Director Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) — which bears no relation to the 1978 Warren Beatty film of the same name — is the best kind of old movie: The more you see it, the more “new” it seems.
Seventy-year-old Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), who was born in New York in 1872, has just died. Heavy of heart — “My whole life was a continuous misdemeanor” — he presents himself to Hell’s gatekeeper (Laird Cregar), who immediately doubts Henry’s qualifications for eternal damnation.
In flashback, Henry details his failings, which chiefly involve a tendency to womanize, even when he’s won the heart of the magnificent Martha (Gene Tierney). Although she’s engaged to his cousin, Martha can’t resist Henry’s insistence on the inevitability of their love, though she’ll be a lot tougher when he attempts to woo her back after an indiscretion ten years later.
The screenplay is by Samson Raphaelson, who wrote Lubitsch’s masterpiece, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and it’s tight as a drum — a perfect three-act structure, with jokes so sly as to seem subversive. This is a movie to listen to closely, but watch it just as intently. (This revival boasts a 4K restoration.) Lubitsch’s staging of the long stretches of dialogue seems straightforward enough, but the physical path from A to Z in a given scene turns out to be extraordinarily complex — once you start to notice — and so virtuosic you may want to applaud.
Heaven Can Wait may be 73 years old, but it’s vibrant and alive, and teaching us anew the central language of film.
Heaven Can Wait
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
20th Century Fox
Opens June 17, Film Forum