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Having a devil of a time onscreen

Ryan Huddle/Globe Staff

The people who do the programming over at the Brattle have had an infernally good idea. White and gray are the colors of winter, and freezing cold is its temperature. So what better antidote than red, the devil’s favorite color, and the hellish heat of his home base?

The repertory series Dead of Winter: Satan on Screen starts at the Brattle Friday, with “Legend” (1985), featuring a demonic Tim Curry doing his damnedest (so to speak) to do in poor Tom Cruise. Curry looks as though he’s auditioning for the role of Hellboy’s less demure dermatologist. The series ends Jan. 24, with “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). Satan isn’t exactly seen in Roman Polanski’s horror classic, but his presence sure is felt — or at least it is by Mia Farrow.

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Morally, God has it all over the devil. No one would dispute that. But cinematically? The devil wins hands — or horns — down. He looks fabulous: not just horns, but tail, hooves, all-over sunburn, and don’t forget the pitchfork.

Boon though he is for makeup and props people, he’s even better for screenwriters. The devil has starpower. That’s why he dominates “Paradise Lost” and the many versions of the “Faust” legend. F.W. Murnau’s silent “Faust,” from 1926, screens Jan. 23. Emil Jannings plays Mephistopheles.

The devil presents so many options, what with all those commandments to break, all those temptations to offer. Let’s face it, God is the ultimate G rating. Satan is a very different story — and a lot more interesting one. It can’t be a coincidence that one of the highest-rated X movies of all time is “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973).

The God-devil dichotomy extends to comedy. The deity can be played for laughs, as George Burns’s and Morgan Freeman’s accountants can attest. So can Satan, only that much better. The devil’s such a tempting comic target that there’s an Adam Sandler devil movie, “Little Nicky” (2000), with Harvey Keitel ruling over hell. At the other extreme, Ingmar Bergman — yes, yes, that Ingmar Bergman — went the laugh-riot route with the lord of evil, making the 1960 comedy “The Devil’s Eye.” Find that hard to believe? All right, go to the Brattle next Sunday and see for yourself.

Sin is funnier than virtue. It’s as simple as that. Think of Peter Cook scratching random cars with his keys in “Bedazzled” (1967) — the sheer pettiness of the act is what makes it hilarious. Cook may be the funniest devil, but Billy Crystal, in “Deconstructing Harry” (1997), gives Cook a run for his scratch. Life, Crystal notes, is “like Vegas. You’re up, you’re down, but in the end the house always wins. Doesn’t mean you didn’t have fun.” The two films both screen a week from Monday.

The devil even figures in a musical comedy, “Damn Yankees.” He goes by the name of Mr. Applegate (think about it). Ray Walston reprises his Broadway role in the 1958 movie, which screens Saturday. And while “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009) is by no stretch of the imagination a musical, its devil, Mr. Nick, is played by that croakiest-voiced of vocalists, Tom Waits. It’s the voice of a man who gargles with brimstone. Terry Gilliam’s film screens Jan. 22.

No one loves the devil quite so much as actors do. Overacting isn’t just allowed but expected. Has Jack Nicholson ever been quite so “Jack” as when playing Daryl Van Horne, in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987)? Al Pacino’s John Milton (speaking of “Paradise Lost”), in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997) is like a Tony Montana who’s high on sulfur instead of cocaine. As for Jules Berry’s performance in “Les Visiteurs du Soir” (1942), jambon — deviled or otherwise — doesn’t come sliced any thicker.

Actresses love the devil, too. Elizabeth Hurley plays him — er, her — in the 2000 remake of “Bedazzled.” Jenny O’Hara takes on the title role in “Devil” (2010), where an elevator serves as hell. Maybe Mel Gibson’s single shrewdest move in making “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) was casting a woman, Rosalinda Celentano, as a menacingly androgynous Satan. And while Meryl Streep has never played the devil, per se, she did star in “She-Devil” (2009) and “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006). She recognizes the value of having an underworld address on an acting resume.

Brooding actors seem to have an inside track on playing the ultimate bad guy. Gabriel Byrne bedevils ex-cop (and soon to be savior of Christendom) Arnold Schwarzenegger, in “End of Days” (1999). Robert De Niro plays Louis Cyphre (which sounds an awful lot like Lucifer, when spoken out loud) in “Angel Heart” (1987). “The Prophecy” (1995) turns things upside-down. The Archangel Gabriel, played by Christopher Walken, is the bad guy — opposed by sort-of good guy Lucifer, played by Viggo Mortensen.

One thing about movie devils is that they’re almost never chunky. The one exception is Laird Cregar, in Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy “Heaven Can Wait” (1943). It plays at the Brattle Saturday. What is it Marlene Dietrich says to Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil” (kind of a Luciferian title, come to think of it): “You should lay off those candy bars”? Let’s just say Cregar might want to consider that advice as regards the devil’s food cake.

ON THE COVER:

Center left: Jack Nicholson, “The Witches of Eastwick”; center right: Tom Waits, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”; clockwise from upper right: Harvey Keitel, “Little Nicky”; Al Pacino, “The Devil’s Advocate”; Viggo Mortensen, “The Prophecy”; Jenny O’Hara, “Devil”; Stig Järrel, “The Devil’s Eye”; Elizabeth Hurley, “Bedazzled”; Emil Jannings, “Faust”; Rosalinda Celentano, “The Passion of the Christ”; Ray Walston, “Damn Yankees,” Peter Cook, “Bedazzled”; Gabriel Byrne, “End of Days.” Center: Tim Curry, “Legend.’’

SCHEDULE FOR DEAD OF WINTER: SATAN ON SCREEN

Jan. 18: “Legend”

Jan. 19: “Damn Yankees,” “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), “Prince of Darkness”

Jan 20: “The Devil’s Eye,”

“The Canterbury Tales”

Jan. 21: “Bedazzled” (1967), “Deconstructing Harry”

Jan. 22: “Toby Dammit,”

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”

Jan. 23: “Faust” (1926),

“Witchcraft Through the Ages”

Jan. 24: “Rosemary’s Baby”

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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