Between 1948 and 1986, Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Burt Lancaster (Vera Cruz) made seven movies together. The films are a mixed bag, with Seven Days in May standing out as an obvious high point and the corny Tough Guys being a low one. The Devil's Disciple – their third collaboration – is arguably the oddest movie of the bunch. Working from a play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw, the film simultaneously attempts to offer both a stirring Revolutionary War drama and a cheeky satire. The end result isn't as funny or as gripping as it probably ought to be, but it is... interesting.
Our tale begins in Westerbridge, New Hampshire circa 1777. Reverend Anthony Anderson (Lancaster) is a humble, peace-loving American minister who has done his best to avoid getting mixed up in the conflict between the British and the Americans, but every so often, his Christian beliefs require him to step in and make a plea for peace. When Anderson gets wind that the British have falsely accused one of his parishioners of being a rebel and are planning to hang him, he quickly heads to the gallows to intervene. Alas, his efforts are in vain: by the time Anderson arrives, the hanging has been completed. Anderson asks to be permitted to take the body, but the British refuse: they plan on leaving the body up as an example to would-be traitors.
This is where we meet Richard “Dick” Dudgeon (Douglas), the victim's estranged son and an avowed servant of the devil. Okay, he doesn't actually seem to have much genuine belief in any sort of supernatural being, but he claims allegiance to the devil because he recognizes how much it angers his pious family and other religious folk. Dudgeon didn't care for his father much, but he figures that the man at least deserves a proper burial, so he steals the body. The act of theft is witnessed by Anderson, who demonstrates a good deal of empathy towards Dudgeon and invites him over for dinner. Dudgeon's crass behavior is appalling to Anderson's young wife Judith (Janette Scott, School for Scoundrels), but she does her best to be hospitable.
Meanwhile, the British are still very cranky that someone stole the body of Dudgeon's father from the gallows, and Anderson is their top suspect. However, Anderson isn't home when the redcoats arrive (he had to make an emergency visit to an old woman's deathbed), so the British mistake Dudgeon for Anderson. Dudgeon plays along, allowing himself to be arrested for the sake of saving the minister who showed him a little kindness. Now, Anderson has to figure out a way to get Dudgeon back.
This is a long, complicated set-up for a short movie, and it feels particularly odd to devote so much time to plotting when there's never any doubt about how things are going to turn out in the end. Given the film's light, breezy tone and the era in which it was made, we never believe for a second that the film is going to conclude with Douglas or Lancaster swinging in the town square. Likewise, when a love triangle of sorts emerges (Dudgeon may be a Satanist, but he's also played by Kirk Douglas, so Judith starts developing a crush on him), we never really suspect for a minute that Judith is actually going to be unfaithful to the oh-so-noble Reverend.
Perhaps recognizing the insubstantial nature of the film's melodrama (which includes some remarkably unconvincing last-minute character decisions), the movie tries to spice things up with a dash of irreverent cheekiness. A number of scenes try to wring jokes out the notion that the British are hanging people for propaganda reasons rather than legal ones, and a handful of cutesy interludes featuring little pop-up paper dolls attempt to add some whimsy to the film. The scenes have the right tone, but the dialogue lacks the witty polish it needs. The movie has an appealing sense of playfulness, but it's rarely genuinely funny.
The performances are respectable, even if no one is doing career-best work. The most memorable turn comes from Douglas, who seems to enjoy hamming it up in the sort of “lovable scoundrel” role he always plays so well. Lancaster is persuasive as the good-hearted minister, though he's an actor who's usually more interesting when he has a more complicated character to work with (Reverend Anderson is no Elmer Gantry). Jannette Scott sells her character's conflicted emotions well enough, even when the script reduces her to a sobbing mess (which it does on a pretty regular basis). Finally, there's a nice supporting turn from Laurence Olivier (Rebecca) as British general whose pitilessness is matched by his politeness.
The Devil's Disciple is vaguely engaging, inoffensive stuff, but it feels like it's missing a spark that might have made it feel unique or memorable. The film's eccentric, elaborate story clicks, whirs and spins for an eternity before finally delivering an oddly tame, conventional climax. It's the movie equivalent of one of those fancy gumball machines that offer a lot of bright lights and amusing features but ultimately just deliver some stale old gum.
The Devil's Disciple
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Year: 1959