The date: 2nd May 1945. The weather: a typical English pea-souper. The place: A Lancaster bomber somewhere over the English coast.
Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven [The Pink Panther]) is trying to bring his damaged bomber home. The rest of his crew have either died or bailed out. Carter doesn't have that option, as the only remaining parachute is shredded. During this, his last flight, he talks of life and love with a British-based American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter [Planet of the Apes]).
Naturally, Peter should have died in the jump, but instead he wakes up on a beach, completely bewildered. He survived because of an error by Conductor 71 (Marius Goring [The Scarlet Pimpernel]) who failed to find Peter in the English fog, and thus was unable to take him to "the Other world". Peter and June meet as she is cycling back from her night shift, and they fall in love.
Whilst they are out together, Conductor 71 appears, and stops time to explain the situation to Peter, and to take him to The Other World.
Peter refuses, and demands his day in court. Whilst Conductor 71 returns to put this to his superiors, June's friend Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey [The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp]) examines and diagnoses Peter as suffering from a progressive brain injury.
Are Peter's visions genuine, or merely a symptom?
Surgery is scheduled. Unfortunately, Reeves is killed in a motorcycle accident. On the upside, this then frees Reeves to plead Peter's case in the celestial courts, arguing that because of Conductor 71's oversight, Peter now has a commitment to June, who should not be made to suffer his loss a second time.
The court case in "The Other World" runs in parallel with the brain surgery with Raymond Massey [Arsenic and Old Lace] as American prosecutor Abraham Farley, who died in the American War of Independence and hates the British with a passion.
Ultimately, June is required to prove that she really loves Peter, and she does so by stepping unhesitatingly onto the Staircase to take his place. The surgery is a success, and Peter wins his case and the chance to remain on Earth with June.
A few of the cinematic points to note which make this film a standout in my opinion:
- Earth is in colour, whereas Conductor 71 laments "One is starved for Technicolor up there...."
- It is never stated whether Peter's visions are genuine - it is left for the viewer to decide. Pehaps if we found out the answer, it would turn out to be a question we'd wish had never been asked. However, the makers did their research - the medical condition is described accurately. to maintain the parallel, the surgeon and the celestial Judge are portrayed by the same actor.
- That staircase. Such a simple device, but so dramatic. Iconic, even.
- There are many other great visuals - looking down into the records office; The Camera Obscura with which the good doctor surveys his domain; the Coke machine; a tear captured on a rose; the Keep Out sign; the sheer surreality of a naked pipe-playing goatherd on the beach; stopping time in the middle of a game of table tennis (even the sound is interrupted for a moment). The list goes on.
- The dialogue is wonderful - although a tad overblown and perhaps a little cheesy by today's standards, remember this was a film made almost straight after World War II, with the specific intention of improving relations between Americans in the UK and the British public.Abraham Farlan: You claim you love her.
Peter: I do love her!
Abraham Farlan: Can you prove it?
Peter: Well give me time, sir. Fifty years will do.
Abraham Farlan: But can you prove it?
Peter: Well, can a starving man prove he's hungry except by eating?
Abraham Farlan: Would you die for her?
Peter: I would, but, er, I'd rather live.
In my opinion, this is a classic piece of filmmaking, and Powell & Pressburger were two of the top proponents of their day. In the context of its age and the reasons for it being made, it is faultless.
This has to be my all-time favourite film, and I cannot give it less than 10/10 on the IMDB scale, meaning 6/6 here. Go see it. Buy it. Vote for it on IMDB. It's shameful that there are only some 3400 votes for this gem - but it's been unavailable on Region 1 DVD for years. Blame Scorsese - he owns the distribution rights!