Friday, November 19, 2010

PoV 15: Sympathy for the Devil...

...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.


  1. I think Lubitsch's Heaven can Wait makes an interesting double bill with another 40s supernatural romance - A Matter of Life and Death. Both of them are subversive movies as they challenge the the way "Heaven" and "Hell" are usually conceived in one's imagination.

    In the Archers film, Heaven is portrayed in black and white, administered by humourless matronly figures. Life on earth seems a lot more colourful and nuanced in contrast.

    Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is another subversive fantasy film that challenges the conventional American conception of what constitutes a "successful life", just as the Lubitsch film challenges the puritan conception of what constitutes a sin worthy of hell.

    Interesting that all these three films were released within a few years of each other.

  2. Shrikanth: yes, that is a good double bill - saw A Matter of Life and Death a long time ago, should see it again. Wonder if all these movies being made around the same time had something to do with WWII and the ideas about mortality/summary annihilation that were no doubt swirling about in everyone's minds at the time.

    It's a Wonderful Life is still a bit of a conundrum for me though - one of those supposedly great/iconic films that I've never been able to care much about. And I've never seen it as being anywhere near as "dark" or "subversive" as its reputation suggests it is (though on the other hand it's still one of the archetypal feel-good Christmas movies for American audiences, so I don't know about that reputation...)

  3. And I've never seen it as being anywhere near as "dark" or "subversive" as its reputation suggests it is

    Jai. That's probably because the last 15-20 mins of IAWL is a bit of a cop-out despite being enjoyable. It makes one forget how dark the first 90 mins are. For me, what's striking is that the film empathises with a person who would be deemed a good-natured "loser" in modern parlance. It is very unusual to see such a film in US where the mainstream culture celebrates commerce unconditionally and often equates success with the amount of money one makes. What's even more unusual is that the film's architects - Capra and Stewart were themselves very conservative un-Bailey like Americans.

    I was reminded of it by this post as Heaven can Wait is also a very unusual American film as it takes a sympathetic view of the male philandering instinct - a very un-American thing to do.

  4. Shrikanth, AMOLAD has been my favorite movie ever since I saw it on Star many many years back (& before that read about it in Halliwell's Hundred). There was a whole industry of ghostly/ heavenly/ afterworld romances back in the war years & immediately after, probably due to the fact that mortality was so fleeting then. Eg. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Down To Earth, Portrait of Jennie, Ghost & Mrs. Muir. I am sure I am missing a few. AMOLAD is quite unique in the subgenre in that the hero goes to heaven & returns in the same body.

    Meanwhile back to the post. Jai, in yesterday's Financial Times Nigel Andrews had something similar to say about Ralph Fiennes in the new Harry Potter movie -"Fiennes' scenes seethe stylishly, proving, along with his scary snake, the old truth that Satan gets the show-stopping numbers." And talking of show stoppers, I insist you savor (or re-savor) this wonderfully choreographed item number by Bob Fosse featuring his wife Gwen Verndon as the Devil's moll in "Damn Yankees" -

    Cheers! Didn't mean to make that comment as long as your post.

  5. I started replying & then walked away to take care of someother things, so I ended up repeating some of what Jai has written in response to Shrikanth.

    Shrikanth, Heaven's wink to the philanderer is probably due to Lubitsch's European sensibilities, like it was for Billy Wilder.

    Jai, at Palo Alto (near where I live) IAWL is a traditional Christmas movie at the Stanford Theater (run by David Packard, son of the HP Packard). It is packed & you need to get tickets very early.

  6. Heaven's wink to the philanderer is probably due to Lubitsch's European sensibilities, like it was for Billy Wilder

    Tipu: Well yes. Though I've always regarded Wilder as a lot closer to the American mainstream than Lubitsch. For instance, The Apartment plays out like a very safe 90s rom-com filled with stereotypical corporate bosses who cheat on their wives.

    Lubitsch's films are a lot richer. Heaven can Wait for instance, manages to simultaneously both censure and empathise with the decadence of the American rich of the Gilded Age. I found the film very melancholy and deeply moving.

    The Seven Year Itch though is the one truly great film about philandering in Wilder's ouevre, worthy of comparison with the best of Lubitsch!

  7. Shrikanth, re. Lubitsch vs. Wilder, the latter is probably closer to the American mainstream because he made the bulk of his movies in the US, & dabbled in every genre. His directing career overlapped with Lubitsch only for 4-5 years. The movies he scripted for other directors (including 2 for Lubitsch - Bluebeard's Eighth Wife & Ninotchka) were very envelope pushing. And I would say the same for his movies like Major & the Minor, Love In The Afternoon, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Apartment (I completely disagree with your assessment of it btw), Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, Irma la Douce. There is a strong undercurrent, or even overcurrent (to coin a word) of sexuality & desire which can be very disturbing. Show me another mainstream Hollywood director of that era who had sex so front & center? Howard Hawks is the closest that comes to mind. Unfortunately, I haven't seen Lubitsch's German films, so when I compare their US outputs Wilder is the Glenn Mcgrath to Lubitsch's Shane Bond.

  8. Sri: The Apartment is pretty disturbing, if you get down to it. How many rom-coms today would allow their female leads to attempt suicide via drug overdose? Its a measure of how much Wilder pushed the acceptable moral code of his time on film (or, as some have argued, simply used the medium to reflect his misanthropic outlook). And he did it again and again - with Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17...

  9. Its a measure of how much Wilder pushed the acceptable moral code of his time on film (or, as some have argued, simply used the medium to reflect his misanthropic outlook)

    I agree. But the difference is that while Wilder's films are deeply pessimistic and cynical, Lubitsch celebrates human foibles and is willing to accept human beings as they are (warts and all). The two Wilder films that exhibit this Lubitsch-like compassion are Some Like it Hot and The Seven Year Itch.

    Nevertheless, Wilder is somehow dearest to modern audiences (among all directors of that era) due to our tendency to associate nastiness and pessimism with profundity.

  10. Shrikanth, Tipu, A Fan Apart: thanks for this discussion. Just sharing this bit from Garson Kanin's book Hollywood, which I finished recently. It's a conversation between Kanin and Charlie Brackett (with whom Wilder had parted ways after Sunset Boulevard):

    "Curious, wasn't it," I said, changing the subject, "that Billy's first picture on his own - Ace in the Hole - didn't work either, did it?"

    "No, no," said Charlie, "Not at all. I think it was too cynical. Too critical of the audience, don't you know. It was the kind of picture in which the audience doesn't identify with the hero but with the crowd, and naturally the crowd was the public and behaved like the public in that situation ... If you're going to hold the mirror up to an audience and say 'Look, this is how you are', it better be a bit flattering, don't you think? Billy used to say he thought it failed because it was too tough. I don't think he's right about that. Tough is all right. I admire toughness. I don't admire hardness. That picture wasn't tough, it was hard."

    [I think Brackett's "it better be a bit flattering" is interesting - he isn't commenting on the actual realism or credibility of the film, it's more like a comment on what (in his opinion) a good feature film should be: "tough", but not "hard"!]

  11. That is very interesting - tough but not hard. A Casablanca way of looking at things.

    "Nevertheless, Wilder is somehow dearest to modern audiences (among all directors of that era) due to our tendency to associate nastiness and pessimism with profundity"

    There may be something in that, but on a personal note at least, its the unexpected bursts of humanity (like Cecil B DeMille in Sunset Boulevard) even in his most cynical films that sticks with me. Also, for every cynical ending in his filmography, you could cite counterexamples with hope and mercy (including the most accepting closing line ever in Some Like It Hot).