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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » A Matter Of Life And Death: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
A Matter Of Life And Death: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // PG // July 24, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 13, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

As their last of their collaborations during WWII, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven, 1946) lies right near the middle of their joint filmography. Though it begins as a straightforward war drama (albeit one whose intro is laced with science fiction), we're almost immediately made aware that all is not as it seems. When RAF squadron leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is forced to eject from his bomber after taking heavy damage, his mayday transmission to American radio operator June (Kim Hunter) is rightfully assumed to be the last. Miraculously, he survives the fall -- even with a badly damaged parachute -- and fools just about everyone but himself. Washing up on a beach near June's base, Peter assumes he's wandering through the afterlife...which he would have been, had heavenly messenger Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) not been lost in the thick English fog.

Thus begins the tale of a clerical error gone awry which, like Terry Gilliam's later Brazil, happens purely by accident and leads to fantastic consequences. Peter eventually meets Conductor 71 on several occasions, with the heavenly messenger stopping time to make sure their meetings are private. After an appeal, Peter is informed by "71" that he can stay alive for three days and prepare a case by choosing legal counsel from anyone who's already passed on to the afterlife. Not surprisingly, almost everyone in his life thinks Peter's hallucinating from the head injury -- and to the film's credit, we never get a clear answer either way. It's a clever concept that, in the wrong hands, would have fallen apart almost immediately.

Luckily, the outright silliness of certain scenes and plot elements is overshadowed (or perhaps justified?) by the film's rich Technicolor visuals, outstanding production design, and truly groundbreaking special effects that hold up perfectly well more than 70 years later. The late, great cinematographer Jack Cardiff is largely responsible for why A Matter of Life and Death looks so fantastic: not only is the film framed beautifully with excellent lighting, but his careful work allowed for the memorable shifts between full color and "black and white" -- officially listed as "Colour and Dye-Monochrome Processed in Technicolor" during the closing credits -- that blend so many sequences together seamlessly. Without these important touches, the fantasy world in A Matter of Life and Death might not carry as much of a visual impact.

Either way, the result is a captivating drama that nonetheless feels a little clunky at times. A Matter of Life and Death still holds up remarkably well overall, though: despite somewhat awkward pacing and the culture gap of its old-fashioned "stiff upper lip" mentality, there's still a sense of wonder created by its premise and supported by the strong visuals. Criterion pays tribute with this well-rounded Blu-ray, easily overtaking Sony's 2009 DVD with a sparkling new 4K-sourced restoration and a handful of enjoyable extras. It's a perfect package for die-hard fans and might tip the scales for those stuck on the fence.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Not surprisingly, this new 1080p transfer of A Matter of Life and Death, sourced from a new 4K restoration, is an eye-catching presentation that will certainly impress first-time viewers or those who haven't seen it in a decade or more. The outstanding and memorable Technicolor palette -- intercut with heavenly scenes in black and white, of course -- is bursting with rich color, and image detail is extremely robust during close-ups and mid-range shots. Black levels, texture, and contrast all outshine previous home video releases (as shown in a new restoration demo included on this Blu-ray as an extra) including Sony's 2009 DVD, and everything works together to give the visuals a smooth appearance without feeling overly processed. No digital imperfections, including excessive noise reduction, black crush, or compression artifacts, could be spotted along the way. Bottom line: Criterion's Blu-ray looks fantastic from start to finish, so fans will be pleased that this visually stylish production has gotten the extra spit and polish.

NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

As usual, Criterion plays it straight with a PCM 1.0 Master Audio track that preserves the film's original mono mix; like the video presentation, a few forgivable flaws remain (mostly some mild hiss during a few scenes, as well as a somewhat thin high end) but it's mostly great news here. Dialogue is typically crisp and precise throughout, with well-balanced music cues and background effects that rarely fight for attention. Optional English subtitles are included, but only during the main feature and not the extras.

Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate, with access to its timeline, chapters, and supplements. The disc is locked for Region A players only and comes packaged in a stocky keepcase with stylish (and appropriately colorful) double-sided artwork. The fold-out Booklet includes an essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek (The Village Voice, Time), production photos, and notes about the new restoration.

As expected for a Criterion debut, we're treated to a handful of new supplements and a few old ones too. The new-to-disc material leads off with a recent Interview featuring editor Thelma Schoonmaker, director Michael Powell's widow (9 minutes); this is a short but informative chat with topics that touch on Powell's personal connection to the film, British and American relations near the end of World War II, Jack Cardiff's cinematography, Emeric Pressburger's story and script, medical accuracy, and much more. Speaking of Powell, we also get a full-length 1986 episode of British documentary series The South Bank Show featuring the late director (55 minutes); directed by David Hinton and hosted by Melvyn Bragg, the director speaks at great length about his life in filmmaking and many clips are shown along the way.

A few visually-minded extras are also here, including a 1998 short film The Colour Merchant (10 minutes) featuring Life and Death cinematographer Jack Cardiff as he recalls his valuable contributions to the film. Incidentally, this short was directed by Craig McCall during the production of his 2010 film, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Next up is a new Special Effects Documentary (31 minutes) featuring film historian Craig Barron and visual-effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw; they discuss the groundbreaking effects at great length, their own work in the industry, and the film's production design by Alfred Junge. Finally, we get a short Restoration Demonstration (5 minutes) that includes a few comparison clips.

Carried over from Sony's 2009 DVD set is a feature-length Audio Commentary featuring film scholar Ian Christie, as well as a short but obviously passionate Interview with filmmaker Martin Scorsese (9 minutes). It's great that these older bonus features have gotten a second life, pun obviously intended.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death certainly has great moments, but the bulk of the enjoyment comes from its intriguing premise and groundbreaking special effects that remain impressive more than 70 years later. Other elements of the film either haven't aged well or might be lost in translation with American audiences, so your mileage may vary a great deal with this one. Criterion's new Blu-ray predictably swings for the fences, offering another outstanding A/V presentation and a thoughtful collection of appropriate extras that highlight all of its best moments. Die-hard fans should obviously grab this one immediately, while newcomers might want to stream it first. Recommended either way.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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