Oh dear, the classic “man sells his soul to the devil” story, how it has become the epitome of film cliche. I wasn’t expecting much, because so many films have that theme of the pathetic individual with a pathetic life selling their pathetic soul to the charming human embodiment of Satan for a shot at their dreams, with disastrous consequences to follow. It is taut, well-worn and quite frankly…boring.
But Bedazzled is a lot of things. The above does not apply to it. Instead, it is a wonderfully quirky, strange little comedy that I believe deserves much more than the raw deal it has received after fading away into relative obscurity, and I resent the fact that Bedazzled hasn’t appeared on lists of greatest comedies, because it is truly something extraordinarily special and absolutely underrated.
Dudley Moore and Peter Cook are one of the greatest comedy duos of all time, and I think that rising at the same time that Monty Python did was a bit unfortunate, because while the Pythons, who I adore more than life itself, are now seen as comedy gods, Cook and Moore are sadly overlooked. Their brands of comedy were ever so slightly different, which is why it is perfectly possible for both groups to co-exist happily on the spectrum of British comedy. Bedazzled was undoubtedly the crowing glory in the lifespan of Cook and Moore’s partnership, and stands as something brilliant that showcase both comedic legends’ talents and quirks to their full extent.
The film tells that age-old story of the loser who sells his soul to the devil. Moore plays the loser, named Stanley Moon, who works as a fry cook in a diner. Cook plays, of course, Old Scratch himself, going by the name of George Spiggott. Even just looking at the two men, side by side, is hilarious. Their juxtaposition is pure comedic brilliance – Moore is pathetic, short, pudgy and gullible, while Cook is charismatic, tall, gangly and supremely manipulative. It is this type of juxtaposition of character that made duos like Lemmon and Matthau and Laurel and Hardy work so well. Both actors morph themselves into these characters with such ease, and when Cook (who wrote the screenplay), was conceiving the idea, he clearly endevored to bring the best qualities of both actors into the characters. I have no doubt that they could switch roles and it would be just as brilliant, but something just makes me think both of them played to their strengths as the characters they ended up portraying. I won’t say they were perfect for the roles, because Cook created the roles for them, but it seems impossible to replace them, even with each other.
What sets this story apart from the cliched story it tells? Several factors – first of all, this film is genuinely very funny. It never resorts to potty humor or lazy laughs, and it is the perfect combination of the traditional brand of Ealing comedy, combined with the rising cosmopolitan nihilism of 1960s Britain. It also has structure, more than anything else. Stanley gets seven wishes, he uses them all, and then the film ends. There aren’t any ventures into territories that distract from the central theme of the story, and that is one element that a lot of films with similar stories lack. This will be the first and last time I’ll ever praise a character named Satan – but what Cook does with the character of The Devil is truly remarkable. It is a far-cry from the sly and slick, effortlessly cool and deeply evil and remorseless Devil we see in film most of the time. While George Spiggott is relatively trendy and sly, he is also humanized somewhat – The Devil becomes less “Dark Lord of the Underworld” and more just a simple, pathetic poseur, doing his best to retain the image of being evil. Its a very interesting and unique approach, and one I really do appreciate, because it is fresh and very different from anything seen before. Its odd to praise a performance where someone plays the very epitome of evil, but Peter cook truly does do something very special here.
Bedazzled is a brilliant and charming little film and one of the greatest comedies I’ve ever seen. It has heart, humor and an executes a concept with such grace and sophistication, all other films of this sub-genre pale in comparison. I definitely think it deserves to be seen and loved more, and I certainly will be revisiting it several times. A fantastic film.
[Yes, I deliberately chose to ignore the ill-fated remake. I won’t mention that disaster]