The Devil and Max Devlin (1981)
Written by Mary Rodgers
Directed by Steven Hilliard Stern
This Disney film began life in 1973 as a concept developed at Hammer Films. It was going to be called The Fairytale Prince and star Vincent Price as a dead actor who collects children’s souls for The Devil. Now that would have been a movie. Instead, we got this uneven, poorly written & directed embarrassment. By the 1980s, Disney was not in a good spot. Changes in leadership since the death of Walt led to a company that seemed to lack a clear identity. They produced live-action movies like Escape From Witch Mountain or Freaky Friday, which performed poorly at the box office. Their animated fare (The Rescuers, The Fox and The Hound) weren’t doing too well either. But even those look good compared to this one.
Max Devlin (Elliot Gould) is the landlord of a rundown apartment complex in Los Angeles. His tenants assemble at his office one morning, angry about his rules and lack of repairs. He runs from the crowd and ends up being run over by a city bus. Max finds himself in Hell facing the board of directors. He’s offered a deal to return to life, but he has two months to corrupt three innocent souls and get them to sign contracts. Helping Max is Barney Satin (Bill Cosby), a sly devil who keeps an eye on the man’s progress. Max goes about befriending an aspiring singer, a high schooler dreaming of being a dirtbike champion, and a young boy looking for a man to marry his mom. Max uses his hellish powers to jump between locations and make these three believe their greatest dreams are coming true. But as Max gets to know them more, he begins to feel guilt for the endgame he’s seeking.
My first inkling is that this was inspired by the popular Oh God! film series with George Burns as the deity. The idea is flipped on its head with Max working for the Devil. You still have the same moments where Max is seen as crazy by people around him. The twist is that our protagonist is working for the villain of the movie. I was also laughing by the end because I turned to my wife about a third of the way into the film and described what I thought the final scene of the movie would be (all the characters assembled at a concert in a contrived way) and what would you know, that’s exactly what we got. Funny enough, three years later, the 3rd Oh God! movie would have the Devil as a central character and center around the plot of selling souls.
One of the worst things about this film is how disjointed the plots are. It feels like the writer just reached into a hat and pulled out three things that wholly disconnected and then forgot about some of them while they were writing. The dirtbike subplot is one of the most superfluous and unnecessary in the entire film and put in purely out of chasing trends of the time. We don’t ever really get much character development for the souls Max is pursuing other than the singer. Yet her storyline is grating because the script has her sing the same damn song five times throughout the picture. It’s also utterly implausible because, in less than the span of two months, she goes from singing at an open mic event to recording an album, touring, and winning a damn Grammy.
Bill Cosby’s presence in the film also has to be addressed. As you know, he’s currently serving a prison sentence for the horrendous serial rapes he committed for decades. What is interesting is that background information on this film shows that not just Bill but his wife Camille expressed reservations that this would affect his public image. Cosby made his career by being a very clean-cut, family man type of performer. Yet during the early 1980s, Cosby was drugging and sexually assaulting numerous women. Something he did throughout the 1970s and continued doing into the 2000s. So it’s clear that his public image was just that, a facade, something manufactured as a public face. I’ve felt that Camille got away with a lot when these accusations came out, as she seems to have been front and center in having an interest in his public image. The protection of that public image was so vitally important that it’s rumored that Cosby gave gruesome details about the murder of his own son Ennis in 1997 to get them to kill a story on his own crimes. These are things I have to believe Camille was aware of and could have done something about. She is an adult woman, and she could have said or done something during this time. But she was living quite comfortably off the wealth Bill accrued from his career. Honestly, Bill Cosby was perfect for playing a devil.