The legend of Faust is one of the oldest occult tales in the Western world. This German fable has been the basis of countless plays, poems, novels, musical compositions, works of art and films. Faust’s story has been reinterpreted many times in various ways but most renderings portray him as an aging unsatisfied scholar who is bored with conventional wisdom and decides to take up magic. He uses his arcane abilities to conjure up a servant of the devil (Mephistopheles or Mephisto) and makes a bargain with him. Faust offers his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for esoteric knowledge but his “deal with the devil” doesn’t serve him well. In the end Faust is faced with regrets and the prospect of internal damnation.
One of my favorite adaptations of the Faust legend is Paul Wendkos’ THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971). The film stars Alan Alda as a frustrated music journalist named Myles Clarkson who has given up his dreams of becoming a professional pianist. One afternoon Myles visits the home of world-renowned concert pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens) and his daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins). The two immediately take an interest in Myles and encourage him to start playing the piano again. Myles enjoys their attention and rushes home to tell his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bissett) and their daughter (Pamelyn Ferdin) about his sudden good fortune but his wife isn’t impressed and thinks Miles should focus his energy on becoming a better writer.
Myles is indifferent to Paula’s concerns and quickly becomes entangled in the luxurious lifestyle and promise of fame that the Ely’s offer him. Unfortunately for Miles he’ll soon discover that the Ely family is in league with the devil and the mysterious Roxanne intends to use black magic to takeover Myles’ body and replace his soul with the dying soul of her father. In true Faustian fashion, Myles seems more than willing to exchange his soul for Duncan’s even though he isn’t exactly conscious of the decision but his wife isn’t so accepting of their future. As the THE MEPHISTO WALTZ spirals towards its grim end the film becomes more about Paula’s dissatisfaction with her life and desire to take control of the strange situation she’s suddenly found herself in.
One of the most fascinating things about the film is its utter disregard for conventional organized religion. Unlike countless other horror films that feature protagonists forced to confront some kind of evil or supernatural element that defies scientific explanation, the characters in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ seem to inhabit a godless world. Kindly priests don’t attempt to save the day and no one is wearing a crucifix. There are no lengthy conversations about the nature of good and evil and the characters appear to lust after whatever they want without consideration for anyone but themselves. The film’s groovy 1970s setting and casual approach to human desire both reflect and embrace the hedonistic philosophy of the “Me Decade.”
The film was based on a novel written by Fred Mustard Stewart in 1969. Before Stewart decided to focus his attention on writing he planned on becoming a concert pianist and studied music at the Julliard School in New York. I haven’t read the original novel but I appreciate Stewart’s personal take on the Faust legend. His choice to make his main protagonist a failed pianist was a smart one but I especially liked the way he portrayed his female characters.
THE MEPHISTO WALTZ features two of the most interesting female characters to inhabit an American horror film in the early 1970s. The frustrated wife Paula and the plotting witch Roxanne are both fighting for some kind of control in the man’s world they inhabit but neither is willing to show the other any compassion. In 1971 Roe vs. Wade hadn’t yet taken effect but feminism was changing the way many women were approaching their careers, families and the prospect of motherhood. While watching the film again recently I was struck by how the vulnerable Paula seemed to represent the pre-feminist woman while the demanding Roxanne could easily represent the modern woman of the future. Without giving too much away I will mention that both characters manage to thwart expectations in this somewhat conventional horror film and Paula’s final act could be viewed as a liberating experience for her as well as the audience. A more pessimistic viewer might have the opposite reaction and find the film full of archaic examples of Christian femininity. In particular Mary Magdalene and the apple consuming Eve.
My own appreciation of the female characters in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ is undoubtedly colored by my admiration for the two leads. Jacqueline Bissett and Barbara Parkins are two of my favorite actresses and I think the film offered them two of their most interesting roles. Before making the movie Bissett was probably best known for her roles in BULLITT (1968) where she played Steve McQueen’s love interest and the disaster movie AIRPORT (1970). Parkins had done lots of TV work but her only major film role had been in the wonderfully campy melodrama VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967). Even though Alan Alda is adequate in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ and Curt Jurgens has a few good scenes as Roxanne’s father, the film’s most provocative performances are delivered by the female stars.
Besides some good performances the film also features an effective score by acclaimed composer Jerry Goldsmith as well as creative camerawork from cinematographer William W. Spencer. Director Paul Wendkos mainly worked in television and THE MEPHISTO WALTZ is hampered by its workman-like approach and stilted dialogue that occasionally seems more appropriate for a television drama. But Wendkos seems to have been inspired by one of my favorite directors, Joseph Losey, while making the film because some of the themes and scenes found in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ contain remnants of Losey’s most interesting films such as THE SERVANT (1963) and BOOM! (1968). THE MEPHISTO WALTZ never reaches the intellectual heights that Losey attempted to scale but if you appreciate Losey’s work you might enjoy trying to spot his influence on the production.
The movie has lots to offer horror fans and design enthusiasts should enjoy looking at the modern architecture as well as 1970s fashions as much as I do. The Clarkson family’s incredible beach house is an architectural wonder but we only catch a few glimpses of it. These stylish touches manage to add a little international flavor to the made-for-TV atmosphere of this American horror movie. THE MEPHISTO WALTZ also seems very European in the way that it handles the adult relationships. The film doesn’t shy away from showing nudity and Paula and Myles spend a lot of time in their bedroom. It also hints at an incestuous relationship between Duncan Ely and his daughter Roxanne, which is undercut by the fact that they can both inhabit other people’s bodies. This makes it easy to assume that Duncan and Roxanne were lovers long before they ever became father and daughter.
Some of the film’s most memorable moments are the creepy atmospheric dream sequences as well as an unforgettable party scene featuring Barbara Parkins walking a dog that’s wearing a human mask. It’s a deeply unsettling image that probably haunted director John Carpenter’s dreams. When Carpenter was getting ready to make his 1978 film HALLOWEEN he reportedly used the same mask for the character of Michael Myers. According to various sources the prop department working on HALLOWEEN decided to buy the cheapest mask they could find, but it’s supposedly the same, or possibly another version, of the Captain Kirk mask that was originally seen in THE MEPHISTO WALTZ 7 years earlier. It’s probably just a strange coincidence but I’d like to think that Carpenter had seen THE MEPHISTO WALTZ and the image of the mask-wearing dog had managed to lodge itself deep into his subconscious.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com on October 15, 2010