Paul Wendkos, 1971
Starring: Alan Alda, Curd Jürgens, Jacqueline Bisset, Barbara Perkins, Bradford Dillman
An unsuccessful pianist and middling music writer, Myles Clarkson, has the once in a lifetime opportunity to interview Duncan Ely, the world’s greatest living concert pianist. Ely takes an immediate liking to Clarkson when he notices the younger man’s perfect hands. Clarkson begins spending a lot of time with Ely and his beautiful, yet creepy daughter Roxanne, much to the irritation of Clarkson’s wife Paula. It turns out that Ely is dying of leukemia and is also part of a group of Satanists. When Ely is on his death bed, he and Roxanne perform a ritual that transfers his spirit/consciousness into Clarkson’s young, healthy body.
Clarkson changes over night and rapidly becomes a famous pianist. Paula celebrates some of these changes, but also struggles with them. Her husband becomes busier and busier and obviously begins having an affair with Roxanne. Clarkson and Paula’s daughter dies, eventually pushing Paula into action. She begins investigating Roxanne and learns about the satanic cult. Paula realizes that she must face off against Roxanne and Clarkson before she is killed as well.
Based on Fred Mustard Stewart’s (I can’t help it, but I think his name is hilarious) novel of the same name, The Mephisto Waltz is entertaining, but deeply flawed. The biggest criticisms I’ve read of the film seem to be centered around the fact that this is not Rosemary’s Baby. Duh. The title is probably a good indication of that. Unlike many other early ‘70s genre efforts, which were outright B movies, The Mephisto Waltz was made by a major studio and received general release. It also had the misfortune to be a satanic horror film stuck between Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which had not yet been released.
Its flaws are few and easily numbered. Despite the great opening and concluding scenes, there is quite a drag in the middle of the film. The beautiful Jacqueline Bisset is quite good here, but Paula is the main character and most of the weight of the film is on her. She was definitely hampered by the script. It takes her character ages to figure out what is going on with her husband and then when she does, she sits around for half the film and doesn’t do anything about it. This makes her look weak, foolish, and unintelligent, not qualities you really want in a protagonist. When she finally does jump into action, the film really kicks off.
The other major issues is Alan Alda. Though he is wonderful elsewhere, here he was simply miscast and lacks the malevolence or charisma to play Clarkson post-possession. This is thrown into sharp relief by a great performance from Curd Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me), whom I love. It’s a shame he isn’t in the film longer, because he is perfect as Duncan Ely. Overall, the acting is a mixed bag, though Barbara Perkins (Valley of the Dolls) is fittingly slimy as Roxane.
Paul Wendkos also directed The Burglar (1957) with Jayne Mansfield, Gidget (1959) with Sandra Dee, several Gidget sequels, and Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) among many other films. His direction here is fairly utilitarian, which is a shame. There are some nice visual sequences though, such as Paula’s nightmares and the satanic rituals.
Though this is a run of the mill occult drama, there are some horror elements that make it worth recommending. First and foremost, there’s an incest subplot. If you’ve been reading this blog at all over the past few years, you’ll know that for some reason I can’t get enough of incest subplots. At least in this case, Ely has the good graces to switch bodies with someone not related to his daughter before he has sex with her. (I think.) There are some other colorful elements, such as a mutated dog, children dying, Satan, etc. There’s no gore, but there is a fair amount of nudity. There’s a also wonderful score from Jerry Goldsmith.
The Mephisto Waltz is available on double feature DVD as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies series with The House on Skull Mountain. In case you were curious, Mephisto Waltz refers to four compositions by the great Franz Liszt. Composed for both piano and orchestra (between 1859-1885), the first is the most famous and is based on Faust. Suitably diabolical. Listen here, because it’s so very beautiful.