Giving The DEVIL His Due

Giving in to temptation after a recent viewing of the 1958 film version of DamnYankees! I began thinking about the devil in Hollywood movies. Call him what you will – Scratch, Beelzebub, the Prince of Darkness, Lucifer, etc. – the Big Bad Guy is often a terrifying villain, with Hitler and his Nazi minions as his only equal for sheer on-screen evil. On the other hand, Satan on film can also be good for a laugh sometimes.

Thus, a consideration of some of Azazel’s more memorable diabolic film appearances – the performers who’ve played the Fallen One and the movies themselves. Time and space limit me to those films in which the Devil has a major presence. So I give only a nod of approval, for instance, to Tim Curry (and Rob Bottin’s Oscar-nominated makeup) in Ridley Scott’s Legend (’85), and to Disney’s animated nightmarish vision in “The Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia (’40).

Back to the movie which sparked these infernal reveries: Damn Yankees! gave Ray Walston his best screen role ever as Mr. Applegate, a slick agent from Hell who, with leggy Gwen Verdon as Lola, makes baseball star Tab Hunter almost sign away his soul for victory over the Yankees. The former Broadway musical holds up on the big screen, as Walston gets some of the biggest laughs as well as a couple of good tunes.

In 1941, Walter Huston scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination as Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story. Huston’s sly devil puts defense attorney Daniel Webster to the test in a legal case of a farmer who’d sold his soul for prosperity. By appealing to the better instincts of the pernicious jury, comprising various miscreants from the nation’s history, Webster wins the day, though Mr. Scratch gets the last laugh, breaking the fourth wall with an evil eye and pointed finger at the viewer.

The funniest silver-screen devil has to be Peter Cook as George Spiggott in 1967’s version of Bedazzled. The nattily dressed tempter tries to snare the soul of hapless Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) by granting him seven wishes, all of which poor Stanley wastes trying to win the love of Margaret (Eleanor Bron). Directed by Stanley Donen (who also helmed Damn Yankees! and Singin’ in the Rain), Bedazzled is a comic gem, with bits of the madcap absurdity later used by Monty Python. The 2000 remake with Brendan Fraser as the dweeb, and Elizabeth Hurley as the devil, is tepid by comparison.

Turning to more serious incarnations of His Satanic Majesty, three films soar far above the competition, like an Infernal Trinity if you will. And three of Hollywood’s best actors really do give the Devil his due.

In 1987, Jack Nicholson brought his signature diabolic leer to The Witches of Eastwick, as Daryl van Horne (aka the Devil), an enigmatic stranger who seems to be in town simply to seduce three friends – Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer – who unwittingly summoned him. Lots of laughs later, with a dash of horror and special effects, the nascent witches get their separate legs up on the devil, though he, in turn, leaves each with an adorable reminder of their steamy times together – a baby.

Based on John Updike’s novel, directed by George (Road Warrior) Miller, Eastwick is more satire and comedy than drama and horror, but Nicholson is right in his element.

So was Robert De Niro the same year, as the viperous Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) who sets seedy private dick Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) on his way to damnation in Alan Parker’s terrific Angel Heart. With a meticulously styled beard and delicately sharpened nails, De Niro takes sinister to new levels. The movie, based on a terrific novel by William Hjorstberg (who wrote the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Legend) is right up there with Rosemary’s Baby as one of the creepiest, most intelligent cinematic treatments on the consequences of making deals with the Devil.

Not to be outdone by Nicholson and De Niro, Al Pacino chews up the scenery as John Milton, head of a prestigious and satanic New York City law firm, tempting hotshot Gainesville attorney Kevin (Keanu Reeves, with a hit-or-miss Southern accent and Gator ballcap) toward ruin and damnation in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (’97). Like Angel Heart, Hackford’s graphic film eschews any comic bits, though Pacino/Milton loves to clown around – at the deadly expense of others. In one of her earliest roles, future Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, (Kevin’s sweet wife Mary Ann) is among those torn asunder by the Devil’s games.

According to philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, “The devil has his elect.” These movies have a place there.