Movie still from 1971's "The Mephisto Waltz."

The Mephisto Waltz May 6, 2017        

Paul Wendkos’ The Mephisto Waltz (1971) doesn’t try to differentiate itself from most 1970s occult thrillers trying their damndest to be the new Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  But taking its psychedelic sensibilities and unabashedly nightmarish score into consideration, there’s decidedly enough chutzpah in place to render it as something of an inspired genre film, even if the inspiration is more characterized by bandwagon hopping than total reinvention.


It stars Alan Alda (miscast here) as Myles Clarkson, a former concert pianist who’s given up on his dreams of becoming the next Rubenstein and has comfortably settled into a music journalism gig.  Married to Paula (Jacqueline Bisset), a beautiful brunette, and father to Abby (Pamelyn Ferdin), a precocious elementary schooler, he’s perhaps never been happier.  Though earlier aspirations have been dashed, he’s confident in what he does and has the blissful domestic life to back it up.


As the film opens, he is assigned to interview Duncan Ely (Curd Jürgens), a virtuoso said to be the greatest living pianist.  But moments into the chat does all take a turn for the personal: Duncan probes Myles’ musical background and from there decides that this 30-something is going to become his protégé.  Since Duncan is dying of leukemia and since he’s convinced that he needs someone to keep his legacy intact, he can think of nothing better than having Myles essentially take his place.


Immediately, the Clarksons are taken in by the Ely family, with Duncan’s attractive daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins) especially enthusiastic.  Myles is understandably flattered, forgetting to be suspicious of Duncan’s true intentions.  But Paula can tell that something is off the second she becomes acquainted with the Elys: it’s clear to her that something more ominous is lurking beneath the premises.


And she’s right.  Time reveals that the Elys are self-serving Satanists whose objectives are far from pure.  Duncan has not set out to become Myles’ makeshift father because of mere affection.  Infatuated by his pianistic skill, Duncan plans to make a deal with the Devil to have his intelligence transported into Myles’ body.  That way, he can never really die.


This fiendish plot is eventually figured out by the always skeptical Paula, but because things become finite before she can much do anything, it’s up to her to make the most of the situation and figure out how to combat the evils thrust upon her by the scheming Elys.


And maybe Paula’s super-sleuthing is something akin to Nancy Drew lite – a lot of shit happens and yet she appears generally unfazed by the truly awful goings-on which take over her life.  But Bisset, at the top of her form in ‘71, makes for a heroine worth rooting for.  She’s the kind of actress who can make even the most subpar of material seem high in quality simply by being there.  There is a thoughtfulness to her beauty which makes The Mephisto Waltz octaves more interesting.  And that’s nothing to take lightly, in light of how unfitting the guileless Alda for his protagonist role.


But it isn’t just Bisset who elevates the material. Though Ben Maddow’s screenplay, itself an adaptation of the Fred Mustard Stewart novel of the same, is more or less the definition of unconvincing (the finale is a particular stretch), Wendkos’ direction excels, too. Seeing the opportunity to indulge himself artistically, he drenches the scenery in Gothic reds and blacks, ivory white drapes insistently blowing in the wind somewhere in the background.  Scenes centering around night terrors – and there are many – often feel like precursors to the nonsensical, hallucinatory frights of Suspiria (1977).


The Mephisto Waltz is style-over-substance filmmaking. Authentic chills are rare and we’re never as enticed by the storyline as its makers would like.  But I enjoy looking at the film, and Bisset delivers a standout performance in a movie that doesn’t deserve her.  Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully screeching score adds flavors, too.  The Mephisto Waltz doesn’t always work.  But enough about it intrigues to warrant a viewing. After watching Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (1973), that is.  B