The Devil’s Disciple

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Burt Lancaster would have been 107 years old on November 2nd. So I thought I would revisit one of my late father’s favorite films starring Lancaster, The Devil’s Disciple (1959). I used to watch this film all of the time as a little boy. But this was the first time that I had revisited The Devil’s Disciple in at least ten years. When I last watched it I was specifically looking for any of Alexander Mackendrick’s stylistic flourishes that may have survived into the finished film after his premature departure from the project.

One has to remember that the goal of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions at the time was to imbue “serious” and “intellectual” properties with optimum box office appeal. The objective with The Devil’s Disciple was to expand George Bernard Shaw’s original play into something resembling more closely an adventure film. Lancaster and Kirk Douglas give the film that promise of adventure while Laurence Olivier and Janette Scott lend the film the austerity of the London stage. Naturally this seemed like the perfect follow up to Sweet Smell Of Success (1957) for Mackendrick since it played so perfectly into his sensibilities as a director, but unfortunately the director was bullied and then fired due to the conflicting demands of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. 

The completed film of The Devil’s Disciple is flawed largely because of Mackendrick’s departure. Future Bond veteran Guy Hamilton replaced Mackendrick but lacked the sensitivity and delicate humor to pull off this unique hybrid of genres. Hamilton, a very competent director, specialized in juvenile spectacles the likes of which The Devil’s Disciple could never hope to be. This is why as an adult today I do not take the same kind of joy in watching The Devil’s Disciple as I did when I was a little boy.

It’s always pleasing, for me anyway, to return to these Lancaster films. There’s an indescribable delight that comes from watching Burt leap into action or in seeing Douglas try to upstage Lancaster. Douglas, of course, is great in The Devil’s Disciple as well. He was born to play silver tongued rascals like Dick Dudgeon. And as for Olivier and Scott, they were both tailor made to speak Shaw’s lines and give his humor the knowing winks and nods it so deserves.