Bedazzled arose from Peter Cook’s desire to extend his fame beyond the confines of Britain by conquering the movies and, from there, an international audience. “Beyond The Fringe” had been a big success on Broadway but the move back to Britain and the fledgling BBC 2 with “Not Only But Also” had seemed a step backwards into parochialism by the endlessly ambitious Cook. He wrote Bedazzled as an ideal vehicle for himself and Dudley Moore but the result ironically demonstrates that his strength lay more in sketch comedy than extended narrative and, watched a few decades later, it has some brilliant highlights surrounded by a considerable amount of padding.
The plot is a contemporary take on the “Faust” legend. Stanley Moon (Moore) is a frustrated man, working as a short-order cook in a grubby café with no money, no prospects and no girlfriend. He pines desperately after Margaret Spencer (Bron), a waitress, but can’t find the courage to make a move. In despair, he attempts suicide but even this is a failure. But just as he discovers he can’t even hang himself, George Spiggott (Cook), man about town and the Prince of Darkness, enters his life. Spiggott offer Stanley seven wishes in return for his eternal soul and Stanley agrees. But at every turn, no matter how promising the situation or how close he seems to be getting to Margaret’s affections, Stanley finds that the Devil is blocking his chance of happiness.
The best thing about Bedazzled is that it highlights, albeit sporadically, the intense comic invention of Peter Cook. The sense of the bizarre erupting out of the everyday – the “Bloody Greta Garbo” effect as we might call it – is constantly bubbling up and the best of it remains hysterically funny. Moments such as Cook sitting cross legged on a pillar box while Moore dances about are simply unforgettable. Indeed the best scenes tend to be as incidental as this – Spiggott idly practising his mischief as he tears the last page out of Agatha Christie paperbacks and brings plagues of wasps down on flower people. The level of verbal imagination is also high; on God and Jesus for example - “Of course his son had a lot of problems, having such a famous father”; or on sleep – “I had a fitful doze in the Middle Ages but since then, nothing”; or the Old Testament – “Job was what you’d technically describe as a loony”. The episodic structure of the film is ideal for Cook’s style of writing since it means that scenes don’t have to build, simply move from one to the next. This is, in one sense, a blessing when you think of a film like The Rebel in which Tony Hancock’s persona was stretched so thin that the plot became a burden. When it takes wing, as in the entire sequence in the Convent of Leaping Berelians, you don’t want a plot, you simply want the thing not to finish. However, it’s also a weakness. The narrative line is shaky to say the least and the result is similar to that which you find in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - the laughs are there but they don’t build into a coherent storyline. Nor is there any attempt made to develop the characters and this means that nothing much seems to be at stake for Stanley – yes, he’s going to lose his soul but he doesn’t seem to have much of one to begin with, or anything else inside him for that matter. He’s a cipher, little more.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were to encounter this problem again in their attempts to break into cinema. Their appearances in The Wrong Box and Monte Carlo Or Bust seem weirdly divorced from the context of the films and their version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was a disaster, despite a few moments of comic brilliance. Ultimately, once they broke up, it was Moore who became the film star by developing his comic persona into something which could hold a film together. Cook never managed this and remained a brilliant sketch actor who always stuck out uncomfortably in films – the exceptions being movies like Whoops Apocalypse in which he was basically doing a revue turn that didn’t have to relate to the rest of the piece. It may be that he needed the freedom and danger of live performance to come across properly and that his particular kind of comedy needed spontaneity rather than scripting. As usual, he seems a little wooden here with a ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ look whenever the camera gets too close. Dudley Moore comes across rather better and makes Stanley more sympathetic than the writing deserves. The supporting cast is very reliable with Eleanor Bron coming across very well and strong contributions from the familiar likes of Michael Bates as a police inspector and Barry Humphries as Envy. Even Raquel Welch is more convincing here than in anything else she ever did, largely because she’s put in the one-note role of Lust which doesn’t require her to play a rounded character.
To be fair, however, the episodic nature of the film is only a problem if you judge it against the highest standards of movie comedy. In itself, the movie is very well made and this is a tribute to the talent of Stanley Donen. An undervalued director, largely because his career fell apart in the 1970s, Donen had the ability to keep his films moving along with an unflagging pace and an eye for picking up as many laughs as he could. In his most impressive film, Charade, the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, Donen demonstrates am ethereal lightness of touch which he presumably learned from Gene Kelly on Singin’ In The Rain. Bedazzled isn’t quite in that league but Donen’s direction is very clever. He parodies a number of styles with real brilliance, particularly in the inspired sequence which sends up 1960s TV pop shows. Each episode is given a style of its own with the cinematography varying from grainy black and white to luxurious soft-focus. The film is dated in some respects – the ‘Swinging Sixties’ vibe is omnipresent but as in a film such as The Thomas Crown Affair, this is charming rather than irksome. Donen’s careful direction, accompanied by some brilliant editing and glossy production values, keeps the laughs coming on cue and deters us from the conclusion that the film is basically a series of sketches which don’t quite come together.
Second Sight’s new DVD of Bedazzled is quite impressive in visual terms. The transfer features gorgeous colours, loads of detail and careful attention to the differing photographic styles which the film employs. I am assuming here that the occasional extreme soft-focus is intentional and not a video problem. The transfer looks suitably film-like without being too grainy and there is no edge-enhancement or artifacting. The main significant problem is some print damage which becomes slightly intrusive at times. Despite this, I can say without any doubt that I’ve never seen the film look as good as this before. It’s also great to see it in the full 2.35:1 ratio rather than the pan/scan atrocity released to video or the cropped 1.85:1 version that has been shown on television. The DVD is anamorphically enhanced.
The 2.0 Mono soundtrack offers no problems at all and presents the jazzy music score very nicely.
The extras are limited. We get an interview with Barry Humphries (or Humpries as the menu spells it) and some behind-the-scenes footage. The former last 23 minutes and is a bit bland but includes some fascinating insights into working with Peter Cook at the height of his comic powers. The latter, running just shy of five minutes, is in black and white and intended for Movietone News. It’s quite funny as Moore interviews Cook who is in character as the Devil.
Unfortunately, the disc contains no subtitles either for the film or the special features.
Bedazzled isn’t a great film but the chance to see Cook and Moore together at the zenith of their popularity is enough to make it well worth seeing. It’s certainly patchy but at its best it’s blissfully funny. The DVD looks and sounds fine and the special features, while a little superficial, are enjoyable enough.