In Death Knocks, Woody Allen provides a new treatment to a classical theme: a man seeing himself on a final mission succeeds in buying time from the ineluctability of death by challenging a personified death to a game that he wins, gaining so a temporary reprieve. The allegory reminds us that life amounts in every instance to a similar losing battle where what the highest skill in the game obtains is nothing more than time. Philosophically speaking, Allen’s additional contribution is in suggesting that time isn’t so bad a commodity after all.
The reason why Allen would treat this theme lies in the great respect he holds the Swedish cinematographer Ingmar Bergman whose work has inspired his own in the dramas he has brought to the screen and in “Interiors” (1978) in particular. Bergman’s momentous film “The Seventh Seal” (1957) tells the story of a knight returning from the Crusades who challenges death in a game of chess in order to buy the time he needs to see his wife once more before meeting his end. In “Death Knocks”, chess has been replaced by gin rummy, medieval Sweden transposed to contemporary New York and the profession of knight by that of dress manufacturer. Unsurprisingly, the theme’s treatment by Allen turns out extremely different from Bergman’s.
The reader is not expressly told that Nat is Jewish. A few hints lead however in that direction, as when is revealed that his full name is Nat Ackerman, that he lives in Kew Gardens or when evidence is given, on several occasions, of his familiarity with Yiddish, as in the story’s concluding words when, retelling his evening’s adventures to his friend Moe Lefkowitz, Nat refers to Death as a “schlep.”
Common to Bergman’s and Allen’s renditions is that the hero first challenges then outwits Death for a seemingly Pyrrhic victory. The way this is being achieved here by Nat reflects however in a very profound way what Marx called in “On the Jewish Question” (1843), the “practical Jewish spirit” (*) Unlike the knight Antonius Block, in “The Seventh Seal,” who uses his confrontation with Death as a way to ascertain his wrenching doubt in the existence of God, Nat focuses instead on his unpreparedness to die. Talking to Death, he insists: “Now, wait a minute. I need time. I’m not ready to go.” His thinking is logical: evidence is lacking that his time has arrived. As he says with unpretentious words: “You must be kidding. I’m in perfect health.”
Death’s visit fails to impress Nat. Death enters Nat’s apartment in an undignified manner, tripping on the windowsill after, as he tells later, having damaged the drainpipe he was climbing on when one of his heels got trapped by a vine. Also, his air of familiarity and obvious acquaintance with Yiddish introduce an element of complicity between the protagonists from the very beginning of their acquaintance. Indeed, Nat tells Death not only that he reminds him of his friend Moe but also of himself as in the following exchange:
Nat: You look a little like me.
Death: Who should I look like? I’m your death.
Nat succeeds into luring Death into a game. After an unsuccessful attempt to have him engage in a play of chess, which Death denies being able to play, they settle then for a game of gin rummy. Nat notes “I once saw a picture of you playing chess,” most probably referring to the fresco by Albertus Pictor in the church of the Swedish town of Täby.
Nat, wins by a wide margin (one hundred and fifty to sixty-eight), Death is short on change and unable to pay his debt. Nat, agrees gracefully to a replay, hinting that until Death settles his debt, his gruesome task will need to remain suspended.
(*) The status of Marx’ “On the Jewish Question” was one of the few topics where George Miedzianagora and I had dissenting opinions (another one was whether or not Socrates was a fictional character; in my mind, although Plato could have referred to a literary figure as if he were true, Xenophon was a historian at heart and would not have devoted the attention he did to a fictional hero). George held that Marx’s essay was anti-Semitic. I personally hold that this is in no way the case. Marx’ harsh words on the Jewish religion are part of his overall argument against religion as an obstacle to liberation. His remark on the “Jewish practical spirit” is meant to refer to what is in his mind the healthy seed of an interest in the sensible world instead of a focus on eternal life in a Hereafter.