For Reel

Heaven Can Wait (1943)
February 5, 2016, 8:03 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4.5 Stars
Heaven Can WaitHeaven Can Wait
plays as both a typical confectionary delight from director Ernst Lubitsch and something more obscure and mysterious. The bookending sequence is undeniably memorable, wherein recently deceased Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) resigns himself to a fate in Hell, recounting his life story to a man known simply as His Excellency (Laird Cregar). There’s a profundity in Van Cleve’s resignation–he is in good humor about his new endeavor, utterly convinced of his fate due to his unending shame. If these sequences feel dreamlike in both the narrative content and in the magnificently spacious art deco environment, so too does the rest of the film, which travels through decades in a series of flashbacks. Screenwriter Sam Raphaelson’s script brilliantly deals with ellipses in time–often, years will have passed off-screen, and only through conversation do we learn of a significant character’s passing. Lubitsch’s most profound illustration of this transience is the revealed fate of Martha (Gene Tierney), told in voice-over as the two life-long lovers dance in a ballroom to themselves. For a film that deals consistently with death and even a sense of self-hatred (Van Cleve’s shame being so severe he literally volunteers himself to damnation), it is strangely reassuring and beautiful in the way that it details the life of a more-or-less ordinary man who lived purely for pleasure without doing anything of much substance. It is Hollywood’s only biopic without pretension–the “big” moments don’t play as such because they mark a historical turning point, but because they play as the defining resonances of a life fully lived.

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