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The Criterion Collection presents
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

"Once you're lucky, you don't have to work for other people. You make them work for you."
- Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 19, 2003

Stars: Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Anne Shirley, James Craig
Other Stars: Jane Darwell, Simone Simon, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen
Director: William Dieterle

Manufacturer: American Zoetrope
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (traffic with the devil)
Run Time: 01h:46m:04s
Release Date: September 30, 2003
UPC: 037429181423
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A+ AB+C- A

DVD Review

In the 1930s, Stephen Vincent Benet was one of the leading names in American literature. Today, he's been reduced to a mere footnote, known only to academic trivia fans and the aged. Among his many literary contributions is the mythic Faustian tale of American life, which was the basis for this classic film, finally restored to its original form for the first time in over fifty years.

In 1840 Cross Corners, New Hampshire, Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a singularly unlucky farmer, scrabbling out a miserable debt-ridden existence with his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and mother (Jane Darwell, who had recently won acclaim as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). When he reaches the breaking point, he offers to sell his soul for two cents. He is thereupon visited by Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), who promises Jabez not only two cents but seven years of good luck and all that money can buy. Scratch is good to his word, and Stone prospers mightily. Although he becomes more and more corrupt with his wealth, Stone begins to think better of his deal with the devil and enlists the aid of legendary lawyer and orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold).

The restored picture is a marvelous slice of Americana and one of the most compelling, if not chilling depictions of greed since von Stroheim's 1923 masterpiece. Director William Dieterle uses imaginative visuals throughout the film, particularly the entrance of Scratch and his minion Belle Dee (Simone Simon, later to star in Val Lewton's Cat People), shot in glare and fog that is hugely striking. The cinematography uses deep, dark shadows and high contrasts to excellent effect throughout. The black-and-white photography is striking and effective, emphasizing the darkening mood of Stone as he falls victim to his monetary wealth.

The cast is first-rate, led by Huston, who makes a terrific Satan. Soft-spoken, charming, and good-humored, he embodies temptation while still being clearly a force of darkness. The subtleties that color his performance are witty and delicate. Edward Arnold, who was a late replacement for Thomas Mitchell (who was injured during filming) as Webster, doesn't impress until he goes into full lawyer mode, and then he quite credibly assumes the role of the master orator who can convince even a jury of the damned. Although James Craig gets bottom billing, he gets most of the screen time and believably embodies the noble farmer falling victim to his own warped desires and failure to appreciate what he has. Repentance is a particularly difficult emotion to portray credibly, and he does so in a fine manner. Anne Shirley doesn't get much to do other than be put upon and be concerned about her husband, but when she herself also becomes slightly tempted, she gets an opportunity to shine both in the temptation and the rejection of material wealth.

Although the commentary insists that none of the filmmakers had any particularly socialist leanings, the film is unabashedly leftist. Money and capital are seen as the agencies of the devil, while labor and toil are seen as connected with holiness. Not only that, but to underline the leftist theme, the honest and Godly farmers are engaged in organizing a grange (a farmer's union, popular in the late 19th century). The result is one of the most convincing and entertaining socialist films ever made. The result has all the humanity of a Frank Capra picture without the sentimentality. This emphasis is clearly intentional, since Benet's original story and his operatic adaptation all have their emphasis on Stone's trial and defense by Webster; here that's almost an afterthought. The focus is really on the corrupting influence of wealth and power.

Interestingly, some prominent themes here are picked up again in later works such as William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist some 30 years later. Among them is the notion that Jabez Stone is not necessarily the devil's target, but the great soul of Webster himself. This is paralleled by the broad hints that Regan MacNeil's possessing demon is really after the soul of Father Merrin. The representation of the captive souls in the form of moths is echoed in The Silence of the Lambs.

Originally previewed as Here is a Man, and released as All That Money Can Buy, the film was cut by over 20 minutes in rerelease. About half of that running time was restored in Criterion's laserdisc of the 1990s, but a recently discovered print that had been in Dieterle's own possession is here used to restore the film to full length (although Herrmann's overture is still missing). This is to my mind one of the most important restorations in recent years, allowing the picture to develop at a reasonable pace. We now can see a detailed portrait of Jabez Stone before his corruption, and the descent into damnation is more gradual and realistically depicted. This makes all the difference, and the restoration raises this back to the status of classic that this film deserves.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture is variable in quality, apparently indicating an assemblage of different prints. Some sections still have significant scratches and frame damage visible. However, the transfer proper is excellent, with a luminous black-and-white rendering without artifacts. Grain is heavy, but well-rendered so that it does not sparkle or distract. Some restoration work is still called for, but this looks very nice once one gets past the shortcomings of the source materials, and to be fair, when there's only one surviving complete print one can hardly be too demanding.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The audio doesn't, however, measure up to the video transfer. There is substantial noise, hiss and crackle throughout. Dialogue is generally clear, although the background noise levels are frequently distracting. Bernard Herrmann's Oscar®-winning score sounds very good, however, most notably Mr. Scratch's distorted fiddling of Pop Goes the Weasel (itself another echo of the moneygrubbing theme). Considering the source materials, it sounds decent, but one wonders if more noise filtering couldn't have been used without degrading the audio quality.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 21 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
4 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith
Packaging: EastPack
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:51m:27s

Extra Extras:
  1. Comparisons with preview version
  2. Radio dramatizations
  3. Original story
  4. Original story
  5. Still and poster gallery
Extras Review: Criterion really loads up this release to an almost ridiculous extent. First is a valuable commentary, revised from the laserdisc, that covers the history of the film, its restoration, and the score, as well as useful analysis both on thematic and technical grounds. There are very few silent patches, and it's well worth listening to for additional background. Smith also provides an essay analyzing Herrmann's score in depth, including the reuse of themes in different forms, illustrated with clips from the feature.

Other versions of the story also get attention here, including Alec Baldwin reading the original story (33m:40s). He does a passable imitation of Huston as Mr. Scratch, making this an amusing companion piece to the film. But that's not all. The Columbia Workshop radio adaptation of the story is also included, as is another Columbia live adaptation of another Benet story centering on the mythic Webster, Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent (both also coincidentally scored by Bernard Herrmann). The latter is more farce than anything, but it's entertaining nonetheless.

A nifty presentation compares the final film to the preview version, with the not-too-dissimilar title sequence, as well as three early bits from the film where Mr. Scratch is foreshadowed in a disturbing negative image. These nearly subliminal shots give a sense of unease early on and really should have been left in the film in my humble opinion, but since editor (and later director) Robert Wise had just finished editing Citizen Kane, I suppose I'll trust his judgment. Wrapping up the package are a gallery of nine behind-the-scenes stills and three posters, and a booklet with copious production notes. An excellent package that seems to be missing only a theatrical trailer and the operatic version of the story. The layer change is absolutely seamless.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

An important restoration of a terrific classic, with excellent performances, and a huge quantity of useful extras. Highly recommended.

 


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