The devil tricks an engineer and his servant into signing away their souls, and they attempt to flee his clutches.
Seventeen-minute silent short from film pioneer Georges Méliès that mixes his extravagant style and humour while serving as another showcase for his technical work, which was innovative in the first few years of cinema and attracted many imitators.
An old man calls on an engineer and his valet in the latter’s workshop, which displays many models of the latest modes of transportation. The old man persuades the engineer to visit his master, an alchemist (played by Méliès) who mixes up some magic pills with the help of a gang of assistants. Thrown to the ground, one of the pills bursts into a beautiful fairy, although she transforms quickly into an ugly monster. Nevertheless, the engineer signs the necessary paperwork to obtain the pills and leaves with his servant.
As soon as our heroes have departed, the alchemist reveals himself to be Satan, and his cloaked assistants transform into a gang of beautiful women. This lovely horde detains the men and persuades them to use some of the pills before the entire group depart in a train created from luggage trunks. A bridge collapse removes Satan’s brides from proceedings, and it’s up to Old Nick himself to pursue his quarry as the two men attempt to flee in a stagecoach.
Georges Méliès was born the son of a successful bootmaker in Paris in 1861. He received a formal, classical education but frustrated his teachers by his interest in art, covering textbooks with caricatures and sketches, often of a fantastic nature. A career in the theatre was inevitable, given he began building puppet theatres and sophisticated marionettes when still a teenager. Stage magic became his obsession and, when his father retired, he sold his interest in the family business to his brothers to purchase the Théâtre Robert-Houdin.
A decade of increasing success followed as he developed his skills as an illusionist and a businessman. Always interested in new ideas, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers new cinematograph in 1895. Failing to buy the device, he brought a projector from London and turned it into a film camera. In May of the following year, he began showing his own films at the theatre and experimenting with camera tricks and SFX. By the turn of the century, his movies were distributed all over Europe and even exported to America. They were so successful stateside that that rival producer Thomas Edison tried to prevent their release.
This film demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Méliès work at this point in his career. It also neatly encapsulated the reasons for his initial success and his subsequent fall from grace. On the credit side, it demonstrates his marvellous sets and imaginative designs, wholly artificial but unique, often copied but never bettered. The film also shows advances in his technical work, although the techniques were now tried and tested.
The undoubted highlight of the picture is the scene of the final attempted escape by stagecoach. The horse transforms into a full-size skeletal creature and flips onto its back as Satan pushes the carriage up the slope of Mt Vesuvius. An eruption flings the vehicle into space where it sails past comets, meteors and planets, some draped with elaborately costumed women. It’s still a striking sequence.
Unfortunately, none of this was anything new. In some ways, the film almost plays like a clip show or a run-through of Méliès’ greatest hits. Watched today, it’s another testament to the director’s extraordinary vision, but it was just more of the same to its contemporary audience. Producer-director Edwin S. Porter had unleashed game-changer ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), and audiences were eager for more of that kind of realism. Méliès did try his hand at more mainstream and non-fantastical subjects but those films were unsuccessful, so it’s not surprising that he chose to fall back on a previously winning formula.
Méliès had peaked with his classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), based on Jules Verne’s novel ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865). That the famous French novelist was a constant inspiration for Méliès is clear. Even in this comedic reimagining of the tale of Faust, we still get our two protagonists embarking on a ‘Voyage extraordinaire’ much in the manner of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in ‘Around the World in Eight Days (1873), albeit with Satan on their trail.
As always, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s formative influences who helped to outline the new medium’s artistic possibilities.