Faust woodcut

Sympathy for the Devil

Dorothy Sayers and the American Faust Film

How a British Detective Novelist Can Help Us Understand an American Film Obsession

William Jenkins

Films Discussed:

  • The Devil and Daniel Webster (’41)
  • Cabin in the Sky (’43)
  • Bedazzled (’67)
  • Damned Yankees! (’58)
  • Angel Heart (’87)
  • Devil’s Advocate (’97)
  • Bedazzled (’00)

Though known mostly for her mysteries which feature the unique detective Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers also produced writing in various other genres, including essays and church and radio dramas. In particular, Sayers had mastered the literature of Faust and the Devil through her own writing and research, especially through her translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy and through her own dramatic version of Faust. She also had worked in the advertising industry and knew the modern mind, which helped her to adapt elements of the Faust tradition to modern readers. Though not directly involved with film, Sayers nevertheless theorized about the literary tradition of Faust in a way that sheds light on cinematic expansions of this tradition. In her essay “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil,” and in the introduction to her play The Devil To Pay, Sayers helpfully outlines changes in the Faust legend and the theological permutations accompanying it, and her insights apply well to film depictions of the Faust setup.

Her various comments, when combined, form a two part observation: first, Sayers claims that there are three primary traditions of representation of the Devil in literature, and each of these affects divergent Faust narratives. Second, as the Faust narrative gets modernized, its secularization tends to follow the Romantic tradition in which Satan becomes aesthetically compelling as a character instead of a repulsive embodiment of evil.

The Three Devils

The first and most theologically sophisticated tradition is the fallen angel motif that stretches back into pre-Christian Jewish antecedents. Sayers isolates the “dark angelic melancholy” as the primary quality in this tradition which gives Mephistopheles in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost their nearly tragic splendor that arises from their recognizing the loss of proximity to the Creator.

The second tradition is rooted in a kind of Manichean vision of a dark force pervading the cosmos, a vision of evil in which the Devil appears more as a spirit of negative energy set counterpoised with the positive energy of God. The cosmos is dualistic in this vision, with God and the Devil balanced. Instead of being a fallen angel who simultaneously longs for the splendor of what was and who also hates the splendor of God and heaven, seeking to destroy it by corrupting human beings (the Marlovian and orthodox image), devils—or the Devil—are but instantiations of this negative energy. Devils or demons are thus interchangeable, merely variable images of one pervasive and apparently necessary part of reality, thereby rendering distinctions between Lucifer and his minions, like Mephistopheles, unnecessary. Though one can detect elements of this dualism in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim demonologies, this second tradition is more Gnostic, a bit uncomfortable with the intense monotheism of these three Western religions in their orthodox forms. Sayers claims that the more Manichean Mephistopheles of Goethe’s Faust is the literary version that has most influence in the subsequent tradition in contrast to Marlowe’s more traditional depiction of evil.

The third manifestation of the Devil, according to Sayers, is the one that grew from pre-Christian folklore, that pervades much of Medieval literature, and that continually pops up in the literature of post-Christian culture. This devil is the prankster, a trickster figure who engages in nefarious horseplay and whom the audience of Medieval theater expected to see at some point for comedic effects. Sayers argues that by the end of Part II of Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles has transformed into this kind of buffoonish figure. The puppet plays that grew out of Marlowe’s Faustus perpetuated this comedic aspect of the Devil through the Reformation, and it tenaciously hangs on in film today.

In American film, the Faust tradition mostly gravitates toward the third category, the Devil as buffoon, with number two—Devil as necessary cosmic force—appearing nearly as often, sometimes combining with the third category. American cinema has done poorly with the first category, in which the Faust figure is tragic and damned, and also in which the Devil is portrayed as a created being subordinate to God and whose motivation is destruction of humans simply because they belong to God.

The Devilish Problem

Though she had made a reputation as a feisty Christian apologist, Sayers was also keenly interested in the artistic problem of making the Devil an attractive character. Sayers fiercely promoted art as craft, defending the integrity of artistic products against their propagandistic uses. When Sayers undertook writing her own Faust play, she wanted to create a drama that would simultaneously provide a dramatically compelling representation of evil as well as a theologically accurate account of evil. She had no intention of writing didactic religious literature. In her case, she attempted to create dramatic interest by using Faust’s struggle with temptation and damnation to embody pre-WW II fears about those who would use totalitarian power to achieve the putative good of humankind.

Sayers claimed that every generation struggles to answer the basic questions of good and evil: “if God is all powerful, did He make the Devil, and, if so, why, and with what justification? Is the Devil a positive force, or merely a negation, the absence of Good?” But each generation must answer these questions “in light of its own spiritual needs and experiences” (14). Given the tendency of the Faust tradition in American film, most Americans are apparently quite satisfied with simplistic representations of good and evil, accenting the rather slap-dash philosophy of human choice and its consequences implied by these movies. What this says about the spiritual needs and experiences of Americans is problematic.

In the essay “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil,” Sayers examines the problem of the Devil’s characterization in literature, the problem being the attractiveness of the Devil. Christopher Marlowe, though himself probably an atheist, presents an orthodox visage of evil in Mephistopheles, though here one detects the beginning of the aesthetic problem in that Mephistopheles is capable of generating sympathy for his condition when he says,

Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells

In being deprived of everlasting bliss? [I .iii. 76]

In the 1968 Nevill Coghill film adaptation of Marlowe’s play, starring Richard Burton, Mephistopheles (Andreas Tueber) sheds a single tear while reciting these lines, exemplifying the temptation to portray the Devil as a kind of rebellious Romantic hero. Sayers goes on to argue that as the literary trajectory moves away from Marlowe’s orthodox representation and as it comes into the modern world, writers move closer and closer to what Sayers calls the Promethean setup. Whereas in traditional Christianity, God makes good ultimately come from the evil the Devil promotes, as the Faust legend moves into secular modernity and becomes part of a Manichean cosmos, “a new façade is built up. In this setup the Devil becomes, as it were, a part of the divine process, playing the same part in the cosmic constitution as the advocates of the party system assign to the opposition” (184).

In other words, for Sayers, as representations of the Devil in literature move toward the twentieth century, they encompass more and more the second two traditions of representation, leaving the first—the Marlovian, orthodox one—behind. The comedic, buffoonish side, which seems to dominate in film, is often paired with the dualistic, Manichean side, presenting the Devil as somehow necessary and not that bad.

Apart from the theological muddle this combination produces, the dramatic potential is diluted. As Sayers puts it, “what is getting lost is the sense of the dignity and finality of choice, and of the reality and evilness of evil” (186). Applying these insights of the Faust setup to American film provides some help in seeing why American versions of the Faust narrative regularly follow a fairly repetitive pattern; the Devil is the counterpart to God, and often rather likeable, and the Devil is a prankster, more often comedic than not—with one notable exception in the film Angel Heart.

The Control Films

Though the survey of Faust-themed films here will primarily follow a chronological outline, it is helpful to begin with a more recent film for purposes of comparison so that the pattern in American film becomes clearer. In the 1967 British version of Bedazzled, Stanley Moon, a nerdy short order cook played by Dudley Moore, is a regular Anglican church-goer. In an opening scene he kneels during prayer in a traditional looking Church of England service. He prays to God for a meaningful life, having no overt diabolical aims, unlike Marlowe’s Faustus. The Devil, sporting the name George Spiggot, shows up unbidden, to offer Stanley seven wishes (seven, because it’s the mystical number—“seven days of the week, seven deadly sins, seven brides for seven brothers . . .”). Elements of the traditional Christian iconography filter through the film, even though these are usually satirized, especially in the sequence of the nuns leaping on a trampoline. The first Bedazzled reveals the secularizing British culture poised at the end of the 1960’s to tip all the way over into a post-Christian society in which advertising and celebrity rule. But enough of the Christian background remains for the Devil to be identified as a created angelic being who in this case wishes to return to God’s good graces. Though real evil is trivialized and the Devil engages in horseplay, at the end of the movie George Spiggot reaffirms his role as a being of a different order from God but who nevertheless hates the Creator and devotes himself to damaging God’s creation through suburban sprawl.

In contrast, the American version of Bedazzled (2000) erases all Christian references, turning God and the Devil into equal partners who vie with one another good naturedly for possession of individual souls. Many of the jokes from the original film appear in this one, but some new material distinguishes it as more than just a remake. Not only is the Devil presented as female and God as male (the Devil says at one point, “Yeah, most men think they’re God; this one just happens to be right”), but both are on fairly good terms with one another. By movie’s end God (Gabriel Casseus),[1] presented as a young, attractive African-American, and the Devil (Elizabeth Hurley), a sexy woman with a British accent, sit together at an outdoor café, watching Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser). The Devil does not seem too upset at losing this particular soul; in fact, she rather liked him.

Pairing these two versions of Bedazzled helps one see the trajectory that Sayers points to in her writing on the Faust legend. In the updated, Americanized version, the religious context has entirely disappeared. God and Satan work with equal effects upon a human being, and the magnitude of damnation or salvation have been reduced to a nearly nonexistent concern. The moral dilemma of human choice shrinks to the dimensions of day to day kindness and finding a romantic relationship—not even marriage—between kindred personality types. The concept of “souls” seems out of place in this movie. Both versions of Bedazzled contain some very funny lines and situations, and the reduction of the Devil and temptation in the later version does not hurt the light entertainment value of the film, but the Faustian bargain setup typifies what happens in nearly all American film of this type.

The Classic

What is perhaps the earliest and one of the best known bargain-with-the-devil films in American cinema is The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). A classic of American cinema, this movie consistently receives high praise for the actors, camera techniques, and music. This film plays a bit loosely with traditional Christian categories, but it clearly connects with the third of Sayers’ categories, the devil as clown or trickster. This is the most widespread and most ancient aspect of the literary and artistic representations of the Devil, and it lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from Marlowe’s dark fallen angel who successfully tempts a tragic character into hell. Instead, here the Devil is more of a nuisance and a hindrance, a prankster who, though malevolent, does not come across as a numinous force that strikes terror into a soul concerned with one’s immortal destiny.

Another difference with this story is that the Devil appears unbidden, in sharp contrast to Marlowe’s—and, to a degree, Goethe’s—protagonist. Marlowe’s Faustus and Goethe’s Faust are powerful intellectuals trained in theology and science, and their hubris leads them toward occultic experimentation as a way of pushing beyond the boundaries of ordinary mortal success. In contrast, in nearly every American film dealing with the Devil’s bargain, the Devil appears unbidden to an absolutely ordinary American.

In his anthology of short stories Deals with the Devil, Basil Davenport collected twenty-five stories from various genres and eras, and in a majority of them the Devil or one of his emissaries shows up either unannounced or by being accidentally summoned. It seems that the concept of being a hapless target of the Devil is an attractive one, at least for a certain kind of story-telling that portrays the antagonist in terms entirely opposite of Dr. Faustus.

When Scratch shows up at the farm of Jabez Stone, a struggling New Hampshire farmer, he has been touring the world in Job-like fashion to see what souls might be a likely catch. Whereas Faustus was a somber intellectual who had mastered the universe of intellectual achievement and who stood isolated from the common run of humanity and whose consequent pride led him to think he could outwit the powers of darkness, the remarkable thing about Stone’s temptation is that Stone is so thoroughly unremarkable. He struggles on his farm to keep his livestock alive and to keep from minor cussing, civilized in part by his loving wife and patient mother, both of whom are markedly more religious than Stone. Stone makes an offhand comment about selling his soul to break even in his hardscrabble life, and this is enough to summon Scratch, though in fact the Devil has already marked out Stone as a likely prospect.

Most commentators on the film situate Stone’s dilemma as a metaphor for the average American who has just suffered through the Great Depression and who would resonate with Stone’s desire to do more than just survive. In this reading, Stone represents something other than deep spiritual struggle with its inherent dramatic power. As Davenport points out with these sorts of stories, in folklore the Devil is often outwitted (xv), suggesting that films utilizing the escape from the clutches of the Devil by an ordinary man meets a deep need in the audience, though the need is probably not a religious one. Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his extensive multi-volume study of the Devil in Western culture, comments on how popular this outwit-the-Devil motif was in the Medieval period. He suggests that “the immense popularity of the tales was rooted in the resentment that the humble feel for the mighty” (76), an observation that applies to many American film versions of the story.

The Devil and Daniel Webster demonstrates affinities with Medieval representations of the devil as an imp and a scoundrel, but the similarity stops there. Though religion is important to some people in the New Hampshire farming community, Stone is hardly even a Protestant. This fits the usual paradigm of Hollywood portraits of religious faith, portraits that present moralistic images and ideas but which usually stay away from explicit Christian categories and teachings unless satirizing them. In this film, for instance, Stone’s salvation depends not so much on his wife and mother’s intercessions with God as on the rhetorical skills of a lawyer and politician, Daniel Webster.

The Devil and Daniel Webster more or less sets the tone for most subsequent film treatments of the Devil’s bargain in American cinema. Several of the movies that followed were musicals, heightening the comedic aspect of the Devil while minimizing or ignoring entirely the religious aspects, turning the narrative into an opportunity to play out the standard Hollywood story that foregrounds the struggles with wealth and love instead of the soul’s salvation. In these films, as in The Devil and Daniel Webster, one might face the possibility of ending up belonging to the Devil, but any real sense of Marlovian damnation—of being bereft of God’s presence—is nonexistent.

The Devil’s Musicals

In the 1943 musical comedy Cabin in the Sky, the selling of the soul occurs within an entirely African-American cast and story. Elements of the film might offend some today as being too stereotyped or even racist, but the central plot of cheating the Devil out of a bargain and winning back one’s soul fits firmly in the American film tradition. In this case, the Devil himself never appears (which oddly reflects accurately Marlowe’s play; Mephistopheles is not Satan himself). His underlings, including a brief appearance by Louis Armstrong as one of the lesser devils who try to come up with good ideas for tempting humans, are led by Lucifer Junior.[2]

Cabin in the Sky is a kind of variation on the usual temptation story in that the soul whom the Devil wishes to obtain already belongs to Hell, technically. Little Joe Jackson (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), a habitual gambler on the verge of conversion at the opening of the film, is shot after backsliding and going to a juke joint to gamble. As he lies in bed dying, his wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), prays fervently for his salvation. Though Little Joe is hopelessly irredeemable due to his profligate life, a face-off occurs between a set of devils and angels for the soul of Little Joe, resulting in a six month reprieve. If Joe amends his ways, the Devil cannot claim him. Much of the movie involves the seduction of Joe by Georgia Brown (Lena Horne).

After both a fight in the juke joint and then a tornado, Little Joe and Petunia are dead but have managed to become worthy to ascend to heaven—to their cabin in the sky. The characters, setting, and plot differ markedly from those in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but the representation of the temptation stays the same. Salvation is a matter of earnestly striving to be good by performing enough good deeds that one may obtain heaven. Petunia is a shoo-in, but Little Joe gets in only on a technicality. Angels and devils counterbalance one another, with the unseen Satan and God apparently equal in their influence in human life. A kind of nonspecific Hollywood Protestantism plays a part in the lives of “good” people, but Faustus’ fruitless cry for to Christ at the end of Marlowe’s play seems unthinkable here.

Damn Yankees! (1958) pushes the secularization of the Faust setup even further. Primarily, the dualistic balance between good and evil here replaces the tug-of-war for souls between God and Satan with a tug-of-war between the Devil and ordinary human goodness. Also, unlike The Devil and Daniel Webster and Cabin in the Sky, religion appears not at all in Damn Yankees! The conflict occurs between ordinary, likeable, small town types versus the Prince of Darkness, and it produces some excellent entertainment in the grand musical tradition of Hollywood, but the struggle for salvation by turning to the powers of heaven is entirely absent. The Devil remains a comic figure, as with the two previous movies, with Ray Ralston giving a superb performance as “Mr. Applegate,” a name suggesting the fall in the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of humanity from it. As in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Devil appears without being intentionally summoned when baseball fanatic and real estate agent Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) makes an offhand statement about selling his soul to the Devil so that the Washington Senators could finally beat the New York Yankees. Joe agrees to a contract allowing him to become a young athlete again, though being familiar with contracts he stipulates an escape clause. By the end of the movie, Joe both helps his team to win and he avoids the Devil (one cannot really say the character was in danger of hell in movies like this since damnations seems so distant), returning to normal life with his beloved wife (his “old girl”), though Joe is now chastened by his close call and becomes a more attentive husband.

The movie is entirely lightweight and immensely enjoyable. It is a charming fantasy with dance scenes choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse, and it stands as a highly regarded example of its genre. However, in terms of the Faust tradition, the film signals how far American movies had moved by this point from the original Faust narratives of Marlowe and Goethe. The Medieval devil-as-trickster character still provides satisfying story material, although it is all in keeping with the ongoing secularization of American culture. In Damn Yankees! all religious associations have been shorn away.

The Muddled Ones

Most films using the bargain with the Devil theme follow this trend in secularization. If religion appears at all, it more often than not is perfunctory. Usually it is non-existent. Angel on My Shoulder (1946), Alias, Nick Beal (1949), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), Oh God, You Devil (1984), and Cross Roads (1986) all play out this secularization. Even if religious elements appear, they remain generic versions of American civil religion, far distanced from the specific Christian context of the original Faust in the Faustbook and in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.

Occasionally a film has attempted a more serious portrayal of the Faust tradition, but even with these films the depth of the Marlovian exploration of real damnation by an evil will that is subordinate to God is not reached. A movie such as Devil’s Advocate (1997) seems to push the Devil’s temptation back into a more sophisticated kind of reflection on the nature of evil and temptation, but the film lands firmly in the Manichean category. In one scene, Satan—here in the guise of a powerful New York attorney named John Milton (Al Pacino)—prowls the back of a Roman Catholic church while a funeral takes place.

This Satan has been attempting to seduce to the dark side the young lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), though the level of commitment and the identity of his employer only gradually become apparent to Lomax. In the funeral scene, Milton/Satan challenges an apparently absent God to stop him. Of course God remains silent, which is supposed to indicate the powerlessness of God in stopping the designs of Satan. In this world, God saves no one from evil, but only human cunning and will power allow one to escape the clutches of the Evil One. As with so many of these films, Devil’s Advocate displays the resolution of temptation as arising out of an American individualist’s own efforts that receive support from a wife and/or a mother. Again, the contrast with Faustus in Marlowe’s play is striking in the total uselessness of calling on Christ for intercession. The initial Christian context for the Faustian bargain has long disappeared.

After making himself known to Lomax, Satan does not ask him to sign away his soul with the standard contract; rather, in a sudden, inexplicable shift in a plot that had been dealing with the silence of God, Satan reveals his plans to use Lomax to help conceive a child with Lomax’s half sister, Christabella (“Christ girl”?). Their incestuous progeny will be the Antichrist, somehow allowing Satan to “win,” though Satan already seems to dominate this world except for a few holdouts such as Lomax’s mother (also portrayed as a generic Protestant, though here given a slight Pentecostal inflection). Such a climax reduces the film to the same kind of odd theological stew one finds in films like End of Days (1999) and Constantine (2005), films in which God seems absent and Satan must work his will through ordinary fallible humans to somehow achieve conquest of the cosmos, films in which random elements of traditional Christian doctrine and iconography are scattered for atmosphere only. The damnation of individual souls to enlarge Satan’s kingdom is entirely beside the point here.

In Devil’s Advocate the Devil comes across more as a kind of despot who must use a few individuals to achieve present world domination, acting more like a dictator with superpowers (bullets go through him and he doesn’t sleep) than a supernatural creature whose only goal is to ruin humanity to spite the Creator. Devil’s Advocate initially offers a story in which a traditional view of evil seems to be presented, but it strangely swerves, turning away from anything in the Marlovian tradition.

A Class-Three Exception

In American film it is nearly impossible to find a Marlovian-style narrative that aligns with what Sayers identifies as the primary, orthodox portrait of Satan and damnation of souls who have given in to the Devil. That is what makes the movie Angel Heart (1987) unique. Though the other qualities of the movie mark it as a well-made film but not a classic of cinema, it is nearly alone in its adherence to the Marlovian Faust tradition in the way that its protagonist, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) faces real damnation, and the Devil is a supernatural creature that does not show off his abilities like Pacino did (except in one disappointing scene when his eyes glow yellow, thereby injecting standard horror schlock).[3]

The reputation of Angel Heart was created initially by the appearance of Lisa Bonet, who wanted to use the film to break out of her role as one of the Huxtable kids from The Cosby Show. Much of the publicity surrounding the release of the Angel Heart had to do with the character Bonet plays, a voodoo priestess, and with her nude scenes. Indeed, much of the film is more sensationalistic than a nuanced study of evil, but the same could be said for portions of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and of Goethe’s Faust.

In spite of the level of gore and sexuality that connects Angel Heart with hundreds of other horror movies, however, this film is unique in that the damnation of Harry Angel is complete, pairing him with Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus who descends into the pits of hell at the end of the tragedy. Angel cannot discover a loophole in his contract, and the Devil—Louis Cypher (Robert DeNiro)—is portrayed as a ravenous spiritual force who wants what legally belongs to him. Unlike Pacino’s version of Lucifer, who dwells in a Manichean cosmos in which God is no match for the Devil by virtue of being absent, DeNiro’s Lucifer does not square off against God; instead, he seeks nothing other than to increase his own kingdom by obtaining the soul of one who freely sold it in exchange for stardom.

The premise of Angel Heart, based on the novel Falling Angel, is a clever twist on the usual sale of the soul concept. Set in the late 1940’s, the story details a job given to the seedy private detective Harry Angel by a mysterious and wealthy client, Louis Cypher. Cypher wishes Angel to track down a “crooner,” a once successful singer named Johnny Favorite and who owes a debt to Cypher. Angel’s quest brings him to the awful confrontation of his own identity—he is Johnny Favorite, a man who had sold his soul to the Devil for stardom but who then, through ritualized human sacrifice and cannibalism, tried to outwit Satan so that the sacrificial substitute—the real Harry Angel, a hapless soldier just home from WW II—would go to hell in his place, freeing Harry/Johnny from his contract. The ritual results in Angel losing his memory and taking on the memories of the original Harry Angel, and the climax of the film is Angel’s recognition that he has not in fact outwitted Satan. The contract still binds him to damnation, but Lucifer could not claim his soul until Johnny Favorite returned to conscious awareness of his real identity.

Angel Heart does well in creating a seamy, dirty environment in which damnation operates. Images of rats under a Coney Island boardwalk, sweating Louisianan denizens with various ties to the occult, Angel’s perpetually wrinkled clothing, and smoke-filled rooms help sustain the ambience of a pervasive dimension of evil underlying reality. But what makes this movie really stand out in this tradition is Mickey Rourke’s acting. The final scene that shows Harry Angel desperately blubbering “I know who I am” carries the full weight of recognition that he is not Harry Angel and that he is really lost. Rarely does a Faust-themed film depict a forsaken soul with such conviction, and this lifts Angel Heart out of the usual representations of Faustian characters.

Most often, movies present this plot, instead: a man (invariably it is a man) sells his soul and is apparently damned for it but escapes back into normal life, usually reconciled to a love interest (most often a wife). Frequently this scenario is played out in a comedy or even in musical comedy, and even if it is not—as in the case of Devil’s Advocate, Needful Things, and Something Wicked This Way Comes—the relationship between good and evil operates in a dualistic universe in which good and evil maintain a reciprocal balance—the Manichean pattern. These and similar movies do not quite create the sense of the numinous found in Angel Heart.

That is, the bargain-with-the-Devil plot that is so popular in American film operates primarily on the level of our prevailing, secularized culture. Individuals remain largely in control of their lives, and any supernatural dimension is easily containable within a universe that rewards enough acts of goodness. Thus, in most of these films the poor sap who is enticed by evil faces no real threat, and evil itself in the form of the Devil can be rather likeable. This accords well with ubiquitous American optimism which finds expression in a generic civil religiosity, one based more on moral uplift rather than on the workings of an inscrutable cosmos in which powerful forces beyond mortal ken vie for our souls. Harry Angel’s portrait of a damned Marlovian man who finally comes to recognize his inescapable fate is nearly impossible to find in American film.

Looking toward Eternity

The Faust theme will no doubt generate further films (e.g., Click and Ghost Rider) because viewers respond on some archetypal level to stories about making deals with evil, but these quintessentially American versions will inevitably, it seems, show plucky Americans standing up on their own to the Devil. Though this might be fun, it dooms such storytelling to remain on the level of parables of earnest individualism.

Writing about this problem many years ago with regard to American drama, Theodore Spencer in “Man’s Spiritual Situation as Reflected in Modern Drama” argued that “. . . drama cannot flourish when values are flaccid. Great drama has to admit the unforgivable; it has, in other words, if it is to express man’s spiritual awareness, to recognize the existence of a force which needs no name but which has been called ‘fate,’ or ‘destiny’; in religious terms, ‘God’ (46–47). Sayers too was concerned with the artistic problems arising out of simplistic views of temptation and evil.

The “Promethean setup,” with its concomitant loss of real choice and with, therefore, its reduction of human drama to fairly mundane levels of action, can produce entertaining movies, but by virtue of its very success, this setup seems almost incapable of producing real tragedy in film. As Osman Durrani points out in his study of the Faust tradition, “The Faust legend enjoys a curiously close relationship to North America, and it has recently been claimed that ‘nowhere outside Germany has Faust appeared so frequently or in such variegated forms as in the United States’” (351). Yet outside of Hawthorne—and in Angel Heart—one would be hard pressed to find an American Faust narrative that is tragic. Maybe Americans are just too uncomfortable with concepts like doom, damnation, the unforgiveable, and tragic flaws. The sheer number of films employing the Faust theme is huge and will grow, but we seem to want Faust on our own terms—Faust as a quintessentially American figure. Richard B. Sewall states that “tragedy contemplates a universe in which man is not the measure of all things” (167) and so far Hollywood has had a difficult time embracing this tragic view of Faust.

Yet perhaps it is the very nature of film as a medium to work against this tragic view, especially when the inherent parameters of film are linked with classical Hollywood narrative (a lone individual—usually male—overcomes all social and personal odds by individual striving and comes out ahead, usually with a girl). Could it be possible that the Promethean setup that Sayers describes finds a natural fit in film, that film naturally reinforces the narrative of the plucky American who hoodwinks the Devil?

Marshall McLuhan argued in Understanding Media that before the typographical mind developed with the advent of printing, “the most popular of stories were those dealing with The Falls of Princes” (294). But, according to McLuhan, the medium of print, and subsequently of film, prefers narratives of rising and success. The new technologies helped sponsor the growth of individualism, and so now film, especially in its classical Hollywood narrative form, must work against its own preferences if it is to depict tragedy, as in Angel Heart.

Neil Postman, the most cogent and insightful student of McLuhan, argues that the first thing to know about technological change is that every instance of it requires a Faustian bargain. That is, for every advantage a new technology brings, there is always a corresponding disadvantage, and it is usually not seen as clearly, if seen at all, as the advantage. Ironically, then, perhaps film itself is a Faustian medium in that, for Hollywood anyway, Faust films provide consistently entertaining stories that persistently avoid the original Faust.:::


[1] The credits for this movie list Casseus as an angel. If he is, in fact, an angel and not God, then the theology of the film is even more muddled.

[2] The idea that Satan has a son is another interesting film trope worth exploring. Theology isn’t a strong point with American filmmakers, and movies such as Little Nicky, Devil’s Advocate, and Constantine, among many others, portray Satan as attempting to win his war against God in some arcane fashion by producing children of flesh and blood, a kind of mirror Incarnation.

[3] Another disappointing feature of Angel Heart is that it also involves the physical offspring of Satan, a child whose eyes can glow like his daddy’s.

Works Cited

Davenport, Basil, ed.. Deals with the Devil: An Anthology. NY: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1958.

Durrani, Osman. Faust: Icon of Modern Culture. The Banks, Mountfield, Great Britain: Helm Information LTD., 2004.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. 7th edition. Intro. Lewis H. Lapham. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.

Postman, Neil. “Five Things We Need to Know about Technological Change,” 1998.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Lucifer: the Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil.” The Whimsical Christian. NY: MacMillan, 1978. 258–275.

Two Plays about Man and God: The Devil to Pay, He That Should Come. Norton, CT.: Vineyard Books, Inc., 1977.

Sewall, Richard B. “The Tragic Form.” Doctor Faustus. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. NY: Signet Classic, 1969. 161–176.

Spencer, Theodore. “Man’s Spiritual Situation as Reflected in Modern Drama.” Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature. Ed. Stanley Romaine Hopper. New York: Harper and Brother, 1957. 45-58.

William Jenkins is an English professor living in Memphis, Tennessee.
posted by editor ::: September 04, 2009 ::: pheatures :::