'Life and Death' is no 'Wonderful Life'
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I simply cannot understand why so many people consider 'A Matter of Life and Death' (aka Stairway to Heaven) a cinematic masterpiece. I mean there are some who have the audacity to compare this light weight, dated fantasy-comedy to the great 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Seriously, do you really feel that a one-dimensional character such as Peter Carter can be compared to the fascinating and multi-dimensional George Bailey? Compare how artfully the relationship between George and Mary develops in 'It's a Wonderful Life' to the superficiality of the immediate bond between Peter and June in 'Life and Death'. After the mistake in the afterlife allows Peter to survive the fall from his stricken aircraft, we're treated to the ridiculous coincidence of Peter landing on the beach right next to where June lives and wouldn't you know it, he runs in to her right away. Yes, I know this is a fantasy, but the way they just fall in love right on the spot is not only way over the top but also suggests a severe lack of character development in the screen writing department.
After the intriguing introduction in which an emissary (Marius Goring's 'Conductor 71') is sent down to earth to convince Peter Carter to return to the afterlife following a bureaucratic snafu, we're treated to the further interesting complication of Peter's refusal to leave earth coupled with an offer to appeal the order of return in front of a heavenly tribunal. But before we arrive at the climax, the big trial scene, there's a long stretch in the middle of the movie where little happens. I'm referring to all those repetitious scenes where June's neurologist pal, Dr. Reeves, is attending to Peter, attempting to analyze the root of his 'hallucinations'. Instead of employing non-invasive psychotherapeutic techniques, Reeves eventually puts Peter at risk by concluding that his hallucinations are due to a prior brain injury and orders immediate surgery. Kim Hunter as June has little to do except make like a statute every time Conductor 71 comes down to earth (you'll notice that Hunter has a great deal of difficulty standing still during all those freeze frame scenes).
It also seemed a bit coincidental, that Dr. Reeves, trained as a neurologist, suddenly morphs into a most articulate defense attorney following his awkward death after he's hit by an ambulance while driving his motorcycle.
'Life and Death' was supposedly written to mend British-American relations, severely strained during the war. The Brits apparently felt the Americans should have entered the war earlier and never could appreciate the privations the civilian population suffered due to bombing raids and rationing. Despite the replacement of the 'anti-British' jury with an All-American group who votes to extend Peter's time on earth, Reeves and Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey's first American victim of the Revolutionary War) exchange some rather nasty comments regarding each other country's weak points. Farlan's diatribe is basically the highlight of the trial scene and because of that, the Americans come off much as more mean-spirited than their British counterparts. Despite their attempt to mend Anglo-American relations, to my mind Director Powell and his co-writer, did more to harm such relations than help them. In the end, Peter Carter gets the American girl and not the other way around.
Despite all the clever cinematography by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, 'Life and Death' turns into a nice little piece of agitprop in its Third Act, unable to decide whether it's pro or anti-American. As for the fantasy element of the film, Peter's restoration is utterly predictable as the Massey straw man fires softballs inside the feel-good arena.