Looking Backward: The Devil’s Disciple (1959)

4 Jul

Burt, Kirk, and LarryThe Devil’s Disciple is, to begin with, a terrific example of a cinematic adaptation of a stage play that maintains the spirit of the script that inspires it but still avoids having people stand in a single room talking to each other all the time. If anything, it goes to show that Billy Wilder could’ve written one hell of a screenplay for a John Ford Western. But enough of my daydreaming…

The original play has all of three locations (and the usual heaping helping of novelistic Shavian stage directions/descriptions); the screenplay manages to flesh out the play’s basic events and motivations without being enslaved by a pretend proscenium – something that should be easy with Shaw, considering how expensive it would be to stage most Shaw strictly according to his instructions. (That said, it made me long to be enslaved by a proscenium again myself to grapple with some Shaw, something I can’t seem to talk anyone else into.)

These are simultaneously perfect roles for Lancaster and Douglas and yet good stretches for them as well. There’s not a lot of, you know, acting going on in that This Is Important sense – as I said, it plays out like one of those good morality-based 1950s Westerns, not like a turn-of-the-century British stage “melodrama,” as Shaw labeled it. Olivier could sleepwalk brilliantly through roles like this, or at least had the sprezzatura to make that appear to be the case.

There was apparently a day when this was the vanity project an actor did with his own production company: a Shaw adaptation about the American Revolution co-starring Laurence Olivier and directed by Guy Hamilton, who went on to do four James Bond films. Good times.

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