(ru) wrote: William Dieterle's adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster is the product of a great, albeit brief, era of quality Hollywood filmmaking that has never been repeated. Released within a three-year period that yielded such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane (just to name a few), The Devil and Daniel Webster is only now earning the accolades it deserves. The film is late to join the aforementioned classics because a definitive version of it has been elusive for nearly sixty years. Originally released as "Here is a Man", and later as "All That Money Can Buy", The Devil and Daniel Webster was a near casualty in the battle to preserve motion picture history. For decades, most prints of the film were incomplete and home video copies of abridged editions were scarce. For their 2003 DVD release of the title, The Criterion Collection finally discovered a complete print that had been in the director's possession. Now restored to its full length, and painstakingly restored, The Devil and Daniel Webster has never looked and sounded better. The film's glory is a result of masterful storytelling and superior aesthetics. A cautionary tale of greed and power, the narrative centers around the character of Jabez Stone (played by James Craig), a down-on-his-luck farmer who is barely able to support his family in 1840s New Hampshire. When the nefarious Mr. Scratch (Walter Houston) appears during a moment of weakness, Jabez agrees to sell his soul in exchange for seven years of good luck. Much to the dismay of his wife (Ann Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and beloved politician Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), Jabez slips into a downward spiral as a result of his newfound wealth and power. When his seven years are up, Jabez learns the error of his ways and wants to make amends. To escape his contract with the devil, Jabez puts his fate in the hands of the almost mythic Daniel Webster, who represents him in a climactic barn room trial against Mr. Scratch and a jury of the damned. Both Benet's original story and the motion picture version depict a turn-of-the-times in American history, when the agrarian became industrial and the value of hard work gave way to the almighty dollar. The transition is a difficult one for Jabez and his fellow farmers, who are trying to get him to join a farmer's grange (union) while they all fall prey to the town's greedy Miser Stevens (John Qualen), a loan shark who also made a pact with Mr. Scratch. A decidedly socialist morality tale, The Devil and Daniel Webster suggests that money and power corrupt not only men, but also townships and even countries. Early in the film, Mr. Scratch's shadow is seen whispering into Daniel Webster's ear, trying to persuade him to run for president. Scratch sees the potential power of Webster's congeniality and popularity. He wants Webster's soul more than anyone else's. When Jabez is witness to Mr. Scratch's reaping of Miser Stevens' soul, he sees the soul embodied in the form of a small moth which Scratch places in a side bag. Scratch proclaims that Webster's soul would be too big for the bag. The greater the morals, the more desirable the soul. The more virtuous the man, the more dangerous his corruption becomes to those around him. Jabez's seven years of good fortune are primarily the result of the town's misfortune. Hail storms destroy other farmers' crops and many of the townspeople end up working for Jabez. Given a taste of extraordinary wealth, Jabez transforms from caring neighbor on the verge of joining a grange to selfish tyrant with a strangle hold on the town. In line with the movie's socialist attitudes, Jabez must give himself back to his community in order to save his soul. Daniel Webster implores Scratch's jury of the damned to remember their American roots, claiming that "we planted freedom in this earth like wheat" and that Jabez's soul "doesn't belong to him alone, but to his family and his country". And when the jury sets Jabez free, he of course joins the grange. If the movie's political ideals are lost on anyone, Mr. Scratch informs us all in the film's final moments. Walking away from Jabez's farm, Mr. Scratch notices the camera's lens and looks directly into it. He smiles, cocks his head, and points to the audience - looking just like Uncle Sam. But to dwell too much on the political and moral agenda of The Devil and Daniel Webster is to deny the beauty of its simple Faustian storyline - one of man overcoming adversity, finding comfort in family, building strong communities, and doing the right thing. It flows beautifully and lyrically, and if it fits the context of any socio-political agendas it does so with the subtlest effort. The story itself is not what makes this film a masterpiece, though story is always the essential foundation for any great film. It's the execution of this story that is so remarkable, from the elegant direction and incredible performances to the innovative camera work and stylish mise-en-scene. Dieterle infuses the film with stark contrast lighting and masterful compositions rich in detail and multiple layers of action. When Mr. Scratch appears in Jabez's barn, he is heavily backlit and accompanied by ethereal sounds. His accomplice, Belle, is similarly introduced beside a fireplace. To portray the film's more ghostly effects, including Belle's dance to the death with Miser Stevens and the barn room trial, Dieterle relies on multiple exposure and diffused lighting. These visual effects and others, such as items bursting into flame, were ahead of their time - as were the lighting schemes. Influenced as Citizen Kane was by German expressionist films, The Devil and Daniel Webster features bold, suggestive lighting where shadows alone often represent a character. Dieterle succeeds in creating a visual distinction between the real world and the netherworld by frequently bathing Scratch and Belle in soft light or diffusion and removing all natural sounds from the soundtrack when they appear. Belle's dance of death and Scratch's fiddle playing at Jabez's party are accompanied by severe under lighting, insinuating the hellish forces at work in both scenes. Every shot in the film, even in the mundane world, seems painstakingly planned and executed, with decisive lighting and many intricate camera movements, rare for this era of filmmaking. The most remarkable performance in the film is Walter Houston's Mr. Scratch. Houston, an Oscar-winner for his role in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, exudes unbridled glee with every devilish grin. His devil is a gentleman-like puppet master, a smooth talker, and very persuasive. He never flaunts his evil powers. He doesn't have to. His appeal is understandable because he can offer what everyone in the movie wants - wealth and power. It's easy for the Devil to sell his wares to struggling farmers, so he's confident and playful in his duties. Houston throws away one-liner after one-liner, owning the screen and stealing the show. At one point, he offers to help Daniel Webster win the presidential election. Webster replies, "I'd rather see you on the side of the opposition." As Webster walks away, Houston replies, "Oh, I'll be there, too," and sticks a cigar in his mouth. To combat the devil, Dieterle cast Edward Arnold (who was actually recast when the original actor was injured during filming). Arnold had a tough job in the film, making believable not only Daniel Webster's mythic stature, but also his flowery rhetoric about patriotism and the goodness in all men. He admirably succeeds in not only persuading the jury of the damned, but in holding his own against Walter Houston in their many scenes together. Everyone else in the cast is also excellent. James Craig pulls off Jabez Stone's fall from grace, and Ann Shirley is a believable virtuous wife. Jane Darwell, fresh off her Oscar-winning stint as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, seems to be playing the same character in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but it serves the movie well. The most notable supporting player is Simone Simon, whose mesmerizing Belle haunts every frame in which she appears. It's easy to see why Jabez would fall under her spell, because we, as an audience, do as well. The icing on the Devil's cake is Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning score, a dynamic one that works on many levels. Herrmann incorporates several traditional folk songs into his original music, including "Devil's Dream", "Springfield Mountain", and "Miss McLeod's Reel". For Mr. Scratch and Belle, Herrmann manipulated the sound of telephone wires "singing" in the wind to create an eerie, atonal sound for the netherworld. The film also provided Herrmann a wealth of other opportunities, including a square dance and two lullabies. A good story makes a movie worth watching once. Exquisite aesthetics makes it worth watching many times. The Devil and Daniel Webster stands the test of time as an endearing narrative with lessons we have still to learn. It's masterful direction and style, fluid editing, and charming performances make it an accessible and entertaining film for any audience. Now restored and widely available, it is sure to join the ranks of those other great classics from the late `30s and early `40s - a scintillating example of good storytelling and fine craftsmanship.