A group of aristocrats are setting out for home after spending the day at a local festival, and after the starry-eyed Grazia (Evelyn Venable), the daughter of Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), is fetched from the church she was praying in, they head off on the road. Grazia is in the car with her fiancé Corrado (Kent Taylor) and they are travelling along the precarious country roads at breakneck speed, even as Grazia asks him to go faster, but suddenly a shadow seems to be chasing them, then catching up, then engulfing them. The car narrowly avoids crashing into a flower cart, but the Duke's car is not so lucky...
...but don't worry, as nobody is hurt, although the flower seller takes a tumble. That shadow, as you might imagine from the title, is the manifestation of Death, and it's the passage to the afterlife that concerns this film, almost to distraction. It was based on a play, originally in Italian, adapted for the screen by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman, and it's nineteen-twenties-style preoccupation with the Grim Reaper seemed better suited to that decade than the following one. Nevertheless, it was the thirties that saw the film made, and a curious specimen it was.
The premise is that Death is wondering about life, surely the opposite of his existence, and about what endures which you'll no doubt be unsurprised to hear is love. This brings us to Grazia, a strange young woman who seems to be away with the fairies for most of the running time, thanks to a dreamy delivery and faraway look in her eye which Venable keeps up for every scene she's in. Grazia appears to have a preoccupation with death, almost a death wish which will come true when she gets to meet an incarnation of him that night.
Death comes for the Duke, and after frightening Grazia in the garden, he appears to him and says he would like to live as a human for a while - but only three days. The shocked Duke agrees not to give away the secret as Death pretends to be the Duke's friend Prince Sirki, who looks a lot like Fredric March with a monocle. This charming conceit ends up being far more serious than it needs to be, and there's something to be said for treating the subject of our demise with humour (always look on the bright side of life, and all that), but the only lightness of touch we see is when the effects of no death on the world make themselves plain.
But that is simply a throwaway montage, and thereafter Death, smitten with Grazia, dominates the fantasy in a ponderous manner. The trouble is, once we have Death walking among us, what can the film do with him? And the answer is "not enough" as long speeches about the impossibility or otherwise of love across the boundaries of this life and the next begin to take over. Nice touches include Sirki winning big at the casino then giving away all his loot when exasperated that he might have to take it with him, but March comes across as too stuffy to really warm to, not his fault as it's all there in the script. The ending, full of overwrought conversations as the Duke is forced to give the game away for fear that Death will claim them all, at least has the benefit of an unexpected denouement, but I'm unsure if it's a happy ending or not. It's difficult to be light hearted amidst all this morbidity.