Bedazzled — the 1967 original — is structured as a classical theological farce in which a nobody (Dudley Moore) sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Cook) in order to get close to the woman of his dreams. The result is a series of sketches, some more on-target than others, illustrating the maxim “Be careful what you wish for” — which is really one of the oldest tropes around, or at least as old as Faust.
Stanley Moon (Moore), a burger-flipper in a London greasy spoon, has the hots for waitress Margaret (Eleanor Bron) but can’t work up the nerve to choke out more than a few syllables to her. In walks the Devil, using the name George Spiggott and the indolently lanky physique of Peter Cook. George pays a visit to Stanley after a botched suicide attempt and offers him seven wishes, all of which center on winning Margaret’s heart. But poor Stanley keeps issuing vague wishes, and George cheerfully gives Stanley everything he doesn’t want and none of what he does.
The revue-sketch quality of the comedy will leave some cold — “That’s it? This is the cult classic I’ve been hearing about all these years?” — and impress others as a shaggy-dog tag-team victory to put on the shelf alongside Withnail & I. (Some of the film’s reputation no doubt derives from Brits who saw it at the right age — i.e., in college — much like the later Richard E. Grant/Paul McCann object of worship.) I found a lot of it only mildly amusing but always enjoyable, due mostly to the rapport between the mischievous Cook and the sawed-off sad sack Moore — they’re a metaphysical Mutt & Jeff, Laurel & Hardy, pick your tall-and-short team.
One noticeable aspect, bordering on calling attention to itself, is Bedazzled‘s bleary visual scheme. Whenever possible, director Stanley Donen and cinematographer Austin Dempster shoot in soft focus or through dingy glass windows — an entire early scene between George and Stanley unfolds in alternating one-shots filmed through a filthy glass divider in Stanley’s flat. Flares are used nearly to the point of overuse. Was this Donen’s idea of a trippy pictorial metaphor for swingin’, drug-addled young London (even though drugs don’t play much of a role in the film)? The consistent softness can’t be an accident, though I can’t quite work out why it’s there. When Raquel Welch shows up for her famous bit as Lilian Lust, she’s seen almost exclusively through sheer bedcurtains.
The highlight, for me, was Stanley’s fantasy of being a pop star: “Love me, love me,” he beseeches in song (Dudley Moore wrote the film’s music), and then George, billed as “Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations,” slouches on for a deadpan-hostile number (“You fill me with inertia,” he drones) that inspired Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 to call him “a New Waver ahead of his time.” Indeed, quite a few ’80s Brit acts might’ve taken a page from Drimble Wedge. Some of the anecdotes go on a bit, and it may be either a failing or a joke that Eleanor Bron’s Margaret doesn’t seem to have much personality to speak of (she shifts depending on the fantasy) — Stanley sells his soul and knocks himself silly for a cipher who resembles a proto-Amy Winehouse. He seems to have more going on with the Devil, who occasionally betrays some sincere, if fleeting, affection for Stanley.
Cook and Moore should’ve been an enduring screen team, but aside from a few other, lesser features in which they popped in for bits, Bedazzled is pretty much their onscreen legacy. Their true metier, I gather, was the stage, where they could quickly get in and out of sketches and not have to yoke their unstable appeal to a sustained narrative. Cook, too, sometimes seems uncomfortable reading his lines, even though he wrote them. It’s telling that the strongest impression he makes here is as the noncommittal, standoffish Drimble Wedge, whereas Moore sort of made a career of saying “Love me, love me” over and over (to best effect in Arthur). Moore needed our good will; Cook didn’t, and therefore won it anyway. They’re fun to watch in Bedazzled, but maybe it’s all they had in them.