Fragment #004: Michael Powell on a Title of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death is called Stairway to Heaven in the USA. This change of title seemed to us to illustrate a fundamental difference between the English and the American mind and outlook. We had been pleased with our title. I believe the suggestion was mine. I loved the old melodramatic phrase which crops up in every thriller written during the last century, in every European language: and I liked the play upon words, for in our film it really was a matter of life and death that was being discussed, so Emeric [Pressburger] and I looked a bit blank when the film was finished, and two young, excited New York lawyers, Arthur Krim and Bob Benjamin, who were determined to take over the film business and use our film as their spearhead, came rushing down from the projection room, into the studio and said to us: “Boys, we’ve got a wonderful title for your film.”

“We have a title already, Arthur.” (This was Emeric.) “A Matter of Life and Death, don’t you remember?”

But this was 1946. Arthur and Bob brushed question and statement aside. “You can’t have ‘Death’ in the title,” they screamed. “We’re going to market it as Stairway to Heaven! What do you think of that?”

What did we think of it? We had all of us survived a war with the greatest and most fanatical power in the world, and won it. In the last twelve years, sixteen million human lives had been sacrificed to overthrow one man and his lunatic ideas. The words “life and death” were no longer the great contradictions that they had been. They were just facts. Out of this enormous holocaust, Emeric and I were trying to create a comedy of titanic size and energy. Two worlds were fighting for one man’s life. It was indeed a matter of life and death. And now we were told that we couldn’t have “death” in the title.

I don’t recall that Emeric and I argued very much with Arthur and Bob. They loved our film and said so, and they were so proud of their inspiration and so sure we would be glad of this soapy title for our film. We had become rather anxious about Arthur Rank’s and John Davies’s promises and hope for world distribution, and it was exhilarating to know that these two young enthusiasts were going to start their career with our film. After all, there was a stairway in our film, a moving stairway, and it did lead to another world, even if it were not Heaven. Throughout the film, we were careful not to use that mighty word. And now these young Americans were juggling with it, as if it were a Hollywood musical.

Emeric made one last attempt to persuade them.

“Arthur, you say that no film with ‘death’ in the title has ever been a success, but what about the famous play which they made into a successful film also: Death Takes a Holiday?”

But Bob and Arthur were ready for him.

“That’s the very reason it was a success. Don’t you see, boys? Death takes a holiday – obviously there’s not going to be any death in the picture!”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London: William Heinemann, 1986

One thought on “Fragment #004: Michael Powell on a Title of Life and Death

  1. Interesting, thanks. I’m just getting into the Powell and Pressburger stuff, but saw this some years back on the BBC.

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