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Devil’s Disciple, The (Blu-ray Review)

23 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Street 11/24/2015
Kino Lorber
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Janette Scott.

Roundabout 1963-64, John Ford gave an on-stage interview at either USC or UCLA where one of many subjects discussed was his apparently correct assertion that American audiences have never been too enthusiastic when it comes to supporting movies about their own Revolutionary War — speculating, as I recall, that maybe the Yankee Doodle demo just doesn’t care to see a bunch of guys in wigs (something I always flash on while struggling to get through John Sturges’ The Scarlet Coat on Turner Classic Movies). But then, there’s The Devil’s Disciple — an engaging and indisputably all-star (if rather odd) screen take on George Bernard Shaw’s set-in-1777 play, which opened and soon closed in late summer of ’59 around the same time as North by Northwest.

Certainly the picture avoids any wig stigma by plopping macho royalty of the day into its two key roles — both of them sporting serious hair here and with Kirk Douglas’s so robust that it could almost rate billing in the credits. Yet Disciple, too, seriously underperformed at the box office — though cast aside, it at least appears to have been filmed on the cheap (which is one of its problems). Even so, I’ve always kind of liked it, though it was a troubled production — a euphemism that seems fitting to describe any movie on which the director got fired after shooting began. In this case, it was Alexander Mackendrick, who had previously directed Disciple producer/star Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success — a recommendation if there ever was one, though the two had clashed on there as well. Mackendrick’s replacement here was the mostly nondescript Guy Hamilton (though we’ll always have to give him Goldfinger).

According to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, multiple reviewers of the day complained about the expansion of Lancaster’s role — that of a minister (with a comely wife) who’s trying to maintain calm while forest-trapped British Gen. John Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier) is having a loathsome time trying to make his way into New England amid a mass of fallen trees to help orchestrate the hangings of rebel Colonists. Lancaster as a man of the cloth is always going to be a stretch unless his name is Elmer Gantry, and the actor’s style is fairly cramped here until the finale (more on this later). But as the American rascal who, by circumstances, pretends to be him as a way of saving the Lancaster character’s life, Douglas is pretty close being in top form. Certainly, he gets most of the laugh lines — or would, if Olivier weren’t so ticklishly precise here as a notably sympathetic “Gentleman John.” Had the movie been a hit (nonsense that shouldn't affect awards voting but still does to this day), Olivier might have gotten a deserved Oscar nomination — but then again, Joe E. Brown didn't get one for Some Like It Hot, either. And if the selling point here is a “Big Three” male cast, I also like future sci-fi queen Janette Scott (The Day of the Triffids, Crack in the World), who is both cute and a tad loopy here — not exactly a simple-ton but simple.

If you look at the movie as a three-act play on film, the first act is a little short on (in keeping with the British director and cinematographer) “petrol” — while the second fares best of the three (this is where Douglas turns on the ne’er’-do-well charm to transform Scott’s rancor into affection). The third act is where I’m guessing some of the disagreements with Mackendrick arose and the participation of screenwriter Roland Kibbee came in (he wrote The Crimson Pirate and co-penned Vera Cruz, perhaps the two most rousingly satisfying pure-Burt vehicles of the ’50s). At this point — and late in the film, which, by the way, runs only 83 minutes — Lancaster trades in his professional Protestant garb for buckskin. Inevitably, cannonballs fly, and customers hungry for the more characteristic Lancaster derring-do get a few crumbs tossed their way.

Kino’s 1.66:1 Blu-ray is merely decent but welcome since the film has been shown a lot over the years in 1.33:1. But in fairness and to my longtime surprise, it’s never been visually distinctive in any form despite the litany of handsome credits both in black-and-white and color on the resumé of Jack Hildyard — who’d recently won the Oscar for shooting The Bridge on the River Kwai (I hope they got the finale on the first take). Still, the movie is more fun than its obscure station in life, and I can remember semi-astonished observers writing about the indifferent box office even when I was a 12-year-old. In my hometown, one of the large first-run palaces gave Disciple a week billed with another United Artists low achiever: Ernest Borgnine in The Rabbit Trap. That one had its own commercial problems because Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to fashion vehicles for Ernie as a marquee movie lead, as befitting his Oscar station post-Marty.


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