Mayhem Takes a Holiday

Earlier this week, TV station NY1 reported that

“The New York City Police Department says not a single murder, shooting, stabbing or slashing was reported in the five boroughs on Monday. . . .Police officials could not say when they last saw a similar crime-free streak.”

Not to be glib about this good news, but hearing it I was reminded of the terrific 1934 film, “Death Takes a Holiday,” directed by Mitchell Leisen and with Frederic March cast as the figure of Death who pays an incognito visit to the human realm for a weekend, during which he becomes the house guest of a wealthy man and falls in love with his beautiful daughter. Over these days, it emerges in radio news bulletins that people have simply stopped dying. The usual mayhem–shipwrecks, car wrecks, personal vendettas–have unaccountably stopped leading  to the demise of even a single human being. As the weekend ebbs, the wealthy man realizes just who his strange guest is and it dawns on him that the romance with his daughter will inevitably lead to her being taken from him when Death returns to his spectral realm. As the engrossing plot unfolds, the older man pleads with Death to spare her and take him instead, and events spiral to a dramatic climax.

There is a small but sturdy sub-genre of films that personify Death. Among these are Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” with Max Von Sydow costumed as a black-clad knight who plays chess against Death, hoping to forestall his inevitable demise for as long as their match continues. The black & white cinematography imbues this 1957 classic with unforgettable mood and atmosphere.

Another film of this sort that I admire is A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (I keep a link to an archive/fan site for this titanic duo on my personal blogroll in the right rail on this website) with David Niven playing a WWII pilot whose airplane is hit by anti-aircraft fire. During his lethal descent toward earth, he talks to and falls in love with a female radio operator–played by Kim Hunter–only to somehow survive the fiery wreck. Turns out that the representative of the deathly realm who was supposed to usher Niven to the beyond has been derelict in his duty. Under pain of penalty by heavenly authorities this sad sack angel must atone for his malpractice and reclaim the pilot, who says, basically, “Nothing doing, you’ve had your chance.”

While I recognize that New York City’s holiday from mayhem was bound to be shortlived, I’m grateful for the welcome respite we experienced this week, and for the fact that it reminded me of these great movies.

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