A Matter of Life and Death – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

I was happy to put together my first write-up about an Ingmar Bergman film, and now I’ve had the chance to write at some length about a terrific film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A Matter of Life and Death is finally debuting on The Criterion Collection Blu-ray, and it does not disappoint. Heralded as one of the best British films ever made, the 1946 fantasy-romance has had a significant impact on cinematic storytelling, influencing so many filmmakers in the decades since its original release. Now, everyone can have access to this restored feature that looks and sounds extraordinary and features an excellent set of supplemental material.



Set towards the end of WWII, an RAF pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), survives jumping out of his damaged plane, only to learn that he was “missed” in the process of his collection to be taken to the afterlife. Once this situation is made clear to Peter, he learns he must stand trial to defend his chance to remain among the living. During this time, Peter pursues his newfound love of an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter). Traveling back and forth between the Technicolor world of the living and the black-and-white afterlife, Peter discovers more about life than he may have ever expected.

I’ll say it right now – this film is spectacular. A Matter of Life and Death is a beautiful take on what it means to celebrate life and how to embrace varying ideas of what it means to have to consider what matters to you. The film is also very funny, romantic, ambitiously made, and highly watchable. In the hours since watching the movie, I’m ready to put it on again right now and finish this review later.

The film achieves such high regard because of what Powell and Pressburger were able to accomplish visually, without losing sight of respecting the actors who must be so heavily involved to make the story resonate. While going on this incredible journey with Peter, we get to see him be playful in his exploration of his current life status. There’s also the interactions taking place between colorful characters such as Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat who had lost his head to the guillotine during his lifetime, or Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey), a friend of June’s who finds himself fascinated by Peter’s state of mind.

Utilizing a series of camera tricks, visual effects, and more, there’s a fully realized vision of modern-day earth that is expressed through the brilliant use of color and an afterlife that has a modern feel while being shot in a stark black-and-white. The transitions between these two film color choices are pretty incredible to see today, given both the challenge of achieving the process and how natural it all ends up feeling. Among the many ingenious ways this film presents the afterlife’s interaction with the living, one of the more notable concepts is the giant stairway between worlds. It’s the sort of elaborate piece of production design that has all kinds of impacts on the story and how a viewer will remember this film.

All the more impressive, though not too surprising, is how Powell and Pressburger crafted a feature that still resonates today. While the very premise is interesting enough, there is real care to make this a film reflecting the attitude of the time and applying those feelings towards the dramatic aspects of the plotting. Yes, this is ultimately about Peter fully realizing and expressing his love for June, but the entire trial sequence has more going on. In a debate over his own life, Peter finds himself being helped by those who also see the value in life and does so by way of bringing a diverse cast on the side of the hero.  The back and forth that goes on here is good stuff, but the juxtaposition of specific imagery makes it all the more impactful, amplifying how much of a humanistic movie this is.

Watching the film in 2018, I also can’t help but admire other filmmakers more, knowing just how influential this film has been on them. From some directors such as Martin Scorsese, who has made it a life goal to keep movies like this preserved, to someone like Albert Brooks’ whose Defending Your Life clearly has inspiration from this classic, A Matter of Life and Death is a film that matters to many artists. Be it Jack Cardiff’s exquisite cinematography throughout, the memorable opening sequence or the fine handle on the tone of this whole experience, A Matter of Life and Death sits high as essential cinematic entertainment.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Details: This new digital restoration was created in 4K resolution by Sony Pictures Entertainment. The original 35mm three-strip Technicolor negatives were scanned at Cineric in New York on the facility’s proprietary 4K high-dynamic-range wet-gate film scanner. An earlier photochemical restoration, which was handled with participation of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, was used as a color reference.

While detailed more heavily in the accompanying leaflet, the black-and-white sequences were restored by way of utilizing one of the color negatives, the magenta record, as it had the best qualities for contrast and density and yielded a sharper and cleaner image than the two others would have. For what it’s worth, legendary editor/filmmaker Thelma Schoonmaker was a consultant on the entire restoration.

Clarity/Detail: This is one impressive 4K restoration. While there is still lots of concern over when The Criterion Collection will be moving to UHD releases, one can’t deny how great this presentation looks. Powell and Pressburger are at the top of the list when it comes to filmmakers that can truly express the awesome power of cinema through color (as well as black-and-white), so it’s fantastic to see so much pure detail in A Matter of Life and Death presented so clearly. Even while understanding how the special effects work at this point, the look of those sights hardly feels aged, as the admiration for them remains strong. This is a fantastic restoration.

Depth: A proper handle on character spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. Notably during the scenes where all the action is frozen around individual characters, and they still interact with the world around them.

Black Levels: Black levels are deep, with no sign of crush. It is sometimes quite striking, given the use of color-and-black and white when thinking of the different methods to capture both aspects of the feature. Still, this decade’s old film approaches this aspect of the transfer with no issue.

Color Reproduction: Amazing! The color reproduction for this film is basically perfect. Given the work that went into this restoration, I can’t imagine there being a better way to watch this film, and thankfully it is available for everyone at home. The splendid use of colors throughout means taking in even more of the detail present and really seeing just how rich this production is.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive. The actors all look great with this presentation, whether in color or not.

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a strong new transfer of this film, there is nothing to complain about here. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is spotless. No signs of imperfections to take away from this great transfer.



Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: As one should expect, there is only one audio track present, but there is not much to complain about. This is a clean and clear track with no real audible issues to speak of. There’s no distortion, the range is at an appropriate level, and the work done to keep everything so stable is quite impressive. I never felt like I wasn’t getting the impact I would expect for this sort of track.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sounds clean and clear.



As if the work on the restoration wasn’t enough, this disc is packed with great extras to round out this package. With a great commentary, multiple interviews, archival documentaries, and more, this is The Criterion Collection going all out for another seminal film.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary – Recorded in 2009 with film scholar Ian Christie, there’s a great level of information tackling a wide assortment of subjects.
  • Martin Scorsese (HD, 9:16) – Film in 2008, the acclaimed director discusses his fondness for Powell and Pressburger.
  • Thelma Schoonmaker (HD, 32:38) – Famed editor and widow of director Michael Powell, Schoonmaker goes over all of the great qualities of this feature in this newly-recorded interview.
  • The Colour Merchant (HD, 10:20) – This short documentary goes over the legacy of cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
  • Special Effects (HD, 31:18) – Given how we often don’t get great looks at the behind-the-scenes filmmaking techniques for older films restored for today, this great features has film historian Craig Baron and visual effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw discussing all the ways  A Matter of Life and Death accomplished its incredible visuals.
  • The South Bank Show: “Michael Powell” (SD, 54:59) – This archival documentary from 1986 is an excellent look at the career of Powell and Pressburger’s films, with Powell featured throughout, happy to discuss his work and how it evolved over the years.
  • Restoration Demonstration (HD, 4:39) – This visual demonstration shows the difference made in older versions of the film and the new 4K restoration.
  • PLUS – A color leaflet featuring an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.



Nothing should stop anyone from wanting to pick up this film. The concept of older movies not being able to register as well to a modern generation of folks is too wild for me to handle when it comes to an ambitious, funny, and engrossing film such as this. Not hurting at all is this spectacular technical presentation. A Matter of Life and Death looks and sounds fantastic, and also features a bevy of special features that are all pretty terrific. Among the many great releases coming from Criterion every year, this feels like required viewing.


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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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