The writings of Edgar Allan Poe have long been tempting source material for filmmakers. Roger Corman made a series of enjoyable shlocky adaptations back in the 1960s. D. W. Griffith turned Poe’s “The Avenging Conscience” into a Victorian morality play. Italian horror master Dario Argento took a stab with The Black Cat. But perhaps the best Poe adaptation out there is Federico Fellini’s Toby Dammit. You can watch it above.
The short was a part of the 1968 omnibus movie Spirits of the Dead, which also featured segments by Roger Vadim and Louis Malle. Fellini’s movie is based on Poe’s short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” Poe was sick of the literary establishment railing against his work for not having a moral for the audience, so he wrote a tongue-in-cheek tale that had a thuddingly obvious one. It’s in the title. In the story, Toby Dammit is a foolish lad who, in spite of having no money, would bet on anything, using his head as collateral. Eventually, the devil takes him up on the offer and, not surprisingly, Dammit loses his head. Literally.
The movie has little of the satirical edge of Poe’s story, but Fellini’s flashy decadence meshes surprisingly well with Poe’s brooding morbidity. Terence Stamp plays Dammit, a washed up, alcoholic Shakespearean actor who looks a bit like a bleached out version of Poe himself. Lured by promises of a Ferrari, he goes to Rome to appear in the world’s first Catholic Western. Dammit soon finds himself haunted by visions of the devil. No red horns here. This Satan comes in the form of a creepy blonde girl who looks like she was pulled straight out of a Japanese horror movie. The second half of the movie is a phantasmagoric joy ride as a crazed Dammit blasts through the streets of Rome in his new car. It’s a drive straight to a very Felliniesque hell.
All of Fellini’s trademark stylistic traits are there on the screen. Gorgeous, if vapid women, in elaborate hairstyles? Check. Bizarre Catholic imagery? Check. Paparazzi asking improbably philosophical questions? Yup. Fellini turns Poe’s tortured gloom into the sort of spiraling existential malaise that he perfected in La Dolce Vita and 8 ½. If you’re a Fellini fan, this film really is a joy to watch.
Though Fellini’s segment was the clear stand out of the three shorts – New York Times critic Vincent Canby declared Toby Dammit to be a “short movie but a major one” – the other two movies weren’t as well received and Spirits of the Dead was soon forgotten. Then renowned cinematographer and Fellini collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno had Toby Dammit restored. When it screened at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, it was hailed as a lost Fellini masterpiece.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.