In Living Colour: A Matter of Life and Death

In the opening scene of Margery Allingham’s brilliant novel The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) a young woman stands on a railway platform, wondering whether she is about to re-encounter her first love, who is assumed dead in action. The narrator sets the scene with a comparison between the bright future for which the young Meg desperately yearns and the dark wartime past which she now longs to put behind her:  “it was as though the war years had peeped out at them suddenly and the coloured clothes all round them in the fog had been washed over briefly with khaki.” Comparisons between drab khaki-greys and bold, bright colours abound in the Tiger in the Smoke. While a thick, enveloping fog hangs over London, casting a permanent funereal pall, the novel’s characters continually dream of escaping from Britain’s monochrome landscape into a world of vivid hues, from the bold, aspirational garments that Meg creates in her work as a fashion designer, to the future of financial security and ease the shabby criminal gang imagine for themselves, which they picture as a treasure-filled cave, shining out “in glorious Technicolor.”

Matching shades in glorious Technicolor. George Eastman Museum.

In setting London fog and glorious Technicolor against each other in 1952, Allingham was drawing on what had become, by then, a well-established British chromatic convention. This contrast between the deathly greys of the 1940s and a vivid, colourful, post-war future, had perhaps been best articulated, a few years earlier, in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946).In one of the film’s early scenes,Marius Goring, in the deliciously high-camp role of Conductor 71, loses Peter Carter, the airman he’d been commissioned to conduct to the world of the dead, in the thick fog that hangs over the English Channel, “a real peasouper.” Instructed by officials in the monochrome afterlife to finish the job and collect his charge, he dutifully returns to earth. As he exits the hereafter, the film’s velvety greyscale tones recede, and the screen awakens into living colour as the camera pans across a grove of vibrant rhododendrons, blooming in bold magentas, pinks and reds. Goring tiptoes happily through the verdant scene and glances, with regret, back toward the drab other world. “One is starved,” he sighs wistfully, “for Technicolor up there.” 

“starved for Technicolor up there”

When, during the 1946 Royal Command Performance of A Matter of Life and Death, the British audience heard this line, they all laughed uproariously. What did their collective laughter suggest? Perhaps in their laughter was contained the weary self-recognition of a post-war populace who, like Goring, also felt they had been starved, in war’s grey world, for a little Technicolor. Perhaps they were grateful to have survived the dark years of the early ‘40s, and now yearned for the colourful shared future which is fought for, and eventually won, by the film’s two romantic protagonists, Peter and June.  Or possibly they found Goring’s knowing, lighthearted performance just as amusing as it was intended to be. But perhaps most of all, the audience’s laughter suggested that Technicolor—a specific and highly specialised cinematographic process—had become, in post-war Britain, cultural shorthand for the idea of life and colour itself. 

Technicolor 3 strip camera. George Eastman Museum.

But what exactly was Technicolor and why might A Matter of Life and Death’s British audience identify with it so strongly? In the 1910s and 20s, Hollywood was awash with the competing hues of the chromatic technologies that had been developed by several different photographic companies. By the 1930s, however, Technicolor had firmly established its own industry dominance by virtue of the innovative three-strip process that had been perfected by Herbert Kalmus and his colleagues. 

Jack Cardiff and Geoffrey Unsworth on set with the technicolor camera in its blimp

This process required the skilled operation of a gigantic camera, running three films simultaneously, which was fitted with a delicate (and costly) prism that filtered light into the different colour components of red, green and blue. During a Technicolor shoot, colour information was separated and recorded on the different strips of film and these three records were then combined for processing in a gelatin-relief matrix, which was subsequently dyed with the complementary colours of cyan, magenta and yellow—the familiar CMY of CMYK subtractive printing. In that process, the K, of course, stands for the monochrome Key, which, in Technicolor processing, was used to enhance the definition and contrast of the final cinematic film. 

Illustration of Technicolor prism and 3 strip process. George Eastman museum.

The Technicolor dye imbibition system was later compared by its British manager, Bernard Happé, to the printing of brightly coloured textiles, and the comparison is not a bad one to have in mind when visualising the process: though Technicolor film and multi-coloured printed cloth are very different media, both rely on essentially similar technologies of blocks, overlays, dye-take up, and the careful management of colour saturation and contrast. Technicolor films were not easy to produce: the three-strip process was complex and technical; the cameras were notoriously noisy (and had to be caged during production in huge “blimps” to deaden their incessant sound); and the bright lighting required when filming often made sets unbearably hot for actors and production crews alike. But no one could argue with Technicolor’s unparalleled results, nor with its effect on cinema audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, who loved the rich, bold hues and startling chromatic effects of the films that were produced with the innovative three-strip process. 

Technicolor dye imbibition machine. George Eastman Museum

The technology and equipment required to shoot and develop three-strip Technicolor film was very specialised, and the work involved was highly skilled. All of these skills, processes and equipment were the property of the Technicolor Corporation, which, in 1936 had established a plant outside London specifically to support the British film industry. So, when a British production company, like Powell and Pressburger’s The Archers, set out to make a Technicolor film, they purchased a whole package which included the rental of Technicolor cameras (of which there were just four in the UK); the supply of Technicolor film stock and dyes; the labour of trained camera operators; skilled processing in Technicolor’s Middlesex laboratories (which, during the 1940s were mostly staffed by British women), and the professional help of Technicolor’s own Color Advisory Service, headed up by the redoubtable Natalie Kalmus (whose presence in an industry dominated by ambitious, creative men made her the focus of a particularly raw kind of misogyny). Rationing, and shortages of film stock, chemicals, and trained personnel made planning a British Technicolor film in war time well-nigh impossible. But Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had insisted upon Technicolor for A Matter of Life and Death, and they were prepared to wait to get it. Funded by J Arthur Rank and the Ministry of Information (who had specifically commissioned a cinematic spectacle from The Archers to promote and celebrate Anglo-American relations, “full of colour and larger than life”, the project finally got the green light as the war drew to a close in 1945. 

June and Peter

Colour was, as Michael Powell described it, an integral “part of the story,” that Emeric Pressburger had devised of a British airman whose coup de foudre for an American radio operator enables him to cheat the violent death for which he was intended, and who must (like many war survivors) resolve his guilt at not having died. “We need Technicolor” Pressburger had told Powell, when explaining his idea of shooting the world of love and desire in living colour, and the hereafter in black and white. Peter did not want to escape to Oz, nor to ascend to any sort of heaven, spiritual or figurative: rather, like many of his fellow war-weary Britons, he wanted to return to palpable, colourful, material life. Thus, in the palettes of reality and fantasy, the worldly and the otherworldly, Pressburger’s determinedly secular narrative intentionally bucked what was, by then, accepted cinematic convention.  Pressburger and Powell knew that for their film to make its point about the hopeful, vivid post-war future that the two lovers represent, it had to create a strong visual impact in the contrast between death’s grim monochrome and the chromatic variety of life. Or, as Powell put it, to “play with Technicolor in a way that no one had before.”

To realise this vision, colour expertise was needed. Jack Cardiff had made a name for himself in the early 1940s producing instructional, promotional, and commercial short films and had become something of a favourite at Technicolor for his painterly eye and his understanding of colour processes whose creative limits he often enjoyed testing in his camerawork. His personal take on colour was often highly inventive: in Queen Cotton (1941)  for example, Cardiff played on a deft visual association between the printing of textiles and the processes of producing Technicolor film through an expertly shot and edited sequence in which bales of plain white cotton are brought to life with bold floral motifs and brightly coloured printed overlays. 

(watch from around 8:15 for the printing sequence!)

The following year, Cardiff produced another promotional film This is Colour (1942) which celebrated improvements in ICI’s synthetic dyes as heralding “a new golden age of colour” and ended with the instruction to “let all the colours dance,” a challenge which he and his camera embraced with gusto, filling the screen with swirling washes of abstract colour and startlingly vivid hues. Michael Powell described This is Colour as “a brilliant little film, with stunning colour effects,” and, keen for A Matter of Life and Death to take advantage of Cardiff’s chromatic brilliance, asked him to be the film’s director of photography.  

a wash of purple and fuschia fills the screen as Peter succumbs to anaesthetic during A Matter of Life and Death’s surgery scene

Cardiff immediately sat down with Powell and Alfred Junge (who headed up The Archers’ production and set design) to discuss how to visually render A Matter of Life and Death’s two worlds, “the world we know, and another, existing only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war”, as the film’s opening sequence puts it. This was important to establish early on, because filming in black and white involved completely different equipment and processes to doing so in Technicolor, and the team would need to consider how to manage the cinematic transitions between the two worlds so that they did not appear too jarring. Earlier productions had found different solutions to this problem. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, the famous scene in which Judy Garland opens a black-and-white door, and steps out into the brilliantly coloured Munchkinland, was effected by the creation of a sepia painted set complete with sepia-attired Dorothy body double, whose appearance perfectly matched the tone of the film stock that was used to shoot Oz’s opening and closing sequences. While the majority of Oz was shot in Technicolor, and only framed end-to-end in sepia, A Matter of Life and Death involved much more back and forth, with an almost equal number of scenes shot in the different colour and monochrome “worlds” and a range of visual motifs that had to appear equally effectively in both. The most important of these motifs was the delicate pink rose, complete with earthly, dewy tears, which bore testimony of June’s love for Peter back to his tribunal in the monochrome afterlife. 

“. . . colour fading from a rose”

Cardiff was confident he could create the magical “effect of colour fading from a rose and flooding back into it, without cutting away” by avoiding filming in black and white entirely, and using Technicolor processes throughout:

“Technicolor can do that. Technicolor can do the whole job. We could shoot the Other World not in black and white, but in three strip Technicolor, and print it without the dyes.” 

“Technicolor can do the whole job”

What Cardiff was essentially suggesting was that, during the film’s processing in the Technicolor labs, the scenes in the other world would be printed in CMYK, but with no C, M or Y.  Without the subtractive coloured dyes, only the monochrome key of the cinematic image would appear when the three strips were combined. Powell and Junge were excited by Cardiff’s nifty solution, but wondered how Technicolor film without the CMY colour would appear on screen. When Cardiff described the effect of the monochrome key as “sort of pearly,” Powell was utterly delighted: “Did you hear that, Alfred? Open wide them pearly gates!” 

Frank addresses the assembly behind Junge’s pearly gates

Certainly, the monochrome sequences shot behind the pearly gates are just as stunning and arresting as the film’s Technicolor scenes.  Junge’s afterlife was a modernist masterpiece on a truly grand scale, from the colossal amphitheatre in which Peter’s trial takes place (a sort of cross between the ancient Icelandic Alþing and the then recently established United Nations) to the gigantic engine-driven escalator connecting the two worlds (which was familiarly known on set as Ethel). 

“Ethel”
Peter and Conductor 71 on the staircase

Jack Cardiff lit Junge’s huge sets at Denham brilliantly, developing creative cinematic transitions between his own colour effects, Junge’s preparatory design sketches, and live action sequences. Powell, meanwhile, lent the design of the monochrome world his own personal witty touches, such as the Coca Cola vending machine he insisted on placing for the benefit of American airmen in the arrival lounge. The team also found inventive ways for the forms and structures of the monochrome and Technicolor worlds to visually echo one another, such as the portal through which Kathleen Byron and Robert Coote gaze down upon the work of the clerks filing the records of the war’s endless dead, whose flattened disc-like, circular form is then reflected back on earth, in the camera obscura, operated by Peter’s doctor and counsel, Frank Reeves.

One of the truly magical effects of a camera obscura is, of course, that it preserves and projects its images in full colour, not in black and white. The wonderful scene in which Frank surveys his village kingdom with the help of this simple piece of optical technology and an upturned garden table powerfully suggests the life to which his friend Peter clings: it is a life that’s completely ordinary and quotidian, yet also full of colour and wonder. 

June and Frank at the camera obscura

From the pale mauve of the wisteria which conveniently frames the doctor’s doorway to the soft shades of his projected image of an English village on an summer’s morning—all lush green foliage, warm, worn red roofs, and airy, pale blue sky—this scene is a great illustration of the “quieter” Technicolor palette that 1940s critics had come to admire as typical of British films like Blithe Spirit (1945) (in which a mauve wisteria features similarly prominently).

 It’s also an interesting example of how Michael Powell, evidently revelling in the creative potential of filming in colour, went out of his way to use particular repeating hues within his mise-en-scène. Roger Livesey had grown a beard for his role as Frank Reeves, and when Powell saw that the beard had turned out to be a golden reddish colour, he found the perfect objects to match this shade within the scene. Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, obligingly joined Livesey at the camera obscura, providing pops of shiny, reddish gold which perfectly echoed the rich hues of Livesey’s beard. 

Erik, Spangle, and Michael Powell

Cardiff was clearly enjoying the colourful challenges of A Matter of Life and Death just as much as its director, introducing a range of innovative chromatic effects into the film’s Technicolor palette from the swirling fuschias and purples that fill the screen as Peter descends into unconsciousness during surgery, to the way the flashing lights of June’s signal station echo the flames of Peter’s burning Lancaster bomber in the film’s tense and emotive opening sequence.

“I’m bailing out”

 Cardiff’s cinematography certainly made colour “a part of the story” as Pressburger and Powell had wanted. For example, in the scene in which conductor 71 stops time in the middle of Frank and June’s game of ping pong, Cardiff adjusted the rich Technicolor tones with the use of a lemon-coloured lens filter to enhance the viewer’s feeling of detachment and unreality. 

the “unreal” palette of Peter’s disordered imagination following the ping-pong scene

Everyone involved in A Matter of Life and Death seemed to recall, with great fondness, the day on which the film’s early sequences were shot among the dunes of North Devon. 

Perhaps only a knitter would notice that, in this photograph, Michael Powell appears to be wearing the same shawl-collared sweater as Leslie Howard in the 49th Parallel (see images in this post). I was thrilled to find a reference to Powell lending Howard his sweater during filming, which confirmed they are, indeed, one and the same garment!

Powell described it as a “pearly” August morning, and the atmospheric colours he and Cardiff created in this scene are as soft and muted as the waving marram grass. David Niven rises uncertainly out of the sea and steps across the sand into a pastel pastoral, where a naked boy serenades his herd of goats in a tableau “like something out of Theocritus,” as Powell put it.

“where do I report?”

 Is this the afterlife? No, it’s real life, and yes, the colours of material reality are this palpable, and this beautiful. There is a bristling, humming, creative energy in everything about these opening scenes, and yet the on-screen palette is really just that of an ordinary day: the yellow sandwort in the dunes, Niven’s slate-hued flying suit, goats of white and russet, and the bright red and blue of the small flag that waves, in the wind, on the handlebars of June’s bicycle as she speeds across the sands to find the love she thought she’d lost.  Colour is life, and life is colour. 

“you’re June!”

Many of the cast and crew involved in A Matter of Life and Death (including David Niven) had very recently been demobbed, and if the film’s story concerned two young people who wished to create a bright and vivid future together and make the most of the colourful lives they had been granted, then this was a sentiment that was evidently shared by the team involved in making the film as well. 

Reflecting on their collective mood at the party that followed the film’s Royal Command Performance in 1946,  Powell noted “a general feeling that we had come through the war by a miracle and that great things were expected of us.” They’d achieved one of those great things, surely, in the glorious, distinctive, living Technicolor of A Matter of Life and Death. 

A Matter of Life and Death is one of my favourite films, and it’s nice to have an opportunity to write about it here! If you are new to the film, beware of old prints with the US title Stairway to Heaven, which include some unforgivable cuts.

Further reading

Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)

Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour: A Life in Movies (1997)

Ian Christie, A Matter of Life and Death (BFI Film Classics) (2019)

Kevin MacDonald, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994)

Lynda Nead, The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (2017)

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Sarah Street, Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955 (2012)