David Niven is Peter Carter: a fighter pilot returning from a bombing run over Germany in May 1945. The plane's a goner so he had his crew bail out and he's left on the burning plane with his dead radio man Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "Theater of Blood"). Carter radios in to June (Kim Hunter): an American woman working for the RAF. June believes Carter is routinely radioing in until Carter admits he has no parachute (it was damaged in the air battle) and would rather jump to his death than burn alive on the plane. June is naturally stunned and upset and Carter (stiff upper lip and all that) actually tries to comfort her with his last words. During this brief conversation, the pair fall in love. Frankly, Kim Hunter is so wonderful in this scene that EVERYONE will fall in love with her instantly. Carter asks June about herself; where she's staying in England etc. As June frantically tries to reach him on the radio after he bids her farewell, Carter takes a moment to gather his courage and then drops out of the plane into the clouds below.
We next see the afterlife or heaven's waiting room where the slain radioman Bob Trubshawe is waiting for his wings. Heaven (although it is never explicitly called that) is filmed in black & white while the "real" world is in technicolor; an interesting and highly appropriate choice, I think. Bob and the heavenly "receptionist" are waiting for Carter to arrive; his time is up and he naturally should be up any minute. However, something is wrong and Carter never shows up. We next see (in colour again) Carter floating in the ocean. Carter awakes on an otherworldly-looking beach. Thinking he's dead, Carter strips off his outer flying gear and begins walking. First he sees a friendly black Lab and remarks that he was hoping there would be dogs in heaven. He then follows the sound of a reed flute being played and comes upon a naked boy sunning himself and tending some goats. Ridiculously, this scene was apparently cut from American prints of the film because the puritanical and sex-obsessed censors at the time could only view a scene with a man and a naked boy as sexual. Unbelieveable but true. Leave it to us Americans to look for filth in a scene of lyrical innocence. The scene is in fact leads us to think that perhaps this IS some otherworldly plane. In fact, this naked boy playing a reed flute tending goats evoked ancient Greece to me; there is also quite an ancient Greek-like flavour to the afterworld as well. Upon talking to the boy, Carter discovers that he is not dead but has landed in the exact place in England where June is staying. The boy points to a bicycling figure and it's June! The two realize who the other is, pledge their love to one another and embrace.
Sadly, it WAS Carter's time to die after all but, due to an error by a heavenly soul collector named Controller 71 (Marius Goring: the composer from "The Red Shoes") who couldn't find Carter in the dense English fog he jumped into. The afterlife powers-that-be send the dandified French Controller 71 (who had been guillotined by "one of" the French Revolutionary governments) down to earth to tell Carter his survival was all a mistake and he should come along with him to heaven. Carter refuses and protests that, since he has now fallen in love with June in the 20 hours since his non-death, he should be allowed to stay. Carter demands that Controller 71 return to heaven to state his case. A trial is set in the afterworld to judge Carter's case; Controller 71 informs Carter that the prosecutor in the case is an Englishman-hating American who was killed by the British in the American Revolution (played by Raymond Massey). Meanwhile back on earth (and in colour), June becomes worried that Carter has suffered a head injury and calls in her friend Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to have a look at him. The rest of the film concerns Carter's fight to stay on earth and the subsequent heavenly trial and outcome.
"A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH", like "A CANTERBURY TALE" is an extremely human and spiritual film without being religious or preachy. The writing and directing by Powell & Pressburger are exemplary as always and the aforementioned color/black & white photography by Jack Cardiff is fantastically otherworldly. Kim Hunter is superb and every man's dream while David Niven is particularly fine as well. One amazing scene happens when Controller 71 and some other deceased visitors come to consult with Carter; who happens to be on the operating table undergoing brain surgery. Whenever Controller 71 comes down to talk to Carter, time stops among the living. A worried June looks through a window into the operating theater as time stops. Before being taken up to heaven to give his testimony, Carter requests to be allowed to kiss the immobile June. What seems a cute little moment suddenly gets impact when we see a tear stream down David Niven's face as he kisses June. And even though she is frozen in time, a similar tear then falls from Kim Hunter's eye. Carter suggests that June's tear is evidence enough of their love and Controller 71 collects the tear on a rose. The whimsy of the "frozen in time" moment coupled with the enormously touching sincerity of Niven's tears and the lyrical device of June's tear on a rose petal sums up the feel of the film exactly. This is another superb Powell & Pressburger film which should be much more celebrated and well-known in this country. It's lyrical and magical, extremely clever and stylish and. . . I seem to keep using this word when describing Powell & Pressburger movies: human. And like "A Canterbury Tale" and "The Red Shoes", I highly recommend it.