Directed by René Clair who co-wrote the screenplay with Armand Salacrou, 1950's Beauty Of The Devil (which was released in other territories, including the United States, as The Beauty And The Devil so as to not promote whatever attractive qualities the Lord Of Hell might have!) is essentially a retelling of Faust.
The movie is set in the 1700s and introduces us to Professor Henri Faust (Michel Simon), a professor and alchemist who retires after a career that has lasted more than a half a century. He has gotten quite old. Henri, however, still wants more. Specifically, he wants more knowledge, he wants the secrets of nature and of all creation to be explained to him. Enter the devil's servant, Mephistopheles, who in basically gives him a ‘do over' and reverts him back to his younger self. Of course, there's a catch, and that's that if Henri ever needs Mephistopheles' help for whatever trouble he may get himself into, he has to sign a contract in blood promising the devil his soul.
Now a young man (Gérard Philipe) once more, Henry's interests turns from knowledge to lust as he becomes quite the womanizer. At the same time, Mephistopheles wants to collect on what is owed him, and so he begins his devious plan to capture Henri's eternal soul by impersonating the elderly Faust but in order to get what he wants, he'll have to ensure Henri does not repent!
Touted as a ‘tragicomedy' The Beauty Of The Devil offers up some good laughs and loads of atmosphere but also occasionally dabbles in the eerie as well. It's never quite an out and out horror movie but the subject matter does lend itself to a darker style and Clair takes advantage of that making great use of shadow and light and fully exploiting some truly gorgeous cinematography. Here, as in most tellings of the Faust legend, Mephistopheles is a trickster. He employs some pretty crafty ideas in his attempts to essentially trap Henri, even going so far as to manage getting him arrested for entertaining into his own apartment when his butler mistakes the younger version for a burglar. As all of this plays out, the movie focuses on the two men attempting to outsmart one another until it all comes to its inevitable conclusion.
Performance wise, both Simon and Philipe do great work here, basically playing dual roles. As the movie plays out they each get a shot at Mephistopheles and Henri Faust, albeit at different ages. Both men give the characters their own take but ensure that there's enough crossover between how they deliver those takes to make this interesting idea work. Given that Faust does have an eye for the ladies for much of the movie's running time, we get some beautiful actresses in the picture as well: Nicole Besnard and Simone Valère being the two that spring to mind.
By the time the end credits roll, we've been treated to a fairly extraordinary picture, one that teases us in many ways and toys with us in others, keeping us guessing as to who will ultimately win the day and how that will happen. That's the main allure of the picture, in that it keeps us interested while simultaneously telling us a story that most of us have heard told a few times over. It's an interesting mix of foreign and familiar told with an insane amount of appreciable visual style and which makes great use of some very talented actors. Beauty Of The Devil manages to hit that right mix of artistic achievement and amusing entertainment value that continually surprises from start to finish.
Cohen presents Beauty Of The Devil in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its original 1.33.1 full frame aspect ratio. There's a bit of age related print damage noticeable here and there but it would seem that the elements used for the transfer were in very good condition. The black and white image shows very nice contrast and strong black levels without getting to murky or crushing any of the detail out of the picture. There's a bit of flicker in a few scenes and some shots do look softer than others but it's probably a safe assumption that these minor issues stem back to the original photography and are therefore part of the movie, not a transfer quirk. Skin looks lifelike and natural, never waxy, and the greys show a nice midrange between the deep blacks and the warm whites that make up the opposite sides of the spectrum. There are no issues with noise reduction, compression artifacts or edge enhancement and all in all this is a very good representation of a nicely shot older movie.
The sole audio option on the disc is an LPCM Mono track in the film's native French language with optional subtitles provided in English only. Clarity here is quite good, even if the limitations of the older single channel mix are evident. The levels are nicely balanced and there isn't much in the way of hiss or distortion to note. There are some scenes that are a bit on the flat side and this results in the score having a bit less presence than you might want, but this would seem to be a pretty accurate representation of the source material. The subtitles are crisp and clean and easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors.
Aside from a vintage French theatrical trailer and a newer re-release trailer, the only extra on the disc is Through the Looking Glass With René Clair: Master Of The Fantastic. This fifty-minute documentary was made in 2010 and was directed by French documentarian Pierre-Henri Gibert with the intention of creating a Biography style look at Clair's life and work. Although there is more focus here on the feature attraction than on many of his other pictures, this piece gives us a nice overview of the man and his films offering up a nice mix of factual information and critical insight into the importance of his pictures and their place in the landscape of classic French cinema. Menus and chapter selection are also included.
Beauty Of The Devil is slick, it's stylish and it's wonderfully shot meaning that not only is the creative way in which the story is told compelling and interesting but that it is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the mind. The performances are good and Clair does some interesting things with his take on the story of Faust. This may be an atypical take on the classic tale, but it works incredibly well. Cohen's Blu-ray release sounds good and looks great and includes a pretty interesting documentary as its main supplement. A strong release overall, highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.