Monday, February 29, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Bedazzled" (1967)

People nowadays forget that Dudley Moore came to prominence as part of a comedic duo rather than as a solo personality. He and Peter Cook were collaborators on theater productions of "Beyond the Fringe," then on the TV show "Not Only... But Also" -- which originated as a Moore vehicle but quickly became a partnership when everyone realized how strong was their onscreen chemistry and off-screen writing.

They starred in a number of movies together, starting with "The Wrong Box" in 1966 and then "Bedazzled" the next year, for which they co-wrote the story, reusing some of their favorite gags from stage and screen. The relationship continued with more movies, television specials, theater work and comedy albums until the late 1970s, when it ended because of Cook's drinking and Moore's sudden, unexpected vault to romantic leading man status with Blake Edwards' "10."

They make for an arresting pair, with a full foot of difference in height, Cook usually playing the outgoing schemer and Moore as the self-doubting wallflower. Their divergence is used to full effect in this takeoff on the parable of Faust, in which an ordinary man is tempted by the Devil with promises of fabulous wishes in exchange for his measly soul.

Cook, with his cocked eyebrows and imperial carriage, plays Lucifer, of course, known in his London form as George Spiggott. Moore is Stanley Moon, a shy short-order cook at Wimpy's -- a real British burger franchise of the time -- who is hopelessly smitten with a waitress, Margaret (Eleanor Bron).

Stanley Donen directed, about midway through an impressive Hollywood career spanning 50 years (and he's still with us!). According to lore, Donen shot an opening for the movie that was never used: he speaks directly to the audience about not wanting to make such a frivolous film, but Cook as the Devil whispers into his ear about all the money they'll make.

A wonderful story, true or not.

The film is replete with impish humor and caustic one-liners. George tempts Stanley with seven wishes, which he then sabotages because, he says, he is compelled by God to spread misery. But the pair genuinely grow to like each other, and much of the story is simply them hanging around together, chatting about life's mysteries and why Stanley is so despondent that he tried to hang himself.

(A 2000 remake, with Brendan Fraser as the sap and Elizabeth Hurley as the devil, reflected no glory upon the original.)

This Devil is a busy man. He's constantly distracted with little jobs to make people unhappy, such as rifling through people's luggage or cutting up their dry cleaning. -- "Just a bit of routine mischief," he says. In one memorable bit, he sets a pigeon loose from a rooftop to release his "doo-dahs" on the hat of a gentleman, who is appropriately miffed.

Stanley: "If you're the Devil, why didn't you go for that Vicar down there?"
George: "Oh, no. He's one of ours."

Cheekily mocking organized religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular was a favorite pastime of British comedians of that era -- see Hill, Benny -- as seen late in the film when the Pope himself drunkenly hits upon Stanley, currently dressed in a nun's habit: "Come on sweetie, let's dance."

George runs a night club/strip bar in the seedy end of London, the Rendezvous Club, which doubles as his HQ. All the Seven Deadly Sins work there for him -- Anger is the surly bouncer, Sloth is a lawyer who rarely awakes, Gluttony is a heavyset woman perpetually shoving food into her face, etc.

"What rotten sins I've got working for me. I suppose it's the wages," George quips.

I particularly liked Barry Humphries as Envy, who has a pretty undemanding workload but complains endless nonetheless about not getting the best table, being forced out of Satan's bed by Stanley, etc. There are some other interesting bit characters, some head-scratching, such as Lord Dowdy, an unctuous nobleman with a crippling stutter. (A comment on a contemptible political figure of the day? If so, the reference escapes.)

Lust herself is played by Raquel Welch, doing a brocaded American Southern accent, who tries to seduce Stanley but is interrupted by George (prearranged, perhaps?) just as they're about to seal the deal. Welch, famous for her well-flaunted physical assets and not much more, gets the job done.

(Despite having only two scenes, Welch appeared on virtually all the film's posters and promotional materials, leaving the somewhat mannish Bron in the lurch. Donen seems to have gone out of his way to render her more unattractive, including distracting blue eye shadow and a soaring hairstyle that is best described as Mod Pippy Longstocking.)

"Bedazzled" is one of those silly pictures with something more serious going on underneath. Cook, Moore and Donen deliver their criticisms of the modern age -- plastic flowers, for heaven's sake! -- with a wink and a smile, rather than a sneer and a pout. Perhaps the most devastating is one of Stanley's wish sequences, in which he is transformed into pop star adored by all the girls, including Margaret, swooning at his ballad entreaty to "love me!"

But then George steps in, following up this televised act with his own as "Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations," in which he talk-sings his disdain for any kind of feminine attention. Of course, the women drop pop Stanley like a hot potato in order to clamor for the Devil's (dis)interest. It's a sly comment that cuts at many targets: pop music, the English Psychedelia movement, female intuition, television's impact on popular culture, etc.

Stanley's existential state during his association with Lucifer is somewhat vague in a metaphysical sense. Occasionally the action goes back to follow Margaret assisting the police in investigating Stanley's disappearance and presumed suicide (based on his note), where she is not-so-subtly hit on by the much older lead detective (Michael Bates).

Presumably this represents reality, or at least the version George allows Stanley to see. But Margaret also appears in all of Stanley's wish scenarios, which are either illusions or alternate realities.

Some of the wish scenes are wickedly funny, though some are merely uncomfortable, such as the first in which Stanley wishes to be well-spoken, quoting philosophers and rolling his R's with the fervor of a drunken Welshman. In other iterations he is a multimillionaire frustrated by Margaret's canoodling with the harp teacher, a college boy who is the homewrecker himself or, literally, a fly on the wall.

George also appears in all the wishes, playing different roles in the set pieces -- "There's a little of me in everyone," after all.

Inevitably, the Devil's promised bliss is ruined by some loophole Stanley forgot to elucidate that George must exploit. "Doctor's orders," he intones, finger pointed heavenward.

In the last one Stanley is trapped as a nun ("Sister Luna") in a new order that reveres their chosen saint by jumping on trampolines. Always, Margaret remains just out of reach. Things end happily with the Devil being thwarted by the Lord, Stanley receiving his soul back and resolving to try things his way without any celestial (or damned) intervention.

"Bedazzled" is a fun movie, clever and smart with a few things to say underneath the snickering.

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