The Devil’s Advocate, and its very rare DVD release

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A legal case led to changes to The Devil’s Advocate for its home formats release – but not before a number of DVDs had made it onto the market.

Whilst Keanu Reeves movies are having a resurgence right about now, there were many of us in the trenches watching them all in cinemas in the 1990s too. I paid good money to watch the likes of Chain Reaction, Johnny Mnemonic and The Devil’s Advocate for a start, and whilst not all of them were successful, I never got the sense he wasn’t putting in a shift.

As it happens though, those who saw The Devil’s Advocate on its original cinema run got a version of the film that you can no longer see in its entirety. Well, unless you’ve got a bit of spare cash.

The movie, a flat-out over-the-top treat most notable for Al Pacino ripping up any acting notes marked “dial it down”, also featured Charlize Theron. And it co-starred Reeves as a young lawyer, who goes to work for a law firm where the boss – and this is hardly a spoiler – turns out to be Satan.

The film has a few problems, most notably that at 144 minutes, it does go on a a bit. But also, its $57m budget is very much on the screen. Not least in the excellent production design.

But as it turned out, the production design would lead to a problem.

The character Pacino plays in the film goes by the name of John Milton, and for the design of Milton’s apartment, there’s a sculpture behind his desk. You can see it in this sequence here…

Yet that sculpture led to a complaint from artist Frederick Hart, who argued that it bore far too close a resemblance to one of his pieces, Ex Nihilo. That’s a piece of work found in Washington’s National Cathedral, and Hart decided to take action against Warner Bros, the studio behind the film.

Sort-of successful action, too, albeit in that way where nobody admits liability for anything. In conjunction with the National Cathedral, Hart brought a suit that nearly led to a ruling against the studio. That ruling meant that unless some kind of arrangement could be reached, Warner Bros was not going to be allowed to release the movie on DVD and video to rent. A formal ruling was never issued, but a judge warned the studio that it was unlikely to win the case, and basically advised it to do something, else the film would be in some kind of limbo.

The problem was thus that the studio was heading close to the release date, and had pressed copies of the film. It thus either had to contest the case, or cut its losses and reach some kind of settlement.

It, unsurprisingly, opted for the latter, The 475,000 copies of the film on video and DVD that were ready were allowed to be made available for rent, but Warner Bros agreed to edit the film when the movie was subsequently available to buy. As such, it had to deploy some CG work to obscure the sculpture for the nearly 20 minutes that it’s seen on screen. It’s pretty clumsily done, but it did allow the studio to press ahead with its home formats release on schedule.

In turn, it created one of the very first highly collectable DVDs. Whilst the price of the original unaltered The Devil’s Advocate has tempered in recent years, at one stage, you’d have had to pay three figures on eBay to get hold of the very rare original version of the film on disc. You’d know if you had it because it contained a warning reading that the “white sculpture of the human forms on the wall of John Milton’s Penthouse in ‘Devil’s Advocate’ is not connected in any way and was not endorsed by the Sculptor Federick Hart or the Washington National Cathedral, joint copyright owners of the Cathedral sculpture ‘Ex Nihilo’ in Washington, D.C” (with thanks to DVD Exotica for that).

It goes without saying that every release since of the film has been the altered version. But the original theatrical prints still contain that original unaltered sculpture, and nearly half a million discs and videos too.

Either way, for those of you exploring the Keanu back catalogue in the light of his huge current popularity, the movie’s very much one to put on the list…

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