25: A Matter Of Life And Death

Martin Skidmore says: This has a great setup and it expands on it with imagination and extraordinary flair. It starts with a wonderful conversation between sexy aircraft coordinator Kim Hunter and doomed pilot David Niven. He’s about to crash and die – but the ‘angel’ (more or less) deputed to grab his soul wasn’t doing his job, and he miraculously survives – and wakes on the beach, very near the woman he had talked to. The angel is sent to get him, but he refuses. The woman is friends with a brilliant psychiatrist, played by the mighty Roger Livesey.

It’s a beautiful start, and the film from there on is packed with bravura scenes: the giant camera obscura, the frozen table tennis game, and most especially his trial in Heaven, played out in black and white (the real world is in colour) with countless spectators. It’s a magnificent set-piece, with hugely entertaining legal arguments, mostly defending Brits against Yanks, an extraordinary conceit at the end of WWII. It’s a film of boundless confidence, in its satirical script, its deft performance and sometimes outrageous direction from Michael Powell, funny and visually stunning. There are few films I love more.

Tom says: You can see this, if you like, as an ‘answer film’ to It’s A Wonderful Life. Of course I don’t know which was made first – but not only does AMOLAD flip the concept of IAWL (here the angel is sent to claim a soul, not save it), it also shows that you can be whimsical without being twee, or sentimental. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, a film that takes its supernatural trappings entirely seriously but never uses them as an excuse for homilies or mystical waffle. In fact in the hands of actors less capable than Niven and Livesey it might be a rather dry film – but the perfect casting sidesteps that possibility. Niven in particular is superb: he may have been a caricature actor, forever locked into the role of the Decent Chap, but when that role was this richly written there was nobody better.