A Movie A Day: THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) Gentlemen of the jury, don’t let this country go to the devil.
Published at: Aug. 29, 2008, 2:39 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
We go from yesterday’s Robert Wise: The Director to today’s AMAD, showcasing Robert Wise: The Editor.
THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER represents the 2nd Criterion of this column, the first being ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. There are many, many more… the trick is fitting a lot of the indie, super-obscure and foreign stuff into the connecting structure of this column.
But boy do I love Criterion. They treat their titles better than anyone else pressing discs.
So I knew that this movie was quality even before I put it in the DVD player. It had the Criterion stamp of approval, not to mention a reputation for being a classic.
I’m actually one of the few people to see the much troubled remake starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins theatrically thanks to it playing AFM before the damn thing imploded on itself. I couldn’t tell you any specifics of the movie today, if that speaks to how memorable it is, but I wasn’t offended. Hopkins is great in everything.
But I can say that if I had seen this movie first I would have been pissed right the fuck off. Going from Walter Huston’s gleefully demented performance to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s look at my tits, I’m the devil performance? Naww… Although, what if Walter Huston had tried the “look at my tits, I’m the devil” angle… what could have been?
Ultimately, this story can be moved to modern day, but why? I love that it takes place in the 1800s, that the Devil can be a gleeful little man that pops in and out of the lives of rural people. It makes the story more mythical and involving, giving it the feel of a tale passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. Since the flick is a morality tale anyway, it’s the perfect setting.
You have this poor farmer, Jabez Stone (James Craig), who is barely holding on to his farm, barely keeping up with his mortgage and keeping a roof over the heads of his rotund, Jiminy Cricket mother (Jane Darwell) and beautiful, devoted wife (the stunningly attractive Anne Shirley, who also figured into previous AMAD MURDER, MY SWEET).
Everything is going wrong for this poor bastard and in a moment of desperation he swears he’d sell his soul to the devil for two cents.
Well, that’s all Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch needs to hear and he comes prancing in promising 7 years of the best luck and an armload of gold, but only if he agrees to forfeit his soul at the end of the contract. But what is a soul, anyway? Have you ever seen one? Have you touched a soul, felt it, tasted it? It’s a small little thing anyway, why not get some use out of it?
Huston plays Mr. Scratch like some sort of demented leprechaun. He gets his kicks tempting people and manipulating them, so he’s all over the town, whispering into the ears of the locals. It’s souls he’s after, but not all souls are the same quality. Old Scratch has been trying to get the soul of a politician, friend to the farmer and working man… honest through and through… Scratch has wanted that soul for years, always whispering doubt into this man’s ear, but he’s too strong for temptation.
This man is the titular Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) who is befriended by Jabez Stone shortly after the sale of his soul. In fact this friendship is quickly used by Stone to kick off his new career.
In a supreme case of be careful what you wish for, we watch Stone lose himself piece by piece, like an onion being peeled, leaving just a rotten, bitter, mean, ego-centric, money-grubbing horrible being underneath.
It’s not until the Devil returns to collect on his debt that Stone realizes what a mistake he’s made, how he’s aliented his family, turned his friends into slave-work and become the exact person he never wanted to be.
That puts the last act into motion, where Daniel Webster wages his own soul that he can beat Mr. Scratch in a jury trail, treating the soul contract like any other property dispute.
The thing that shocked me the most about this film was just how quick-inhale creepy the movie is. Huston’s a likable character (as the devil should be), but the early effects work and vaudevillian-esque parlor tricks really do make him a menacing character. The fact that he’s all smiles and light-hearted chuckles only makes him more disturbing.
But it’s not just Huston, it’s the entire visual aspect of the movie. William Dieterle’s direction is sharp and experiemental… playful. That’s the main thing, the movie’s very playful, which is why when it turns creepy (screaming pigs, dead people dancing, etc) it really does unnerve you.
There’s a particular scene, our introduction to Daniel Webster, that really fucking floored me. Webster is writing a speech and as he’s writing the blank wall behind him is filled with Mr. Scratch’s silhouette, positioned so he looks massive and like the shadow IS the man, speaking into Webster’s ear.
He’s whispering doubt, trying to corrupt the man who seems to accept that the devil is always there, tempting him, but does have a limit on what he can take. After a minute or so of the poison being poured into his ears, Webster screams “That’s enough!” and in an instant the shadow disappears.
Arnold plays Daniel Webster with a regality and sincere goodness that you don’t doubt for a second this guy could stand up to the devil. He has a speech at the end of the movie that really could have broken a good movie if it hadn’t succeeded, but it does and becomes one of the great monologues in film history.
James Craig is likewise perfect for his role, playing the tormented farmer and possessor of the soul in danger of being swallowed up by Mr. Scratch. Craig’s a little more a product of the acting style of the time (meaning very theatrical, which passes the realistic line a few times, going pretty over-the-top), but considering he’s perfectly cast and the movie really doesn’t rest on his shoulders there’s no drawback. Craig is likable enough that you don’t want to see him end up in Mr. Scratch’s pocket.
Simone Simon plays Belle, a compatriot of Mr. Scratch who is introduced to Stone’s life when his wife is giving birth to their son. Simon is, of course, stunning to look at, so she is real temptation for Stone. They don’t ever explicitely state that he’s fucking this demon bitch, but there’s no doubt that’s the implication. He’s cheating on his family no matter what physical contact happens, that’s clear as day.
Simon is the biggest and strongest string Mr. Scratch has in Stone’s life, manipulating him to get more greedy and evil as the years go by.
And one can not discuss this movie without mentioning Bernard Hermann’s amazing (and Oscar-winning) score. I’m not good at breaking down elements of a score and describing them in detail, but I can say that Hermann’s work here had me on edge, especially the incredibly horrific fiddle version of Pop Goes The Weasel that Mr. Scratch plays at a dance early on in the movie.
Final Thoughts: I’d go so far as to say that this film is one of the most genuinely creepy movies of the era, which was a big surprise to me. I expected a message movie, a high-concept drama or maybe dramedy that would be great and live up to its reputation, but I never once considered that it’d be actually scary. Walter Huston’s performance is out of this world amazing and should be one for the history books. If nothing else worked in this movie, that one performance alone would have made it worth waiting through the rest, but thankfully I actually really liked the little family unit that are our leads. I loved this flick.