There’s a scene in Bedazzled in which George Spiggott, the Devil Incarnate (played by Peter Cook) sends a swarm of wasps to ruin the happiness of a group of flower people, while ordinary Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) looks on with horror. Moon tells the Devil that he’s really not very nice, and the Devil points out that Stanley could intervene if he felt strongly about it.
Stanley considers it. Then he shakes his head, looks at the Devil, and says, “I’m not falling for any more of your tricks, thank you very much.’
And that’s pretty much the message at the heart of Bedazzled, which must be one of the most intelligent and lacerating films ever made that still manages to be really funny. Is anybody prepared to do anything good for the right reasons any more, or has it become impossible to tell what’s right? Is there such a thing as selflessness?
It’s a retelling of the Faust legend, with its teeth firmly sunk into the idea that nobody’s soul is actually that pure in the face of temptation. Stanley Moon is in love with Margaret (Eleanor Bron), who works at the local Wimpy bar with him, but he lacks the means to get her attention. His prayer to an uninterested God only ends up attracting the Devil, who offers him a deal – seven wishes in exchange for Moon’s soul. But whatever Stanley wishes for, the Devil finds a loophole. We can’t blame him, of course; it’s in his nature.
Cook and Moore were one of the great double acts of British comedy, and Bedazzled is very faithful to their particular brand of humour. Cook was incredibly sharp and sardonic, with a handsome, unblinking mask instead of expressions. Moore was more approachable, a traditional comedian in terms of clowning and cheeky face-pulling. We feel warmly towards Moore; personally, I’ve always found Peter Cook to be a scary figure. He wrote the script for Bedazzled, and it’s so cutting, so pointed, that it makes this lesser mortal feel quite in awe of him. So it never seemed strange to me that it was Dudley Moore who had the more successful film career. He was easier to feel comfortable with, as a character, and a more straightforwardly talented actor.
Dudley Moore moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and appeared in hugely popular films such as 10 (1979) and Arthur (1981), but I think my favourite performance of his is in Crazy People (1990), where he has a kind of weary hatred of modern life, giving an edge to his usual persona. Whereas there’s a general sense about Peter Cook that he somehow diminished into less than greatness simply because he didn’t end up in Hollywood – as if that is the pinnacle of achievement. But I don’t buy it. In an interview for Pebble Mill in the 1990s, the interviewer asked Cook if he felt he hadn’t lived up to his potential. “I can think of nothing worse than to live up to one’s potential,” Cook replied. “I leave it, glimmering, on the horizon.”
It’s easy to see a sadness in him when you revisit the Derek and Clive recordings where he is just so nasty to Dudley Moore that it’s painful, or in the exploits of Sven the Norwegian Fisherman from Swiss Cottage, who phoned the late night radio show of Clive Bull in the 1980s and reported his ongoing concerns about fish and his relationship with his wife. It’s all still brilliant and funny, of course, but a loneliness shines out from it. Or is that just my imagination? I see the same in Bedazzled’s George Spiggott. The Devil wants to return to the forefront of God’s attention, but nothing is ever good enough for God, is it? Perhaps it’s too easy to read too much into that perfectly composed face of Cook’s, which never let out a chink of real emotion.
This makes Bedazzled sound very layered – and it absolutely is, not just in words, but also in visual detail. As an example, at one point Moore walks into a nun’s cell, and there hangs a severe photograph of Cook as Mother Superior. Under the photograph is a caption – ‘Big Sister is Watching You’. Every location is interesting, particularly in terms of colour, but perhaps my favourite setting is the Devil’s night club, a luscious, dank basement of red and green. There we find the seven deadly sins, including Barry Humphries as an arch Envy in green silk pyjamas, and Raquel Welch as Lust, shot through a lens that fogs up as if affected the requisite emotion.
In fact, the film is shot with real style, and looks more expensive and upmarket than any other British comedy film I can think of. The director was none other than Stanley Donen, one of the great Hollywood musical directors. His hit films include Singin’ In The Rain, and Charade, and his clean, crisp, and visually clever style very much suits the script. It may seem like an odd choice for Donen, but he was an admirer of the Beyond The Fringe show and wanted very much to work with Cook and Moore. Pleased with the result, Donen still rates Bedazzled as a favourite amongst his own works.
It’s also worth mentioning the music in Bedazzled, which was composed by Dudley Moore. Moore was a talented musician, and here he gives us two great songs for a black and white Top of the Pops style segment. Stanley has wished to become a star, and he sings Love Me! with mad energy while the girls scream for him. But the Devil has plans to upstage him. He appears on stage and sings the brilliant, creepy song Bedazzled, telling the girls he doesn’t want them, or need them. They are silent in their awe of his disinterest. “You fill me with inertia,” he sing-says, proving that a talking style of delivery in a song need not make you think of an avuncular Rex Harrison type figure.
Bedazzled was perhaps too challenging in places to appeal to everyone. It mixed a bleak message with uncomfortable humour, and also had an unusual framework, with the action split into segments by Stanley Moon’s wishes. There is animation and absurdism. It divided critics at the time, but became a cult hit, and was remade in 2000 by Harold Ramis, with Brendan Fraser as Stanley and Liz Hurley as the Devil. There are funny moments in the remake, and Fraser is likable and engaging (much like Moore) but it’s hard not to feel that all the magic of the original is lost. Perhaps it could never work without Cook’s presence as the Devil. He was such a unique performer – not ever really an actor so much as a force, capturing your attention with his quick, deadpan speeches that he could deliver faster than an audience could keep up with. Bedazzled – the original version – bears watching again and again just to check you’ve not missed some of the best jokes, which he throws away without care.
I love Bedazzled. Everything about it is hard, and sharp, and clever. It’s a diamond of a film, and the very different talents of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook shine from it, as does the acting ability of Eleanor Bron, and the directorial skill of Stanley Donen. But that amount of cold, cutting brilliance can make you feel a little chilly. Maybe we are all self-involved, easily-swayed stooges for a prankster Devil, but at least Bedazzled will give you a laugh while it spells that message out for you, and pokes fun at you in the process.
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