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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLE (1959)

Hewing G. B. Shaw’s subversive Revolutionary War drama down from four acts to about 80 minutes (action & animated chapter intros included) paradoxically makes this lux adaptation seem more talky than the play. Trimming Shavian dialogue & speechifying in pursuit of speed robs us of wit, form & function, so the first half of the film, as character & issues are ordered into place, look bare & pedestrian under Guy Hamilton’s flat megging. Fortunately, the actors & ideas (even the pale visuals) gain in strength & purpose about halfway in as Burt Lancaster’s peacemaking pastor finds revolutionary spirit; Kirk Douglas’s reckless black sheep rebel discovers noble purpose; and Laurence Olivier’s wised-up British General rues the fickle nature of timing in war’s fortunes. (He also acts the pants off everyone else in the pic.) As the reverend’s wife uncomfortably drawn to Douglas’s dashing malcontent, little-known Janette Scott is a near complete loss, but she’s easier to ignore once the action gets going. As for GBS, that inveterate writer of detailed stage directions & explanatory second-thoughts would have loved the delightful animated stop-action figures that go marching to war between acts on screen. Manipulated stick figures were right up his alley.

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