Unlike the three-hour remake, Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest, 1998), which is useless and worthless, the original 80-minute Death Takes a Holiday, trim and compact yet immeasurably fuller, is strikingly romantic, spooky, delightful. Mitchell Leisen’s film is based on the English-language adaptation of a 1920s Italian play. Its centerpiece is a splendid, sensitive performance by Fredric March as Prince Sirki, the human form that “the vagabond of space” assumes as it insinuates itself into an aristocratic family headed by Duke Lambert (Guy Standing, at his best) for a brief holiday. On the third day Death will rise and depart—but not alone.
Certainly the film seems slight when compared with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), which deals more profoundly with humanity’s mortal anxieties; but Leisen’s Death, written by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman, is grand, spirited entertainment in the sparklingly sophisticated mold of Ernst Lubitsch’s thirties cinema, and the masked inspiration for Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), which substitutes an incognito princess for Death. (Norman Krasna’s wartime Princess O’Rourke midwived.) The film’s last movement is exhilarating, moving and, cleanly baring the work’s theatrical origins, uncommonly exacting. One leaves a viewing of Death sadder and wiser, more hopeful, and chilled.
We first see Death on the road, at night following and then passing through Lambert’s crowded open car, as a deep, cyclonic shadow—an amazing special effect. Back at the castle, in the garden, Grazia tells Corrado, her fiancé, Lambert’s son, “There’s something miraculous in the air.” She hesitates in approaching marriage; she loves Corrado but feels there’s something in life she must find first. The icy shadow touches her. Death, we learn, wonders why humans fear death.
Death yearns for a soul and, back on the job, resolves Grazia’s crisis and its own.
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