March 6, 1981 – The Live-Action Feature Film The Devil and Max Devlin is Released to Theaters
“Fair? Are you forgetting where you are?”
On March 6, 1981, the live-action feature film The Devil and Max Devlin was released to theaters by Buena Vista Distribution. The movie was filmed at Universal Studios and around Los Angeles. It was written by Mary Rogers and Jimmy Sangster, and directed by Steven Hillard Stern; the film stars Elliot Gould as Max Devlin, Bill Cosby as Barney Satin, Susan Anspach as Penny Hart, Adam Rich as Toby Hart, Julie Budd as Stella, and David Knell as Nerve. The film was considered rather controversial on its release, due to its subject matter and Bill Cosby playing an evil character. Cosby’s makeup for his final scene was done by Bob Schiffer, and comprised a wig with ears and horns sewn inside, a thick mauve color base, and red water-soluble make-up specially ordered from Germany. The set for Hell included 150 gallons of butane fuel and 36,000 pounds of dry ice.
Max Devlin, the landlord of a tenement in Los Angeles called The Whitsett Riviera, arrives at work to hear his tenants loudly complaining. He listens to their demands, but has a quick answer for each of them (including that cockroaches only live in New York, and that all decisions are up to the owner). Their anger explodes when they find out that he is the owner, and as he evades the mob, he begins to chase after a tenant who hasn’t paid his rent in two months. He trips over a blind lady’s cane and falls into the street, where he is promptly hit by a bus of Hare Krishnas. Devlin finds himself falling into Hell, which he believes is only a bad dream, and meets the Devil’s chief henchman, Barney Satin. When Devlin proclaims that he hasn’t done anything wrong, his sins are called out. He is then condemned to Level 4, but Satin tells him that there is another way: he will be sent back to Earth for two months, but he must find three innocent souls to take his place. Devlin has a few reservations about having to corrupt children, but quickly decides to take the deal.
Devlin returns to Earth and stops by a café, where he is greeted by Satin, whom only Devlin can see. Things become more strange for Devlin when he realizes that he has no reflection; Satin says that Devlin is now an inhabitant of Hell, and therefore unable to cast a reflection. Satin then takes Devlin to a phone booth to concentrate on his task of collecting the three souls, and when Devlin finds the location of the first soul, he is transported there, finding her in the women’s bathroom. Satin retrieves him, and they head back to the Whitsett Riviera. Satin explains that Devlin now has special powers known as “magic property” that he can use to collect the souls, but they last only when Devlin and the subjects are within sight of each other.
Stella Summers, one of Devlin’s targets, is an aspiring singer who wins a contract thanks to Devlin’s magical property
Devlin’s first target is Stella Summers, a high-school dropout who has dreams of stardom. He shows up at her first gig and guarantees that she will not fail, calling himself her good luck. Stella’s gig falls flat, but she suddenly sounds wonderful, thanks to Devlin’s help, and the audience applauds wildly. Stella is then offered a recording contract, and believes that Devlin really is good luck. After this success, Devlin moves to bait his next target, Nelson “Nerve” Nordlinger, who wants to find popularity through becoming a motocross racer. Devlin pretends to be an instructor, and takes Nerve to an empty field to practice. Just as Nerve rides away, Satin rides up and reminds Devlin that the “magic property” works only if the innocent is within Devlin’s sight, and quickly yells at Nerve to come back, but the poor kid falls from his bike as he races another guy. Luckily, the other guy offers to help Nerve out with training, and Nerve agrees. Devlin then moves on to his third victim, an eleven-year-old named Toby, and pretends to be the kid’s uncle to help him get on rides at a carnival. Devlin hangs out with Toby all day, trying to figure out what Toby wants more than anything in the world. Toby then admits he wants Devlin to be his father, since his own father had recently passed away. Toby’s mother, Penny, is wary of her son hanging around with an older man, and tells Toby sharply that she will not be getting married again for a long time, but Toby tries to tell her that Devlin is a wonderful man, and even shows her how well he gets along with the children in the day care center she runs.
Stella heads to the recording studio, but without Devlin there, she can’t perform well. He quickly leaves Toby and heads to the studio, where Stella is finally able to perform on take 43. Her record sells out quickly, hitting number 48 on the Billboard charts. Devlin then calls Toby’s household, trying to get Penny’s attention, but she’s not falling for it. He then attends a party for Stella’s album, and tries to get her to sign away her soul, but finds it nearly impossible to hold her attention. Meanwhile, Nerve is preparing for his first motocross race, with Devlin signing him up as an expert. Nerve is rather nervous, but with Devlin using his “magic property,” Nerve ends up winning. Immediately after, he heads to where Toby is, but Toby is worried that Penny will marry her tennis instructor. When Toby and his mother get home, they find that Devlin has paid for all new playground equipment and grass for the daycare, and wins a date with Penny. They begin to get closer, and when Devlin realizes that he really is falling for her, the two share a kiss.
Devlin scrambles to get the contracts signed, but each soul has their own reason to avoid signing, with Toby refusing until Devlin has married his mother
Time is running out for Devlin, and he has to keep quickly moving from one soul to another. Satin appears again, asking for the contracts, but Devlin assures him that he needs a little more time to get them hooked. He tries to get the three to sign, but it proves to be more difficult than he thought, as the three are all caught up in getting what they want, with Stella focusing on her career, Nerve preparing for a race, and Toby only signing once Devlin gets married to Penny. One night, Devlin finds the truth about Stella: her real name is Stephanie Pepper, and she’s a runaway from Brooklyn, New York. After finding the truth, he realizes that he can’t get them to sign the contracts because he’s starting to care for them, which is especially evident when he asks Penny to marry him. When he meets with Satin again, it’s revealed that his wedding, Nerve’s race, and Stella’s concert are all on the same day: Devlin’s final day on Earth. Using a few tricks, Devlin finally gets the three to sign their contracts, but their personalities drastically change from their usual pleasant, innocent selves into angry, spiteful versions. Soon after, Satin informs Devlin that the three are to die at midnight rather than the natural ends of their lives as promised. Devlin rushes in to burn the contracts, and Satin appears in full devil form, cursing Devlin with eternal damnation should he destroy the contracts. However, Devlin is willing to risk his life to save the three of them, and burns the contracts.
Realizing that he has only a few hours left, Devlin rushes to help Nerve and Stella, and finds that Nerve tripped over a little blind lady, but as she is from Heaven, she has actually saved him from dying. Devlin is reassured that the three are saved, but is worried that they won’t be able to do the things they wanted to do without his help anymore. When Penny tells him that he has no self-image, he thinks she’s finally noticed his lack of reflection. He then looks into the mirror and sees his reflection, and realizes that his good deed has allowed him to escape the clutches of Hell once and for all. As a farewell, Devlin, Toby, and Penny go to Stella’s farewell concert, and she is able to sing beautifully without any help from Devlin. Devlin looks up at the sky and mouths his thanks to Heaven.