The old joke goes that the way one gets to Carnegie Hall is practice; while this is also a truism that can be applied to any tenet of life, it’s particularly ironic in The Mephisto Waltz (1971): yes, hard work is great, but it’s much easier to just have Satan put a concert pianist’s soul in your body to achieve your dreams. Not as funny, but easier.
The Mephisto Waltz (based on the novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) danced onto screens in early June to scathing reviews and tepid box office; even its support group find fault with key elements (we’ll get to the grievances in a bit) all these years later. I would say they are correct except I find the film works well enough despite its issues; truth be told there aren’t many Satanic flicks I don’t like, and this one has a couple of neat twists to offer.
Have you seen Rosemary’s Baby? Well, mega TV producer Quinn Martin (Barnaby Jones) was betting at the time that you had and that you loved it; Stewart wrote the book as homage, but changed the occupation from actor to concert musician. An inch is as good as a mile then, and when The Mephisto Waltz finally got made the shine was off the Baby bloom for a couple years until Regan MacNeil started spinning like a top and everyone went Lucifer loco. Stuck in the unenviable position of being Rosemary’s little sister who so wants to be her, audiences turned their back on a film that’s tamer with its thrills than what preceded it and what followed. It’s still an interesting take on possession, vanity, and obsession, however.
Former piano prodigy and current music journalist Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda – M*A*S*H) is late for an interview with esteemed concert pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens – The Spy Who Loved Me); he kisses his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset – The Deep) and daughter Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin – The Toolbox Murders) goodbye and heads off to the Ely estate. Upon arrival, Duncan takes note of Myles’ hands; their stretch and length he finds very appealing, and Myles’ confirms his status as a frustrated musician. Duncan has Myles play, and soon he is introduced to not only Duncan’s daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins – Valley of the Dolls), but his inner circle of the well-to-do. Why such attention for this miserly journalist?
Paula has a hunch that we the audience already knows: Duncan is dying, and wishes to place his soul into a new body. The right body. Myles’ body. As Duncan’s soul is transferred upon death through a ritual involving Roxanne, a satanic text, a pentagram, and some candles, Myles begins to play like the master Duncan was – on stage and in the arms of Paula too. As she gets closer to the truth, Paula still tries to retrieve her husband from the clutches of Old Scratch and the evil aristocracy of the Ely entourage. Will she succeed?
I’ll never tell; and if you think I’ve spoiled anything by letting on that Duncan possesses Myles’ body, I haven’t – that’s the event that sets the plot in motion. What happens after is more interesting – Paula slowly realizing what’s going on, her attempts to stop it as allies drop around her – than yet another drawn out ceremony. (We know how movie Satanism works, okay?)
This is what sets it apart from Polanski’s classic: while Rosemary (and the audience) questions whether the horrible events taking place are real or imagined, the audience of The Mephisto Waltz is in on it from the get go; there’s a voyeuristic quality in both films, but Waltz doubles down by having some other offer up POV shots continually throughout the film. Nothing particularly new, but it does add a slight if confusing unease.
Other than these shots and a few AIP-inspired dream sequences, TV vet director Paul Wendkos (The Invaders) does little to distinguish the look and pace from an average small screen flick; without some brief nudity, Waltz would have felt right in place in between one of Martin’s 72 on-air programs.
So the filmmakers turn to the subject matter itself to provide chills, which is where they find the most success; themes of dislocation and loss of identity, as well as social status play a large part in the make-up of the film. Satanism has always been associated on film with decadence and the pursuit of fleshly pleasures – in a negative light. But Capitalism is the cornerstone of society; the only difference between Ely’s posse and anyone else is the deity they choose to worship. I mean, of course they’re evil; but at least they’re upfront about it.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of the film is Paula’s obsession with the cult; whereas Myles’ initial interest is climbing the ladder to fame and fortune, Paula feels nothing but distrust towards his new friends. It’s only after she sees the success Paul achieves that she starts to see the terrifying power firsthand; is she afraid of their hold, or excited by the possibilities?
This is a theme teased rather than fully fleshed out - a pity then because with what Bisset has to work, she does very well (other than one scene where she’s not really great at all); Jurgens is an effectively grumpy dark servant, Parkins proves an efficient seductress, and it’s always great to see Bradford Dillman in anything (here he plays Roxanne’s ex husband). That about covers the cast, then?
I’m kidding of course; the main criticism of the film is the supposed miscasting of Alda as Myles, with many feeling that he lacked the requisite sex appeal to a) be with Bisset, and b) be wanted by Parkins. Let’s be honest; anyone on the same screen as Bisset will pale in comparison, and as for Parkins, don’t forget that her daddy with benefits is now inside Myles, so of course she’d be drawn to him. As for Alda himself, he brings a beaten down reserve to the character before the switch that works; he’s also convincing enough playing the piano to sell the part. I think he’s fine; besides within a year he’d be telling everyone to suck it when he landed the role of Hawkeye on M*A*S*H.
The Mephisto Waltz will never achieve the accolades of its more famous devil disciples; it’s neither as clever as Rosemary’s Baby nor as emotionally (and viscerally) shocking as The Exorcist. But it does offer a glimpse at the dark side of ambition. Even a black light gives off heat.
The Mephisto Waltz is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DEVILS OF DARKNESS (1965)