Written and directed by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger
Let's face it, the older a movie is, the less that's expected out of its special effects. You may see the zipper on the monster, but if the costume's good, you'll give it a pass. You may be able to tell that the sweeping city is a matte painting, but the sheer scope of it can still impress. While A Matter of Life and Death has a little more going for it than just its special effects, they shine out over the rest of the movie.
Peter Carter (David Niven) is a pilot in World War II whose plane gets shot down. He's meant to die and go to heaven. However, the angel who's supposed to take him there, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), can't find him in the English fog. And by the time he actually finds Peter, Peter has fallen in love with June (Kim Hunter), and now that love may be the only thing that can keep him from going to heaven.
In an interesting stylistic choice, real life is portrayed in Technicolor, while heaven is in black-and-white. You'd think the majesty of heaven would've been portrayed as more colorful than real life, but then, this is a film about wanting to stay alive, making real life look far more appealing (71 even snarks when he goes to Earth for the first time, “I missed Technicolor”). Instead, heaven is dream-like, almost surreal, seeming to stretch on forever. It's done with simple and obvious matte paintings (in one scene panning down a building, you can even see the seam), and yet it works. The zoom-outs to endless environments are impressive. The climactic courtroom scene seems to have a cast of thousands watching over it. Even simpler special effects on Earth are incredible for 1946. When everybody walks through a door while time is stopped, the effect not only works, but makes you wonder how they did it.
Of course, this should not be mistaken for simply a pretty movie. The plot here is fascinating. The ticking clock as Peter has to prepare for the trial for his life works well, especially as he desperately looks for the lawyer who can defend him, being able to choose from anybody from all of history. And the trial scene itself is suspenseful, although it starts to veer a bit into a battle between the English and the English-hating Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first American who got killed in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. It makes sense as the movie was meant as propaganda to show how the English and Americans should work together, but it makes the movie's main plot get pushed aside for a while. The scene is interesting to watch, but you can't help but wonder what happened to Peter in the middle of it.
And then there's the movie's big problem: the romance is too sudden. This may easily be values dissonance, a case of something that would've been acceptable in the 40s but not in 2014. Regardless, it's a little ridiculous to watch Peter come up to the woman he talked to on the radio before he died, say he loves her and kiss her, and...they're in love now! And their romance never becomes more convincing than that, you just have to go with it. This can easily be a deal-breaker for people who want their romance plots to make sense. If you're willing to ignore it and just imagine there's a bunch of off-screen stuff that happened, the movie will probably work better.
Even with that significant misstep, A Matter of Life and Death has great visuals and a tense story, with fine performances by Niven, Hunter and Goring that keep it all together.