Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) may be a fairly young man, but he has settled into the life of the low ambition middle age somewhat prematurely. He is married to Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) and she wishes he were a bit more exciting, like he used to be when his big dream was to become a concert pianist, but he has left those days far behind him and now makes his living as a music journalist, mostly covering classical gigs. However, today he has a chance to interview Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens), a highly respected pianist of stern reputation, so after bidding his wife and child goodbye he drives off to meet him at this California home. This will be a fateful encounter, for Ely has ambitions Myles does not...
Rosemary's Baby spawned a whole rash of Satanic movies as Devil worship became the in thing for the makers of horror flicks to get interested in, and the public, regarding the practice as the dark side of the burgeoning Me Generation of the nineteen-seventies, flocked to many of them and enjoyed TV movies on the subject too. The ultimate of these was The Exorcist, which would happen along a couple of years after The Mephisto Waltz was released, so this was more of a dinner party conversation on the dark arts than it was something that would shock you to your core, its terribly polite and with-it socialites bringing a West Coast sophistication to the story that it did not really earn.
The spectre of Aleister Crowley was hanging over this more than Anton LaVey, it had to be said, with Jurgens essaying the elderly evildoer who has sold his soul (presumably) so he can move it somewhere else as more a leader of his own clique of hangers-on who get up to all sorts of wild and decadent parties which attract the jaded Myles. Or at least that was the premise, but it would have been a more interesting route if he had been more self-aware about his potential for exploitation, and had embraced it as an alternative to his staid lifestyle, something nobody here thought to adopt, leaving it as the story of a rather stodgy, dull man who is improbably desired by a wide range of self-obsessed folks.
If Alda had been switched with a more dynamic actor, someone with matinee idol good looks or an exciting sexuality about him, then you might have understood why Hollywood beauties of the calibre of Bisset and Barbara Parkins (playing Ely's frosty, haughty daughter Roxanne) would have gone to such lengths to claim him, but as it stood you may well be wondering what the big deal was about him. This was not the wisecracking Hawkeye of sitcom M*A*S*H which was about to energise his career, indeed it looked as if Alda had been hired because of his ability to convincingly mime the concertos on the piano rather than anything else: you could just about believe he was a lapsed talent on the ivories, but as a studly hunk? If anything, that was even more farfetched than the mumbo-jumbo.
Fortunately, the film seemed to recognise this and around halfway through opted to ditch Myles in favour of his increasingly creeped out missus, Bisset more comfortable in a chance at a lead role than her co-star appeared to be. She was a decent enough focus as Ely's terrible machinations begin to unravel what she considered was a happy home life (she runs a boutique in Los Angeles), so much so that you wish she had been the lead throughout the whole movie, as Paula's Cold War with Roxanne was far more entertaining in an Alexis vs Krystle soap opera manner than whether Myles had lost his soul to Ely. But there was a definite televisual quality to the whole thing, shot in flat, bright colours like an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery which somehow had managed to slip a little nudity past the censors, and it was not too different from one of those TV movies like Horror at 37,000 Feet or Satan's School for Girls when you boiled it down. Not too surprising when Quinn Martin was the producer (alas, a narrator does not announce it as such over the credits for that unmistakable TV brand), but despite murder, suicide, incest and a demon hound, this remained oddly safe and uninspired. Music by Jerry Goldsmith (probably the best thing about it).