The 1968 anthology film Spirits of the Dead is based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but a viewer who neglects to read the on-screen text might be forgiven for failing to recognize the third and final segment as a Poe adaptation. Unlike the first two episodes — “Metzengerstein” (directed by Roger Vadim and starring Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda) and “William Wilson” (directed by Louis Malle and starring Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot), both period pieces — “Toby Dammit” is set firmly in the late 1960s. Moreover, the credits of at least one edition of the film describe it as “liberally adapted” from Poe’s 1841 short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” a rather obscure tale to begin with. While the Poe connection may not be obvious, another authorial hand is much more in evidence: “Toby Dammit” is unmistakably the work of director Federico Fellini.
“Never Bet the Devil Your Head” isn’t the sort of story with which Poe tends to be associated. Despite the supernatural title and a definite morbid streak, it’s not a Gothic tale of terror primarily intended to send shivers up the reader’s spine; instead, it’s a satire on the idea that every piece of literature should contain a moral, as well as an attack on the then-popular transcendentalist movement. Its narrator relates the unfortunate history of his friend Toby Dammit, a man corrupted by his mother’s habit of beating him with her left hand instead of her right, going against the rotation of the earth. (“If each blow in the proper direction drives an evil propensity out, it follows that every thump in an opposite one knocks its quota of wickedness in.”) Toby’s great vice is using the phrase “I’ll bet the Devil my head,” and though the narrator urges him to give it up, he stubbornly refuses to do so — and pays for it.
In Fellini’s take on the story, the titular Toby (Terence Stamp) is a washed up, alcoholic British actor who flies to Rome in order to shoot “the first Catholic western.” He has no interest in the project itself; he just wants the Ferrari that he’s been promised in payment. Before he can receive it, however, he has to put in an appearance on a talk show and then at an award ceremony, becoming increasingly drunk and distressed as he struggles with his strange surroundings and his own demons. One of these demons takes physical form — at least to Toby’s troubled mind — as a child (Marina Yaru) wearing a white dress and playing with a ball. “For me the devil is friendly and joyful,” he explains on the talk show. “He’s a little girl.”
The fact that evil is embodied by such an ostensibly harmless figure not only goes against expectations (and against Poe’s story, in which the apparent devil is an old man), but also subverts a common presence in Fellini’s films: the girl or young woman who represents innocence. He had already called himself out on this, so to speak, through the critic’s advice to Guido in 8½ (1963): “And what is the meaning of the capricious apparitions of the girl of the spring? An offer of purity? Of warmth to the protagonist? Of all your story’s overabundant symbols, this is the worst.” The best example might be Gelsomina in La Strada (1954); Paola, trying to communicate something to Marcello at the end of La Dolce Vita (1960), is another. Then again, maybe this devil isn’t evil in any conventional sense. She, too, might represent innocence, something that Toby — who quips that he uses all kinds of drugs “to get back to normal” — has long since lost.
His ever-growing intoxication and mental and emotional instability are reflected by the film’s style. Fellini, speaking to writer Charlotte Chandler for her book I, Fellini, explained, “I consciously try to conceal the machinery of the film I am making. The spectator should not be conscious of my camera or my narrative techniques, unless I am making a film about making a film. So I ration obvious devices, like extreme close-ups or rapid cutting or odd camera angles. Style and technique are means to an end, not an end in themselves. In ‘Toby Dammit,’ however, I saw an opportunity to explore these devices more fully, apart from my feature films.”
From the start, when Toby arrives at an airport bathed in unnatural yellow and orange light, the film feels a bit disorienting (and, perhaps, faintly apocalyptic). The camera moves around and takes in its surroundings as if it’s showing Toby’s perspective. People turn to stare at it (or him), some at close range, and odd, incongruous sights are all around, including life-size photographs standing in for flesh and blood human beings. Things are no less bizarre out on the streets of the city, where he observes everything from nuns in sunglasses to an open truck full of raw meat to a fashion photo shoot in the midst of a construction zone, and the peculiarity continues from there.
The award ceremony scene, in particular, is classic Fellini, reminiscent of La Dolce Vita and 8½ as Toby finds himself endlessly accosted and flattered by people trying to ingratiate themselves with him for one reason or another, while the inane prize-giving plays out on stage. (At one point, three consecutive winners deliver the exact same acceptance speech.) His befuddled state makes it all the more chaotic, even nightmarish, because he’s essentially unable to comprehend anything going on around him. The audio dubbing characteristic of Italian films, occasionally distracting in other circumstances, could be seen as an asset here, adding to his haze of confusion. (As he often did, Fellini allowed his actors to count rather than speaking their actual dialogue. He noted that the award ceremony, which includes Toby reciting a passage from Macbeth, went “from numerical delirium to Shakespeare!”) Fellini’s use of color also contributes to this effect: Instead of bringing Toby’s world closer to real life, it adds an artificial quality that his black and white films don’t share. Everything is false — intentionally so. Even the pink and purple sky over the Colosseum seems as fake as the canned applause used in the television studio. In this atmosphere, is a devilish apparition really so unusual?
“Toby Dammit” may have little to do with Edgar Allan Poe, but it has a terror all its own.
Chandler, Charlotte. I, Fellini. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.
Fellini on Fellini. Trans. Isabel Quigley. Da Capo, 1996.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe. 1850. Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1 August 2015. https://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/dvlhdc.htm
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