...or, why you don't always have to use a long spoon while supping with Satan. My latest Yahoo! column is about some of the cooler movie Devils.
Update: here's the full piece
A depressive, hung-over actor named Toby Dammit is being asked a string of banal questions at a press conference. He answers them crabbily; he looks like he hasn’t slept in weeks.
“Do you believe in God?” asks a reporter with shiny white teeth. “No,” sighs the actor, terribly bored and distracted.
“And in the Devil?”
Now, for the first time, Dammit looks animated. He leans forward, says “Yes. In the Devil, yes.”
“How exciting!” exclaims the questioner, delighted to have hit home, “Have you seen Him? What does He look like? A black cat, a goat, a bat?”
“Oh no,” says Dammit, a faraway look coming into his eyes, “To me the Devil is cheerful, agile…”
Cut to an shot of a girl, her pale face occupying the left half of the screen, leering at the camera
“He looks like a little girl.”
I’ll leave you to discover the rest of Federico Fellini’s atmospheric short film “Toby Dammit” (or “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”) for yourself. But the scene is a reminder that Satan, or Beelzebub, or the Prince of Darkness, is the most adventurous of screen characters. He comes in many forms, and He’s a lot more willing to show Himself than his opposite number – you know, that guy in the Other Place – is.
God, as a snarling Al Pacino reminds us in The Devil’s Advocate, “is an absentee landlord” – aloof, unwilling to have much to do with mortal affairs. But Devils are always around, always willing to listen, and the most genteel and hospitable of them all has to be the one in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. This witty 1943 film begins with the deceased protagonist Henry presenting himself to Hell of his own accord, for as a title card tells us:
“As Henry van Cleve’s soul passed over the Great Divide, he realised it was extremely unlikely that his next stop could be Heaven. And so, philosophically, he presented himself where innumerable people had so often told him to go.”
The appointment chamber of Hell is a spacious room lined with bookshelves, which suggests that the Devil (referred to here as His Excellency) is a well-read gentleman. Dressed in a tuxedo and sporting a somewhat pointy beard as a small nod to tradition, he greets Henry courteously and enquires if he had a peaceful demise. His Excellency is patient and solicitous. (He does lapse into a sly smile once in a while, but then nearly all of Lubitsch’s characters have a bit of devilry in them!) After listening to Henry’s story – the story of a life marked not by any major crime but rather a “continuous series of misdemeanours” – he weighs things and shakes his head. “Sorry Mr Van Cleve, but we don’t cater to your class of people here,” he says, instructing the elevator boy to take Henry “upstairs”.
Like every other Lubitsch movie, Heaven Can Wait is elegant and packed with clever dialogue. But it also has perceptive things to say about the human tendency to deal in polarities – in this case, the idea of a Heaven for do-gooders vs an eternal hellfire for sinners. As the Devil gently reminds us at the end, things usually aren’t so cut-and-dried. Even if Henry’s peccadilloes and philandering ways earned him some red marks, it’s just possible that Heaven has “a small, not-so-comfortable room vacant in the annex”, where he might be permitted to stay for a few hundred years before they let him into the main building. Why not give it a try? Why be so hard on yourself?
Other screen Satans are less urbane and less understanding, but they have a sense of humour and know how to have a good time. A great rascally portrayal of the Devil is in Benjamin Christensen’s silent movie Häxan. This is, believe it or not, a rationalist film (remarkably so for the time it was made in) about witch-hunts, but Christensen uses the Devil sequences to illustrate the delusions that superstitious or credulous people suffer from. In one scene, an old woman recalls her acts of witchery, including riding on broomsticks through the night and participating in a devil’s feast. But then the poor thing is being tortured by the priests of the Inquisition; under those circumstances, I suspect I would have similar “recollections”.
Satan’s superb first appearance in this film has him leaping out at a plump monk who’s studying the Bible. (If you watched MTV in the mid-1990s, you’ve probably seen this delightful shot already, without knowing it.) He’s repulsive to look at, bare-chested, pot-bellied and lumpy, waggling his forked tongue, knocking on boudoir doors and enticing young women into his hairy arms even as their husbands doze nearby. He’s also played by the director, and I suspect Christensen had fun in the role.
[If you see Haxan, try to catch the 1968 “remix” titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, set to a jazz score (!) and with narration by William Burroughs, who tells us in his brilliantly deadpan, gravelly voice, that “belief in the Devil was so steadfast that many people gave incredible descriptions of this horrid individual”, and that witches had to show their respect for Satan “by kissing his ass”.]
However, if I had to pick a single favourite screen Devil, it would be Walter Huston as the grizzled Mr Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster. This adaptation of the Faust legend shifts the tale to rural America in the mid-19th century, where Mr Scratch, with his little black book and self-combusting visiting card, makes a misfortune-plagued farmer an offer he can’t refuse: a hoard of gold coins in exchange for his soul, contract to be renewed in seven years. “And why should that worry you?” Scratch says persuasively. “What is a soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No.”
Huston’s Devil is diabolical and charming at the same time, but in a folksy, Midwestern sort of way. He isn’t a supernatural figure arbitrarily thrust into the story – it’s possible to see him in realist terms as a roguish tramp sitting about on the sidelines, stirring people up – but the viewer can never have the slightest doubt about who He really is; this is exactly what old Lucifer would look and behave like in the 1800s if he tucked his pointy tail away, whisked off his horns and visited a farmstead. Best of all, this isn’t a Devil who turns sullen when his plans are foiled at the end: Scratch’s maniacal grin only becomes wider and he departs with a polite nod, as if he knows this is a temporary setback and many more triumphs lie ahead of him. After all, he has eternity.
The film’s unforgettable last shot has Scratch flipping through his black book, then looking up, staring straight into the camera, grinning and pointing at us, as if to say “You’re next!” The message is clear. In cinema’s early days, puritans would denounce the bioscope and the movie camera as being “the devil's instruments”, and in a sense that’s still true. Few other movie characters are this hypnotic.