camaraderie between the men. However social commentary on the hierarchy associated with the military is made in the midst of this, as the Angel retorts to an entitled soldier “We’re all the same here captain. ”

Here Powell and Pressburger enforce that neither class nor rank carry beyond the grave, and thus are only significant on Earth. From the ensuing dialogue between the Angel and Bob her air of superiority is very much evident. Despite his agitation at the unknown whereabouts of Peter she remains dominant and in control within conversation. Directors emphasise however the conflict of interests with the alternating high angle shot of Bob, against the lower shot of the Angel perhaps reflective of the patriarchal stance of dominance men exuded over women at the time. As Bob calls into question the system by which Heaven operates the camera pans to a long shot of the living records, emphasising simultaneously his insignificance after death and the reliability of the system. Light once again is masterfully utilised here. As the camera descends through the large circular holes crepuscular rays cascade through the dark. The scene concludes with the two shot of the newly arrived soldier conversing with the Angel. Here the young man is used as a commentator, using rhetorical question to enforce, finally that they are in fact in heaven.

In summary, Preston and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ both transcends expectation of British film of the time-through, for example the inversion of tropes associated with colour (in the monochromatic presentation of Heaven) and further in the striking employment of technicolour. Simultaneously however the film reflects events a sense of nationalism: emulating Britain during the period. This I believe is most evident in the stoic acceptance Peter adopts in face of death, the garish reality expressed through brilliant cinematography within the opening shots of the plane wreckage and finally June’s role as telephone operator – a real occupation held by women of the time.

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