The Mephisto Waltz

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The Mephisto Waltz
1971 | 108 minutes
Starring Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset | Directed by Fred Mustard Stewart

Alan Alda stars as Myles Clarkson, a Juilliard-trained musician turned music writer, who is unexpectedly given the opportunity to interview master pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). However, Duncan has an agenda of his own; he is dying, and has made a pact with Satan to “body-swap” his soul into another body upon his death, allowing him to continue his musical career beyond a single lifetime. “Mr. Clarkson, I want my daughter to see your hands. Roxanne, he has great hands. Rachmaninoff hands. Hands like yours are one in a hundred thousand.”

With Roxanne’s (Barbara Parkins) help, Myles is seduced into Duncan’s world of fame and fortune, much to the dismay of his wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset). After the ritual preparations are complete (a pentagram drawn on the floor and a greasy daub of blue substance thumbed on Myles’ forehead), Duncan is able to flee the confines of his dying body and enter into the unsuspecting Myles. Although Duncan has generously provided for Myles in his will and Roxanne arranged for him to replace her late father on his extended concert tour, Paula soon suspects that all is not right with her husband.

Alan Alda plays Myles as something of a blank-slate—perhaps appropriately for an empty vessel in an infernal body-swap. After the change, however, he disappears from the screen for much of the film’s running time, never having much of an opportunity to fully inhabit the role of a newly possessed man. This screen absence also undercuts the sense of menace, having Paula piece together the mystery with Myles at a distance, removed from the frame rather than looming close at hand.

A grotesque costume ball, complete with an eerily masked dog, and a few gauzily effective dream sequences add enough atmosphere to help elevate a story that could have been just another episode in an anthology television series. The ending provides an unexpected turn, but Paula’s invocation will divide viewers; some will find it a brilliant bit of reductive filmmaking, leaving the scene to play out in the imagination, others a total cop-out.

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