Michael Powellís and Emeric Pressburgerís A Matter of Life and Death arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Coming from a new 4K restoration performed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment it is presented here on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The original 35mm 3-strip Technicolor negatives were the source for the new restoration.
The reds can be a bit intense, giving skin tones a heavier pinkish/red hue than I would expect, but looking past that I still have to say itís a remarkable presentation for a (mostly) Technicolor film. Despite those reds the colours are just beautiful to look at, saturated marvelously (those blue skies looking particularly striking) but never losing that wonderful Technicolor look. Colours never come off washed out, separation is never an issue, and the black levels all manage to look wonderful. The film has a number of black-and-white sequences and these too look spectacular, with excellent contrast and wonderful grayscale. Shots that changes from black-and-white to colour (through a rather impressive trick that is covered in the special features) also translate beautifully here.
But even more impressive is just the wonderful condition this is in. The included notes go into a substantial of detail on the work that has gone into this restoration, going over all of the issues with the source, from general damage to shrinkage. Damage has been completely obliterated, and I donít recall a single mark ever showing up, and if there was shrinkage there is no evidence of it here. The restoration demonstration also shows how the film showed severe pulsing and flickering but there is no sign of any of that now. None. The picture is pretty pristine and with an incredibly strong encode to match the end product looks stunning. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The film was previously released on DVD in North America by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, presented in a set that also included Age of Consent. That edition also contained a couple of special features specific to A Matter of Life and Death, all of which Criterion has included here, along with a number of new ones.
Carried over from that set is a 9-minute introduction by director Martin Scorsese, who talks about the impact this film and other films by Powell and Pressburger have had on him, while also mentioning the restoration efforts that are going into their films. This is then followed by the same audio commentary featuring historian Ian Christie. Itís a very scholarly track that can come off a bit dry, especially when heís looking at its structure and look, but is still full of some fascinating details about the production. Not only does he cover the particulars behind the effects and set design, he also explains the rather lengthy production history behind it, which started midway through WWII as a propaganda piece, working as an attempt to build better relations between the U.S. and Great Britain after they had become strained. I confess to having found the filmís last act a bit odd in its shift of focus, though these details (which I was completely oblivious to before I listened to this track) and the context Christie offers helps clarify all of this. The track is fine and worth a listen, even if it can be dry. But I found the mix a bit odd: at times the volume seems to go up and down, where Christieís voice will drown out a bit and then pick up. I tried it on a couple of players and it did the same thing on each. I havenít listened to the Sony discís commentary but Iím guessing it was probably recorded like this.
After these two features Criterion then includes their own new material. First is a 32-minute interview with Powellís widow Thelma Schoonmaker, offering her own thoughts on the film and what the film meant to her late husband. It is a favourite of hers (and she does get emotional during the interview) and she talks about the filmís wonderful effects, the details Powell put into it, its fantasy element, and the multiple ways the film can be read. She also gets into its relevance today, thanks primarily to its last act, and how people still respond warmly to the film.
Next are a couple of features that go over the filmís look and effects. The Colour Merchant is a short 10-minute film made in 1998 by Craig McCall (made from footage he had shot over a 10-year period that would eventually lead to his 2010 film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff) featuring cinematographer Jack Cardiff talking about his first feature film as a cinematographer (A Matter of Life and Death) and the use of both black-and-white and colour film stock. He even explains how the impressive black-and-white to colour transitions were pulled off. This is then followed by a 31-minute video about the filmís special effects featuring Criterion regular Craig Barron and visual effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw. The two cover the effects work, using set photographs and some visual aids to show how the still remarkable special effects were pulled off. There is also lengthy discussion about the art behind matte painting, Barron referencing his own work as well. Barron also talks about meeting Powell while working on The Empire Strikes Back, the filmmaker visiting Industrial Light and Magic to see the then-current state of special effects, which he wanted to use for his project (that he unfortunately never got to make) A Wizard of the Earthsea. Like Barronís other contributions for Criterion it is another priceless addition.
After this is a full 55-minute 1986 episode of The South Bank Show, offering a reflection on his life and work along with a look at his recent rediscovery by cinephiles. Its set-up is interesting, featuring Powell literally walking you through his life (the man does some humorously dry reenactments throughout) with focus on some of his more notable works (the career killing Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, and some others), as well as the propaganda films he worked on during the war. Iím rather surprised Criterion hasnít included this feature on any of their previous Powell/Pressburger titles as itís probably one of the better introductions Iíve come across to the filmmakerís work.
Criterion then closes the disc off with a restoration demonstration offering some before-and-after and split-screen comparisons. It showcases a lot of fixes (like severe pulsing and fluctuations that have been stabilized) but also makes those reds more prominent. The release then finally includes an insert, featuring an essay written by Stephanie Zacharek
Not to give off the idea I did not care for the film (it really is a wonderful film) but the features really did manage to get me to look at the film a little differently than I have previously and even appreciate it far more, a rather big feat since I was already charmed by the film. Itís a strong set of features and worth the effort to get through. 9/10