Poor Devil (1973)
This television movie was hoped to be the pilot for a regular comedy show series, which never happened. Despite the “Anything goes” zeitgeist of the early 1970’s, I guess mainstream America wasn’t ready for a weekly Satanic themed tv show. A shame really.
I had heard about this oddity for years, and was quite pleased to see that it was uploaded onto YouTube. I’m not sure what I expected from a comedy show starring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a demon trying to rope a chronic loser played by Jack Klugman into a Faustian bargain (seven years of worldly pleasure and success in exchange for his soul) but this is a weird movie. That expectation was definitely met.
Poor Devil starts out strong: in Hell appropriately, which looks like a groovy place, and not a horrible world of suffering. The kitschy set design makes Hell’s lobby look like a very fancy airport or office building, all done in a nice Satanic design scheme. The look of these scenes in Hell are one of the film’s strong points. There’s fire, but with the exception of the “furnace room” where infernal screw-up Sammy the demon shovels coal as punishment for being an ineffective demon, we only see flames reflected on the walls. It’s a neat effect, and whoever was responsible for designing Hell did a cool job.
Hell itself echoes the office building theme, as it seems to run as some sort of corporate office, complete with secretaries and other office types in red outfits. The CEO of Hell is of course Lucifer, played nicely by Christopher Lee, who does a great job in the role. He really captures the sinister yet suave feel that would fit a businessman Devil.
Sammy has been spending 400 years toiling away, stoking the fires of Hell as punishment for never completing a Satanic assignment without screwing things up, and “Mr. Bligh” (played by instantly recognizable Gino Conforti) has it in for him. Mr. Bligh seems to be some sort of infernal management type, second only to Lucifer himself. Sammy has been keeping tabs on Burnett J. Emerson, a sad sack human played by Jack Klugman, who has just been passed up for a deserved promotion after spending 25 years toiling away at his company. Sammy thinks that he has a good shot at capturing Emerson’s soul, and redeeming himself in Lucifer’s eyes, if he can just be allowed back to Earth to convince Emerson.
Despite their resistance to the idea, Sammy convinces Lucifer to give him a chance, and teleports himself into Emerson’s apartment.
After convincing the doubtful Emerson that he is indeed an envoy of The Devil, and can offer him worldly success in exchange for his soul after seven years, we get into the meat of the story. We’re introduced to Emerson’s manager, a very smarmy slimeball played by Adam West, who is responsible for keeping Emerson down, and who also tries to seduce his wife. After some convincing, Sammy finally succeeds in getting Emerson to sell his soul. The terms of the contract stipulate that if Sammy is ever unable to fulfill one of Emerson’s desires, then the contract is voided, which sets up the rest of the film’s plot.
Emerson’s first requirement is revenge against the company that screwed him over. He’s an accountant for a huge department store, and Christmas is coming up. He tells Sammy to steal every item from the enormous store the night before their biggest sales day of the year, deciding that this will ruin the store financially.
This is all fine and good, but immediately Sammy starts to backpedal, because apparently, The Devil has very little power on Earth. He claims that the main thing he can do is teleport back and forth, which seems like a pretty shitty power for a minion of Satan to have. How these demons are ever going to grant wishes of any caliber if all they can do is jump from place to place is beyond me, and that is a major plot point, which struck me as a major flaw.
Faced with defaulting on the new contract, Sammy comes up with a “brilliant plan.” It involves getting other humans who’ve sold their souls to break into the store with him, and physically take everything away, loading all of it onto a helicopter, and then dumping it onto Alcatraz Island. There must be some fine print that forces others that have sold their souls to have to come work in a pinch, which seems like a pretty crappy rule to me.
The rest of the film involves Emerson flip flopping on his wishes, forcing Sammy to work harder and harder, and then after realizing that he won’t get to spend eternity with his pious wife, being let off the hook on a technicality by Sammy, whose just too nice for his own demonic good.
The movie ends with Mr. Bligh chastising Sammy in Hell’s furnace room, where he’s forced to work again, presumably for the long haul. I’m sure had “Poor Devil” become a series, every week Sammy would somehow convince Lucifer to let him try again with some other prospect on Earth. Sadly, that never happened.
So what do I think about “Poor Devil?”
It starts out stylish and strong, and Hell looks like a neat place. Sammy Davis, Jr. plays a demon that’s a little too sweet for his own good fairly well, and all of the acting is decent. Even Adam West manages a performance that’s not too hammy. Christopher Lee is great, which is not surprising, and the idea of a Faustian TV series is a pretty cool one. The story takes place in San Francisco, and the location shots are also interesting. There are a few fun Satanic references. Very early on , Sammy has a bit of dialogue that references calling The Church of Satan, and combined with the San Francisco location (home to the original COS), those are interesting details. I kept wondering if “Poor Devil” had come about because Sammy Davis, Jr. was an honorary member of the COS, hobnobbing with Anton LaVey at about the same time the film was shot. Who knows?
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of clumsy filler in this movie. There are boring scenes where Sammy consults dead criminals like Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde on the best way to rob a store, and these scenes are just boring. The film bogs down in the middle in general, and the idea that Satan is somehow going to fulfill the desires of anyone, when the only power that his minions seem to possess is teleportation just seems dumb, a bad plot device intended to push Sammy to desperate measures. It also seems ludicrous that an accountant, even a frustrated and bullied one, could be convinced to sell his soul, when the return is basically just being a little more successful at work. That just seems like a lousy bang for buck to me. Maybe “Poor Devil” would have worked better in a shorter format, and that might have been the plan if it had become a series.
It’s not an unenjoyable oddity to watch, but there is a lot of unrealized potential, and combined with the overtly Satanic themes, I’m not surprised that this was a one shot television movie. Still, if you have interest in early-70’s Satanic chic, like the actors involved, or just like kitschy films about The Devil, then you could do a lot worse.
If I gave out stars, which I don’t, I’d give “Poor Devil” 5 broken pitchforks out of 10.