Death is a many-splendored thing in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which treats the possibility of an afterlife not with somber religious symbolism, but a keen sense that a human being’s mortal end must be understood for its corporeal difficulties. There’s a grave levity to the way Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) handles the death of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) as a clerical error made by his underling, Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). Hasty action on the messenger’s part has brought Joe, who was supposed to live another 50 years, to the pearly gates far too soon. Actually, there are no such gates in director Alexander Hall’s film. Heaven, instead, is simply a fog-filled runway where recently deceased souls arrive and await instructions to board a flight to their actual, presumably more heavenly destination. Ironic, then, that Joe died in a plane crash. It begs the question: Do planes crash in heaven?
One suspects Hall and screenwriters Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller would appreciate such a ridiculous inquiry given that Here Comes Mr. Jordan is filled with them, particularly once Mr. Jordan gives Joe the chance to return to life in another man’s body, completely as himself, and to no detection of those around him. It’s the type of fantasy premise that could be written in nearly any conceivable way, placing Joe, a Brooklyn-accented boxer, into a scenario that clashes or compliments his prior existence. Mr. Jordan settles on a millionaire named Farnsworth, who’s to be drowned in a bathtub by his wife, Julia (Rita Johnson), and her male accomplice, Tony (John Emery).
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is distinguished by little bits of business and rules that it’s constantly explaining, such as Joe and Mr. Jordan being able to scout anybody (and any body) they’d like without being detected by the living. In the film’s best scene, Mr. Jordan sits at a piano inside the Farnsworth home, cracks a slight smile to Joe, and calmly explains that the murder is taking place a floor above them. Mr. Jordan is neither visibly sad nor outraged over the act; rather, his measured response approaches the prospect of death as an inevitability that, no matter the course of its arrival, necessitates a detachedness that won’t interfere with his work as heaven’s even-tempered undertaker. However, the filmmakers don’t get into messier questions, like Mr. Jordan’s underlying motivations or allegiances to heaven’s affairs, as he’s simply trying to keep his books in order while instilling those still occupying the earthly realm with a more immediate sense of purpose and action.
In Joe’s case, that involves reversing Farnsworth’s heinous business practices to help Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) have her wrongly convicted father pardoned from prison, but it also establishes a romantic relationship between the pair that eventually drives Joe to stay in the millionaire’s body rather than hopping into a more boxing-ready, physically fit one. Here Comes Mr. Jordan goes to extensive lengths to explain Joe-as-Farnsworth so that Montgomery continues to be the actor on screen, even though he’s occupying another man’s body. It’s the film’s only piece that, on a fundamental level, doesn’t quite fit, not least because the suggested notion that other characters are befuddled by the irregular behaviors of Joe-as-Farnsworth absolves the viewer from occupying a similarly perplexed state.
In fact, the choice zaps much of the film’s potentially anarchic spirit. If another actor were channeling Montgomery’s physicality and mannerisms a la John Woo’s Face/Off, the film would visibly fulfill its premise by adding another layer of comedic possibility. It’s a safe gimmick, the same one that Ghost uses to avoid a sex scene between Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg late into that film. The device doesn’t quite grind Here Comes Mr. Jordan to a halt, but it places the viewer into a milder ironic position where laughs mostly come from the confused reaction shots of supporting players rather than the absurdity of the entire scenario as a whole.
If the film initially stands out for its decidedly sardonic treatment of death, it also relinquishes that through line for a more conventional love story between Joe (who’s in a third body by the film’s end) and Bette that merely affirms an “it’s the inside that counts” narrative of romantic attachment. Hall does little to maneuver the story beyond pat resolutions, so that when Bette encounters the “new” Joe, it takes merely a scene for them to pair. Of course, the film’s fantasy elements license such fairy-tale resolutions, but they also minimize broader sociological questions that would ground Joe’s existential dilemma in more complex, and potentially richer, terrain.
Criterion’s buffed-up, 2K Blu-ray transfer of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has eliminated any signs of print damage or archival aging. The image is sharp throughout, suggesting that each frame has been given a thorough restoration. Moreover, the black-and-white cinematography brims with light, especially in the early scenes of a fog-filled heaven and in scenes set in the Farnsworth home. There are no signs of extensive digital augmentation and the monaural audio track remains free of distortion, as dialogue and music are balanced and equally mixed.
While this release lacks a video essay or a feature-length commentary, the included supplements provide a succinct overview of Here Comes Mr. Jordan’s riches, including a 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film with Cary Grant filling in for Robert Montgomery. The jewel for cinephiles is a conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger that covers a broad range of topics about the film’s influence and legacy, including Production Code restrictions that limited the extent to which matters of an afterlife and predestination could be discussed. The pair shares their favorite moments from the film and recount tidbits about its production history, such as Grant having been initially slated to play Montgomery’s part. Also included is a lengthy audio interview from 1991 with Elizabeth Montgomery discussing memories of her father’s life, a trailer, and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.
With this sterling Blu-ray of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Criterion continues their efforts to release classical Hollywood gems from Columbia Pictures in high definition, joining Only Angels Have Wings and In a Lonely Place as the third such disc of 2016.