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Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

The universe. War is raging over Europe. Inside a burning aeroplane, Peter Carter radios his last message, which is picked up by an American WAC, June. Peter explains to June that his plane is critically damaged and his crew dead or bailed out. The only remaining parachute is torn to ribbons. Giving the distraught June a last message for his mother, Peter tells her that he would prefer to jump rather than die in flames.

In the other world, Peter's wireless operator, Bob Trubshaw, awaits the arrival of his friend. A number of airmen arrive, including the crew of an American Flying Fortress, but there is no sign of Peter. An officer angel assures Bob that mistakes are very rare.

Peter wakes on a beach and believes he is in heaven. He comes across a young goatherd who directs him to the aerodrome. He catches sight of June on her bicycle. They recognise one another. In the other world, the Chief Recorder summons Conductor 71, a French aristocrat executed during the Revolution, who explains that he lost Peter in the fog. The Conductor is despatched to Earth to make amends. He finds Peter and June picnicking in the woods, and stops time in order to talk to Peter. Peter argues that, having fallen in love, his circumstances have changed and he should be allowed to remain. The Conductor agrees to seek further instructions. He leaves and time starts again. Peter suffers a terrible headache and recounts his experience to June.

Concerned, June calls on her friend Dr Reeves, who agrees to meet Peter. After questioning Peter, who he identifies as a promising poet, Reeves invites him to stay at his home for observation. There, Peter receives another visit from Conductor 71, who tells him that he has been granted a High Court appeal, but that the prosecuting counsel will be Abraham Farlan, the first American killed in the War of Independence. After he has left, Peter recounts his experience to Reeves. Concerned that Peter's headaches are becoming more severe, Reeves travels on his motorbike to the Army Hospital, where he tells Dr McEwen that an operation that night is essential.

Peter and Conductor 71 sit on the stairway to the other world, discussing a suitable defence representative for his trial. The conductor suggests a number of great minds from history, before Peter realises that the stairway is moving and runs down. On Earth, Reeves and June await the ambulence, which is delayed in a storm. The telephone has been cut off and Dr Reeves goes ahead on his motorcycle. Swerving to avoid the oncoming ambulance he crashes and is killed.

Peter travels in the ambulance with June and learns of Reeves' death. They arrive at the hospital and Peter is wheeled into the operating theatre. Huge crowds in the other world gather for the trial. Reeves is met by Conductor 71 and learns that Peter has chosen him to be his defending counsel. Reeves asks to see his client, taking Bob Trubshaw with him. The operation stands still. Peter, Bob, Reeves and Conductor 71 gather round June (frozen in time) and bemoan their lack of evidence. Peter kisses June and Conductor 71 collects their evidence - a tear - on a rose. The trial begins, attended by peoples of all nations and times. Abraham Farlan opens the case for the prosecution. He emphasises the gulf between America and Britain, implying the impossibility of a serious romance between June and Peter. A cricket radio broadcast is offered as evidence of the sorry state of Britain in 1945. Reeves retaliates by playing pop music broadcast on American radio.

As the operation continues, Farlan introduces the jury, which is made up of former opponents of Britain in wartime. Reeves calls for a new jury, made up of peoples of the world now calling themselves American. The Court adjourns while Judge, jury and all concerned descend the stairway to Earth, where they summon Peter and June. Dr Reeves calls on June to and take Peter's place in the other world. Peter attempts to stop her but is restrained by the court. June tearfully mounts the staircase. Farlan concedes that the two are in love and the case is won. Peter is allotted a new date of death. The operation a success, Peter wakes in bed, with June by his side.