Monday, December 29, 2014

The Devil’s Widow (1970)

          Released in the U.S. under the deceptive moniker The Devil’s Widow, this strange thriller is a uniquely Celtic bit of business that was filmed and released in the UK as The Ballad of Tam Lin. Based on an old Scottish myth, which evolved over centuries of adaptations in literature and song, The Devil’s Window is the only movie directed by veteran actor Roddy McDowall. A gifted photographer, McDowall approached the task of making his first movie with predictable visual flair. However, he demonstrated zero affinity for storytelling. McDowall even did a poor job of modulating performances, because the acting in The Devil’s Widow runs the gamut from excellent (leading man Ian McShane) to mediocre (ingénue Stephanie Beacham) to terrible (top-billed star Ava Gardner). That said, perhaps something was lost in translation while the movie crossed the pond, because the behavior of the characters often seems inexplicable to American eyes. And when the picture transforms into a full-on supernatural horror show during the climax, the tonal shift is bewildering.
          The film begins at the sprawling Scottish estate of Michaela Cazaret (Gardner), a middle-aged woman of unclear national origin who populates her castle and its grounds with swinging young people. One of them is Tom Lynn (McShane), who is Michaela’s current lover despite being many years her junior. When Tom meets pretty and wholesome local girl Janet Ainsley (Beacham), daughter of the town vicar, he slips away from Michaela to begin a relationship with Janet. Michaela responds viciously, culminating in the final sequence wherein she uses drugs and/or enchantments to drive Tom mad. Throughout most of the picture, the nature of Michaela’s household is completely unclear; on the one hand, she seems to exert mind control over her young playthings, and yet on the other hand, Tom demonstrates free will. Similarly, the reasons behind Janet’s attraction to Tom are mysterious, especially when she realizes that Michaela is some sort of dragon lady with otherworldly powers.
         McDowall tries to mix cynical vignettes of world-weary party people with lyrical passages of young lovers shutting out the rest of the world, and the two elements clash. Moreover, the characterization of Michaela never makes sense. Is she crazy, magical, or just lonely? Gardner’s unfocused performance provides few clues. The Devil’s Widow looks lovely, thanks to intricate lighting by cinematographer Billy Williams, and McDowall deserves credit for trying a few interesting things, such as a scene comprising freeze frames and several weird effects during the finale. What all of it means, however, is anybody’s guess.

The Devil’s Widow: FUNKY

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