Sympathy for the devil
Stanley Donen
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron
The Setup: 
Guy makes deal with devil to win the love of a diner waitress.

This is a British comedy from 1967 that was remade with Elizabeth Hurley and Brendon Frasier a few years back. I had an opportunity to watch that one on an airplane where I was stuck in my seat and had nothing else to do, and I still turned it off after just a few minutes. The original was just re-released on DVD, and received a rave review as being extremely clever and funny, so my friend who prefers to watch only movies that are worthwhile [snore] suggested we watch it for one of our movie nights.

It begins with a rather hip 60s credit sequence in which we find out that the music here was written by Dudley Moore, and the screenplay by Peter Cook, from a story thought up by the both of them. This was directed by Stanley Donen, director of the non-musical sequences of Singin’ in the Rain, as well as other things we'll talk about later.

So we see Dudley Moore as Stanley in church, asking God for just some small sign of his existence. Peter Cook as Satan sees him at this moment. Next we have a little establishing story of Stanley in this diner he works at, where Eleanor Bron is a waitress named Margaret. Stanley is desperately in love with Margaret, but is too shy to bust a move. He runs out after her when her shift is over to ask her out, but chickens out and sees her getting into some futuristic car with another guy.

So Stanley goes home to hang himself. He doesn’t succeed, and at that moment Satan shows up. He promises that Stanley can have anything he wants so long as he gives up “a tiny little thing you probably didn’t even know you had,” his soul. Satan, who is known in the world as Mr. Spiggott, is quite up front about being the devil, and here you start to get that droll British humor where every line is delivered in an absolutely flat everyday voice, and it’s only after a few seconds’ thinking that you realize what they’re saying is actually quite funny. For example, Spiggott hands Stanely the contract, and Stanley asks why he is referred to as “the damned.” “It’s formal words,” Spiggott says. “Legal jargon.” We see that Spiggott lives with personifications of the seven deadly sins. He promises Stanley seven wishes in exchange for his soul and Stanley signs.

All of his wishes revolve around getting Margaret. First he wishes to be intelligent and articulate. So he becomes this windy intellectual and Margaret is charmed, they repair to his house and listen to Brahms, and have an odd scene where they explore how lovely it is to touch things. But when Stanley moves to touch her [actually he pretty much grabs her and throws her down] she cries rape and his wish is over.

So he comes out of his wish, which he can do at any time by blowing a raspberry. Spiggott shows him what the real-life Margaret is doing right then, which is looking for his body in a pond [for in reality he is dead]. So then Stanley wishes that he could be married to Margaret and for her to be very lusty—and in his wish she is lusty, but for this hot boy toy she has, virtually ignoring her husband, Stanley. All his wishes go like this, with each of them playing different roles each time, and there always being some angle that Stanley didn’t think of that Spiggott exploits to ruin his wish.

So between all the sequences where Stanley gets his misguided wishes come scenes in which he hangs out with Spiggott, becoming friends with him and learning about his history. A lot of these scenes revolve around the regrets the devil has and how his dearest wish is to get back into heaven. One of my favorite scenes is where Spiggott is telling Stanley about what it’s like in heaven, how you just sit around doing nothing but worshipping God all day. Then he says [these are not direct quotes], “Okay, I’ll be God,” he hops up on a mailbox, “and you be an angel. Just dance around me and make up songs about how great I am.” Stanley dances around, saying “Oh God, you’re so great,” to which Spiggott-as-God matter-of-factly says “Thank you very much.” Stanley goes on until he finally says, “You know, this is getting really boring,” and Spiggott says “EXACTLY.” So Spiggott becomes more sympathetic and fleshed-out as the story goes on. One other area of constant amusement is how he’s always committing the most petty evil, like making parking meters go expired, switching phone connections, and my favorite, removing the “wet paint” sign from a fresh green park bench. At one point Stanley shows up just as Spiggott is smashing bananas ready for shipment to stores, and he asks “What are you doing?” to be told “Oh, routine mischief.”

While all this is going on, something of the homo is developing between them. At one point Spiggott lets Stanley sleep in his bed, and this is the first time Stanley mentions that “you’re the only one who’s ever taken an interest in me.” Spiggott then sends Lust in to his bed with Stanley—in the form of Raquel Welch, who, much as I love her, was not very good. During a later conversation, Spiggott mentions to Stanley how he sees God “nestling in your trousers.” Then, at the end, another mention that Spigott is “the only one I can talk to.” The tenderness that grows between them is quite sweet and, coupled with the reality that this relationship is much more secure and loving than the one Stanley shares with Margaret, is enough to make me list this movie in the “Homo Movies” section, even though it is not explicitly about gay people. Oh, which is not even to mention Barry Humphries, future Dame Edna, as the personification of Envy, here portrayed as a bitter queen who lies waiting in Spiggott’s bed. Oh yeah, and then that bit about the lesbian nuns.

When I told my friend that Donen directed the non-musical sequences of Singin’ in the Rain, he made a crack about “which no one remembers,” but I was surprised to see that there is a very advanced visual sense here, with most shots visually interesting and some of them amazingly beautiful. I’m sorry I couldn’t pull out any screen shots for you, but I had to return the movie before I could make it to my computer. One of my favorite shots has to do with a bunch of nuns in black-and-white habits spread out across a vivid green lawn, jumping up and down. But the visual sense is very intelligent and serves to tell the story, for example in a series of shots filmed through glass panels in a door; you’ll notice that Spiggott is in the upper left quadrant, and Stanley is in the lower right, visually suggesting Spiggott’s dominance and schematizing their relationship. When talk turns to sex there are shots along a pool cue as it shoots the white cue ball… lots of visual intelligence like that. Donen also directed On The Town, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade and… Saturn 3!

One last thing. In one wish Stanley wants to be lusted after by women, so Spiggott makes him into a pop star. He sings this song called “Love Me,” which is fine enough, but then Spiggott comes on after and sings the title song, this moody low-key number in which he drones “I don’t love you… you don’t move me… go away…” and more, which is okay in itself, but is notable for basically anticipating a great deal of the pop that came into vogue in the 80s. The whole thing about low-key emotion, songs of disaffection sung in a flat, monotone voice against a murmuring background, the singer in a suit, barely moving, became what groups such as Pet Shop Boys and New Order and Depeche Mode and any number of others were all about. Maybe there was a lot more music like this song in vogue in 1967 [I assume so, and that this song was parodying it], but if not, we have to credit this movie with foreseeing the music of an entire decade, a decade in advance. I haven’t been able to find out if that is included in the music Dudley Moore wrote for the film.

Okay, so now to the less positive. Both me and my friend found this movie, overall, to be simultaneously funny and not funny at all. It is very clever verbally, with certain lines very carefully written to provide little jokes right as a certain visual onscreen, or to supply little puns that are so subtle they are easy to miss. For example, during the wish where Stanley’s wife is horny—for someone else—Spiggott, playing croquet, hands his “blue balls” to the caddy. And there are a million little things like that sprinkled throughout the movie, as well as just the general deadpan British demeanor and droll way of putting things. So on that level it’s very funny, but there’s a whole layer of jokes on a more literal level that were just kind of, well, stupid. For example, during that same fantasy when Stanley’s wife lusts for someone else, he keeps bringing her gifts that she ignores—jewels, furs—until he finally brings her the Mona Lisa, and there’s a joke about how it’s the real one. I can’t remember more [I blocked them out], but suffice to say that there is this very sophisticated verbal and tonal humor going on at the same time as this very base and cringeworthy obvious and lowbrow humor.

And finally, the fatal blow; Stanley’s seven wishes just get really boring and routine. So Spiggott is going to find a loophole in every one, we get it, and we get it after four wishes [actually we get it after two, I’m trying to be generous], leaving three left to sit through. This movie is only 104 minutes, but seemed much longer. Similarly, even though Cook and Moore are essentially playing different roles in each wish, after a while they all sort of become the same, and the entire thing gains a sheen of tedium.

Overall, the good and clever and funny and interesting outweighs the bad, making it definitely worth the rental, but the thick vein of lowbrow humor and the overall tedium of the whole concept conspire to keep it from becoming the brilliant film it might have been.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, although it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.