With each subsequent classic film release, Cohen Film Collection is proving themselves more-and-more to be a go-to distributor for classic film on home video. Cohen’s previous releases of Luis Buñuel’s Tristana (1970), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Damned (1947) all thoroughly wowed me, and the impressive trend continues here in their release of René Clair’s 1950 film, The Beauty of the Devil (La beauté du diable), available just in time for Halloween on Blu-ray and DVD. With transfers comparable to those of the Criterion Collection (which released Clair’s I Married a Witch earlier this month, as it happens) and Fox Studio Classics, as well as a catalogue composed of stunningly-restored rediscovered classics, Cohen is definitely one to watch—especially with their upcoming release of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance!
As Clair’s adaptation of Faust, The Beauty of the Devil tells the story of an aging alchemist granted youth once more by Mephistopheles, who aims to manipulate Professor Henri Faust into selling him his soul. Faust, seeing an opportunity to improve himself in this, sets about extorting as much from the demon as possible in his quest for happiness without actually signing the contract. Their game of give-and-take plays out like an incredibly tense game of chess, and yet the film is surprisingly quite fun, especially as it finds the pair rising to power side-by-side as would-be friends and stars Michel Simon and Gérard Philipe switch off as Faust and Mephistopheles when Faust regains his youth.
Although highly entertaining and visually spectacular with its emphasis on good old-fashioned filmic magic, The Beauty of the Devil still challenges us to ask some hard questions about the nature of right and being, as all great retellings of Faust do. It invites us to ponder whether or not happiness is something that can be manufactured or if it’s something that we simply stumble into. It even broaches the inherent evils of mankind as Mephistopheles proclaims that “the real hell is here on Earth.” After all, he tells us, people inflict poverty and loneliness on one another without a second thought about the justice of it all. At least demons are forthright in their cruelty! In this, Clair’s Faust is every bit as thematically rich as it is visually rich, ranking in my estimation right up there alongside F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926) as the greatest filmic adaptation of this classic tale.
Cohen’s release of the film is characterized by an incredibly pristine transfer, having been restored so thoroughly that there is hardly a noticeable flaw in the picture at all. And by way of special features, this must-own release for aficionados of classic and French cinema includes the 2010 documentary, Through the Looking Glass with René Clair: Master of the Fantastic, by Pierre-Henri Gibert, which boasts a running time of 50 minutes; the original French trailer; and the 2013 theatrical re-release trailer. If you’ve yet to pick up a Cohen release, let this be your introduction to the company’s excellent catalogue!