Friday, December 30, 2011

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ 1971


Warning: This particular essay on The Mephisto Waltz is loaded with spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film and wish to discover its surprises for yourself, stop reading now and come back later. I’ll still be here.

One of the more effective, least exploitative entries in the post-Rosemary’s Baby occult sweepstakes (before The Exorcist came along and switched up the game-plan, entirely), is 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz. Adapted from the 1969 novel by Fred Mustard Stewart— which was itself a rather loud echoing of Ira Levin’s1967 novel— The Mephisto Waltz is a Satanic thriller that succeeds at being enjoyably stylish, suspenseful, and marvelously kinky while never actually giving Roman Polanski’s film any serious competition.
Jacqueline Bisset as Paula Clarkson
Alan Alda as Myles Clarkson
Barbara Parkins as Roxanne Delancey
Curd Jurgens as Duncan Ely
Bradford Dillman as Bill Delancy
Myles Clarkson (Alda), a failed-musician turned struggling music-journalist, lands an interview with world-famous classical pianist Duncan Ely (Jurgens). Taking note of Myles’ lyrical way with the buttons on his tape recorder, the ageing virtuoso (“I happen to be the greatest pianist alive!”) marvels at Myles’ perfect-for-the-piano fingers and declares him to have “Rachmaninoff hands.” Hands that, according to Duncan (who should know, I guess), only one in one hundred thousand possess.
Oh, and for the record, when not wowing audiences with impassioned performances of Franz Liszt’s The Mephisto Waltz (“They don’t understand that after a concert, there’s blood on the piano keys!”), Duncan finds time to be a practicing Satanist.
While studying those concert pianist fingers, lets hope he notices how short his life-line suddenly got
Having already learned from Rosemary’s Baby just how pushy devil-worshippers can be, it comes as no surprise when Duncan and his witchily feline daughter, Roxanne (Parkins), begin aggressively insinuating themselves into the lives of Myles, his beautiful, no- nonsense wife, Paula (Bisset), and their conveniently-disappearing daughter, Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin). Faster than you can say “tannis root,” we learn that Duncan, who is dying of leukemia, has plans to serve Myles’ soul with an eviction notice and take up residence in the lean yet alarmingly flabby body ASAP…with a little help from the devil, of course.
Will the ever-suspicious Paula, distrustful and jealous of the fawning attentions of Duncan and Roxanne from the start, unearth the dark secret behind this creepily close-knit father/ daughter duo? Or will her pugnacious, Nancy Drew-curiosity and fortitude (“…well, I’m just one grade too tough!”) only serve to place her and her family in greater danger? 

The answers to this and many more suitable-for-a- Black-Sabbath questions are answered in The Mephisto Waltz …a Quinn Martin production. No, really, it is. The sole foray into feature film production by the man who gave us The Fugitive, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, etc. However, to my great disappointment, The Mephisto Waltz is lacking in those two great QM Production trademarks: the authoritarian narrator and the title card breakdown of the story into separate acts and an epilogue.
This strikingly bizarre publicity photo showing Barbara Parkins in the company of a dog wearing a human mask was used extensively in promoting The Mephisto Waltz in 1971
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As I’ve stated in a previous post, I consider Rosemary’s Baby to be one of the smartest, most effectively chilling films ever made. It’s flawless both as a horror film and a psychological thriller. It’s not just Roman Polanski’s cleverly black-humored approach to the material and the finely-observed performances he elicits from his cast; but Ira Levin’s story itself is a masterfully structured bit of Modern Gothic. A superior example of contemporary horror.

When The Mephisto Waltz opened in theaters, the promotional buzz was all about its similarities to Rosemary’s Baby...just as scary only sexier. I was all hopped up to see it, but, being only 14 at the time, my mother (whose attentions were well-intentioned, if inconsistent) wouldn’t let me see the R-rated feature. I had to satisfy my curiosity with a paperback copy of the novel from the local library. I was delighted to find it a genuinely suspenseful page-turner with an endangered, resourceful heroine at its center. Just the the sort Ira Levin specialized in.
FACE-OFF
Bisset and co-star bare their fangs

Jump ahead to the 1980s and adulthood, and I finally get to see The Mephisto Waltz at a revival theater on a double-bill with its spiritual cousin, Rosemary’s Baby. I wasn't disappointed. It’s no Rosemary’s Baby by a longshot, but what it is is a nicely crafted thriller that attempts to earn its chills honestly: through atmosphere, character and suspense. If the contrivances of plot seem somewhat rushed and the performances and direction only occasionally above standard, 70s-era, movie of the week TV, The Mephisto Waltz distinguishes itself from the usual occult fare by force of sheer style. The ante is raised in the kinky sexuality and overall amorality of its theme and lead characters.
The entire premise of The Mephisto Waltz asks that we accept that these two breathtaking beauties would be willing to fight, commit murder, and bargain their souls to the devil for...
...this body.

PERFORMANCES:
When it comes to movie stars, sometimes (too often, in fact) I find myself guilty of the kind of superficiality I thoroughly abhor in others: I cut the beautiful a great deal of slack. Jacqueline Bisset is so stunning that I think I’m not as objective about her acting ability as I might be. Frequently saddled with ornamental roles, The Mephisto Waltz offers Bisset a sizable lead part requiring a broad range of emotions. How does she fare? With her clipped British diction and somewhat remote demeanor, she handles the scenes requiring scorn, sarcasm, and assertiveness pretty well. She’s less effective with scenes where she has to convey her character’s vulnerability and fragile emotional state. 
OK, call me superficial, but Jacqueline Bisset is absolutely GORGEOUS in this movie and I think I would be would be happy just watching her defrosting a freezer.
Jacqueline Bisset goes to Hades
Apparently, converting to Satanism requires considerably less formal instruction that converting to Christianity or Judaism
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s lovely Barbara Parkins (looking like a million bucks) cast in the kind of bad girl role her steely eyes and honeyed voice always hinted at (she would have made a sensational Catwoman). She’s terrific and her bitch-fest scenes with Bisset always seem on the verge of a cat-fight that never materializes (I can dream, can't I?). 
Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst all this portentous pulchritude is ol’ “Hawkeye” himself, Alan Alda; looking for all the world like a film-school intern who’d wandered accidentally in front of the camera. Alda has always seemed like a very nice guy to me, so I won’t go on about how badly miscast he is (Bisset’s then-boyfriend, Michael Sarrazin, would have been great in the role...or perhaps, Keir Dullea who was also very easy on the eyes), just suffice it to say that a huge chunk of plot credibility flies out the door every time he appears.
Alan Alda                                      Michael Sarrazin
  
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I think one of the reasons I've never seen a film about the occult to ever come close to capturing Rosemary’s Baby’s intensity and efficacy, is that few of these films, once they latch onto their particular Satanic gimmick, ever give much thought as to how the film might play to those who find it impossible to buy into the traditional concept of Satan. Polanski was smart enough to make his horror film as if constructing a paranoid psychological thriller. It works because the structure of the plot is viable whether you buy into the religious myth or not. 
In films like The Mephisto Waltz, the fantastic particulars of the occult gimmick need to be introduced so quickly (in this instance, the ability to switch souls) that scant time is devoted to showing us how otherwise practical characters gradually come to believe the impossible.
Bad Romance
In his shot from the decadent New Year's Eve costume ball sequence, Alan Alda (in fez and monkey mask) and Barbara Parkins offer further proof that just about everything Lady Gaga does has been done before

Jacqueline Bisset’s Paula is far too suspicious far too soon and it tips the hand of the plot. Likewise Myles’ swift, unquestioning acceptance of Duncan’s largess. Alda’s character is such a blank to us (we have no sense of whether his abrupt acceptance into the jet-set compromises his values) that the eradication of his soul holds no dramatic weight. How poignant his death would have been had we had a glimpse of what the rejuvenation of his abandoned music career might have meant to him, or to what extent his defeated sense of self is flattered by the attentions of one as rich and successful as Duncan Ely.
Similarly, I’ve never seen the death of a child in a movie given such short shrift. First off, Bisset looks like nobody’s mom on this planet, least of all the overexposed child actress cast in the role*; secondly, in order for the plot to progress, Bisset's character appears to grieve over the murder of her child for about 24 hours, then it’s back to the witch-hunt.
*(Pamelyn Ferdin, immediately recognizable as the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the Peanuts TV specials, was near- unavoidable in the 70s, appearing on everything from Star Trek to The Streets of San Francisco.)

In skimming over the human drama, The Mephisto Waltz, like so many other genre films, miss the opportunity to have audiences engaged in anything other than the mechanics of plot and plotting.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As an occult thriller, The Mephisto Waltz plays it pretty straightforward down the line, telling its story crisply and entertainingly.  It has its suspense and tension, but never once is it disturbing. Certainly not as disturbing as it could be, given the fundamental amorality of it all. 
There’s a layer of a body-fetish subplot lying below the surface of The Mephisto Waltz’s soul-transplant theme that calls for a director attuned to the revulsion/attraction of body horror…someone like David Cronenberg. The fetish object in The Mephisto Waltz is Myles Clarkson. Duncan Ely wants him for his youth, but specifically for his hands. Roxanne wants her father, Duncan, and is willing to get to him through the body of Clarkson. Most perverse of all, when Paula finally learns that her husband is dead and that another man inhabits his body…it’s the body she wants, and (to her own surprise) she doesn’t really care who its owner is.
 The film is awash with scenes and dialog emphasizing Myles’ body and physical desirability, both before and after its possession by Duncan: 

Roxanne: (Ostensibly asking Paula’s permission to make a life-mask of Myles)  “It’s alright then, I can do him?”

Abby: (To Paula about their newly acquired dog) “He wants daddy.”
Paula: “Don’t we all.”

Paula's best friend: "Oh! He's sexy...don't you think he's sexy? You should know better than I!"

Roxanne's ex-husband, Bill (Bradford Dillman) to Paula after she confesses that she still finds Myles sexually irresistible even though she knows it isn’t truly him: “They say the truth is, once you've had one of them (a Satan-worshipper), nothing else will quite satisfy you.”

With the utter disposability of Myles, the man, contrasted with escalating battles for his body, the overarching feeling you’re left with is that everybody loves Myles in parts, but not as a whole. Kind of like a perverse corruption of Cole Porter’s “The Physician.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a story to tell and relaying it in as efficient and entertaining a manner as possible. The Mephisto Waltz succeeds on that score. But had it taken the time to explore the story’s emotional and sub-textural themes…who knows? It might have been a genuine Rosemary’s Baby contender.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. One of my all time favorite horror-thrillers! I agree with your assessment of Alan Alda in this film. They needed a much sexier leading man to make the tug of war between Jacqueline Bissett and Barbara Parkins more believable.

    Jacqueline Bisset *is* gorgeous in this and I am a big admirer of Barbara Parkins who I always felt was under-utilized and under-rated and under-appreciated.

    Awhile back I was fortunate to get my hands on all 500+ episodes of PEYTON PLACE and she was one of the best things about that show!

    I haven't seen this one in years but it's definitely time for another viewing!

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  2. First things first: 500+ episodes of "Peyton Place"? Wow!I kind of remember that show being on almost every night of the week when I was a kid, so I can see how that's possible.
    I've always like Barbara Parkins, too. I remember her in the film "Asylum" a pretty scary sequence.

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  3. PEYTON PLACE was never rerun and ran pretty much aired first run episodes straight through the sumnmer months and at it's peak aired 3 nights a week.

    I only know these things through book, the internet, etc. I wasn't born when the show first premiered and by the time I came into the world it was in it's next to last season.

    Never saw Asylum but I will check it out if I can get my hands on it. Parkins was also in THE KREMLIN LETTER which was her last project under her Fox contract.

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    1. Hi again, PTF
      I think I remember a "Mad" magazine parody from the time where the future is envisioned as televising "Peyton Place" 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Have NEVER seen it, but I like so many of the cast members I should do a YouTube hunt. Never saw "The Kremlin Letter" and have always been curious about a film called "the Deadly Trap" that featured my fave Faye Dunaway and Parkins. Can't recall if it ever had even a VHS release.

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  4. Hi Ken ~

    You don't have to look too far to see "The Deadly Trap" the movie is uploaded on YouTube in 7 parts. I've read some comments from Miss Parkins awhile back in reference to working with Miss Dunaway. They didn't get along. I have yet to watch it myself though. I may do so this weekend.

    Speaking of Dunaway have you seen "Puzzle of a Downfall Child"? What a movie! What a performance!

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    1. Much appreciated, PTF
      Thanks so much for that info about "The Deadly Trap"! Never once occurred to me to look at YouTube! Can't wait to check it out.
      And yes, I have seen "Puzzle of a Downfall Child." It is really a wonderful performance by Dunaway. I always remember that scene where she has to model with that crow on her arm. Makes me think of what poor Tippi Hedren must have went through.

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  5. I disagree with your characterization of Alda. I felt he offered a pleasing contrast. He is a standard guy, prized in parts by his executioners. His warm affection towards Paula drifts until he is consumed and once he is Duncan he is sinister in a very quiet way. I am reminiscent of the scene in the Body Snatchers before Donal Sutherland screams, that quiet before violence. I felt that the film was well cast on all fronts. But I agree with your other evaluations. Paula was a tad cold and I was almost disappointed by how little fanfare was given the murders.

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    1. I know several fans of "The Mephisto Waltz" who feel as you do about Alda. Citing John Cassavetes' already-sinister looking husband in "Rosemary's Baby", or Jack Nicholson's crazy-from-the-start characterization in "The Shining".
      Like you, they appreciate that Alan Alda is an average guy type. Something that makes his character's later transformation all the more chilling. I like your allusion to the scene in "Body Snatchers."

      It's always interesting to hear about how someone responds to some aspect of a film that has perhaps left me cold. Your comments are well-considered and very much appreciated. Thanks for writing!

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    2. I completely understand your perspective and I think it comes from where we think the lust is fixated on. If we think it is the body of Myles, then yes, he has a boyish frame and is frankly normal. If he is meant to be playing a lothario then yes, the mark was missed. But if we believe that Myles was always meant to be dismembered and is only of use to characters in pieces or a mobile shell, its tragic. Myles doesnt write, he doesnt play, he is the chiming monkey at the party ie he has no control of his destiny. We are not even party to his death. Therefore it is less that he transforms into another person but that he becomes a major mover of both plot and people. Just like with Nicholson's performance I guess it depends on what you want from the film.

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    3. Indeed, I think the thriller genre, like comedy, is often so effective and enjoyable on so many levels because of the element of subjective interpretation. No matter how straightforward the story, the element of mystery invites and engages (rightly so) our personal perceptions of what we are being shown.
      In spite of our differing opinions on the effectiveness of the Myles/Alda connection, I think we both agree that "The Mephisto Waltz", while not perfect, is an interesting enough film to warrant more attention drawn to it. I wish it were a more well-known film just so I could read more thoughtful commentary about it. Either pro or con...I just wish more people had heard of it!
      Thanks again for sharing your insights.

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  6. You nailed it when it comes to Alan Alda in the film. How I hated him for wasting this opportunity to show some evil and sexiness. He just seemed like he wished he was in another movie, so badly miscast is he.

    I love Jacqueline Bisset but I too felt that she didn't let go enough in her role. She had the chance to break through that british stuffiness (but that's also what I like about her). I am amazed those two actors got new chances to act after this movie. (They turned into big stars in the 70's.)

    They also dressed Paula in such dull clothes - jeans and trench coats! A film from 1971 should have crazier fashions!!! I do like the slinky clothes Barbara Parkins wears and she steals the movie.

    And yes, I too reacted att how little Paula grieved her child! It's as if it all were a nuisance to her and she's finally free and single!!

    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      I love that you have seen this movie! Our tasted DO intersect over some of the odd ones. I know Alan Alda is a matter of taste, but for a thriller to hinge so much of its supernatural plot on the obsessive side of sexual attraction, Alda just exudes so little "oomph!" And therefore upends the premise for me.
      I'm old enough to remember when Jacqueline Bisset was one of a slew of reluctant 70s se symbols complaining about never being offered anything but decorative roles. She wasn't asked to do much in either "Bullitt" or "The Detective", but this and "the Grasshopper" were MAJOR female roles at the time. As much as i adore her, I really do wish she had dug a little deeper and delivered a stronger performance in both. I agree, Barbara Parkins (in wardrobe and performance) walks away with it.
      And alas, her sorrow for her child's death has to be the briefest parental grieving on record!
      Since we seem to share a similar taste for the obscure, if you ever come across a favorite film you think I might not know about, please, let me know.
      Thanks again for reading so many of my posts, Wille. You're a brave soul!

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