The Devil and Daniel Webster (Masters of Cinema) Review

Truly deserving of being called a classic in the grandest tradition, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a film on par with the very best of its kind. Perhaps there really isn't another picture in or near its 1941 release which so compellingly mixed the best of folklore with extraordinary visuals and near-perfect performances. William Dieterle's screen version of the Stephen Vincent Benét short story stands as a true marvel of the era, somewhat unappreciated upon release by RKO (under the title All That Money Can Buy) and soon stripped of several key scenes. It now plays both as one of the key representations of the American ideal and as a quintessential morality tale. The achievements of Dieterle, his cinematographer Joseph August and the entire main cast are equally exceptional.

As the hickish New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, James Craig displays the appropriate descent from wide-eyed amazement at the chest full of Hessian gold coins offered by a certain Mr. Scratch to a wealthy monster unconcerned with anyone but himself. Though he's neither of the title characters, Jabez Stone is our actual protagonist and his journey is vital to the film's narrative. Craig's portrayal might seem overly broad, but there's a necessary medium he arrives at which allows Jabez to be both the gullible everyman and the power-mad capitalist who succeeds at the expense of others. This is a man we must believe in to a point while still recognising his internal corruption as a valid and cautionary danger. There's one particular scene that occurs a bit after Jabez sells his soul to Scratch (played with mesmerising guile by Walter Huston) when he and his wife Mary (Anne Shirley, passive without devolving into blandness) are in their separate beds for the night and Scratch is shown lurking outside the window. There's a palpable fear here and definite worry on the part of both Jabez and Mary, though not necessarily for the same reasons.

The main essay in the booklet included for this release characterises this scene as one of Scratch exerting his power and willing Jabez into sexually taking Mary for the purpose of creating their first child, a reading that seems at least possible. Though a baby is born soon after, I don't think this particular scene represents exactly what the essay is claiming so much as it illustrates the anxiety Jabez is dealing with and his awareness of the wrongness in his bargain. Jabez is clearly frightened by Scratch at this point and he retreats to Mary out of comfort, not with the intention of the near rape the essay alleges. The scene allows Jabez to remain initially grounded in his misdeed, regretful of the Faust-like sale. Had Jabez been truly shown as a total miscreant, the strings would've sort of severed for the viewer. This character is absolutely essential in keeping us emotionally attached. The qualities that endear us to Jabez are some of the most important attributes in any deceptively simplistic story. His basic good is a requirement for the eventual forgiveness. The overtly Christian ideals found in Dieterle's film need Jabez to face conflict and adversity before seeing the light of piousness. He's then absolved of his misdeeds and allowed to start anew.

A Sunday morning card game even directly references this religious opposition. Instead of attending church as he had previously, Jabez, his knock-out new maid Belle (Simone Simon), and various friends engage themselves in some friendly gambling on the day of the Sabbath. This becomes the unrecognised final straw of sorts. We must remember how entwined religion was with the earlier days of common America and how important these ideas of church on Sunday were to the people of the film's 1840s setting. That Jabez was tempted by Belle and the sin of gambling, even after swindling his peers of their savings, reflects quite poorly on his character. For 1941 audiences, this was as close as possible to the devil truly getting a hold on someone. Jabez's soul has been ostensibly captured by Scratch. He no longer cares about his wife, his mother, his former friends or his reputation.

Such an influence from the devout contingent is also deeply considered among ideas of Americana and its folklore. The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of the most reverent films steeped in America the myth and the ideal that Hollywood ever produced. It rivals the output of John Ford, our great American mythmaker, and other films like Sergeant York and It's a Wonderful Life. There's so much of what Americans desire for ourselves in this picture. Jabez has a nice section of dialogue early on about the idea of seed and the possibilities we allow for in planting fields full of potential vegetation. The Hal Ashby film Being There delights in satirising metaphors of straightforward cultivation of the nation's agriculture, but there's much truth here. At its heart of hearts, America was founded with ambitions of land and freedom just as other advanced nations were experiencing a shortage of such. When the young country began to feel cramped and stagnant, the mantra instructed the disenchanted to go west for fertile land and inviting climates. This highly agrarian point of view was a mainstay of the nation's early inhabitants.

Dieterle's film seems to embody this American agrarian ideal while still maintaining a safe distance from the other inherently nationalistic concept of capitalism. Greed takes an especially brutal hit here. The film can be quite patriotic, bordering on jingoistic if you aren't paying close attention, but it's hardly blind in its support. A leftist nature emerges in everything from the loathed Miser Stevens to the sympathetic treatment of folk hero Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). It's a fine antidote to the modern idea of conservatism among the working class in middle America. Webster is a pre-Lincoln adversary of the Democrats, yet he truly embodies American values and imperfections. This Daniel Webster struggles with alcohol, an affliction only slyly presented by Dieterle, and very nearly lets his demons conquer his final plea. That he doesn't, that he rebounds for one of the more stirring speeches in the history of American cinema, helps to place a salve on the mixed feelings the film inspires.

On the one hand, The Devil and Daniel Webster is undeniably patriotic. It embraces the best of the possibilities of America and lets the rural folks take centre stage. Ambition is easily foregone in favour of simply maintaining a sense of duty and place in the grander scheme of things. The more troubling perspective offered is the cracked veneer of the very same concept. Without ideas or advanced intellectual concepts, the path quickly dead ends. Daniel Webster is the supreme orator, a man with ambitions of the presidency, but he's forced to interact with his constituents in inane ways like horseshoe throwing and attending parties that have no connection to bettering the area. This seems like a veiled critique of a political system where folksy popularity ultimately rules the day. It fits into the larger picture of the film as a whole by reminding us that man is forever imperfect. Temptation is a perpetual force and power is to be handled with extreme delicacy.

Webster's eventual argument in support of Jabez Stone redeems both parties. Stone is given his soul and the promise of a second chance while Webster receives a significant vote of confidence and confirmation that the American ideal remains a potent force. This final climax, a true trial of the century, is yet another of the film's impressive visuals. Beginning with Scratch's first meeting with Jabez and continuing through the introduction of Belle and a later, fiddle-infused dance between Jabez and Belle, the lighting in the film is simply extraordinary and entirely evocative of the teased supernatural element. Dieterle's roots in German expressionism translate well throughout the picture, helping it to often resemble a film noir more than any cinematic permutations of a folk tale. Indeed, much of the film's visual success can be credited to the melding of European and Hollywood styles to such a positive degree as to simultaneously invoke F.W. Murnau and Gregg Toland, among several others. The score, too, winning Bernard Herrmann his lone Academy Award over his own work on Citizen Kane, evokes just the right mood of uneasiness, especially when Scratch or Belle are on screen.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema label releases The Devil and Daniel Webster on DVD for the first time in the UK. The dual-layered disc is actually region-free and NTSC.

The transfer looks nearly, if not, identical to the image found on Criterion's 2003 release of the film, and begins with the Janus logo. It is progressive and presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Though there are an abundance of vertical damage lines throughout the 106-minute runtime, there's hardly anything else to complain about here. All things considered, contrast is exceptional, with black levels looking rich and deep and the entire image often taking on a silvery glow. Detail likewise is generally impressive. The grain is visible, but looks very natural and not excessive. The quality can be inconsistent, with some scenes looking a bit better than others and flickering at times, but only the lines of damage, which also plague the Criterion release, are typically problematic. This screen shot below shows how rough the image can look, but it generally fares much better.

Audio, via an English Dolby Digital mono track, is definitely worse off and has a prominent hiss during most or all of the film. It's nothing unreasonably out of the ordinary for a film of this age, but the hiss is perhaps louder than expected, though this same problem exists with the Criterion audio. The volume remains consistent and at a healthy level. Dialogue is easy to understand. Anyone having difficulty or just wanting to see how "consarn it" is spelled can use the subtitles, provided in English and white in colour.

This release from Masters of Cinema has less supplements on the disc than the Criterion Collection version, but a closer look shows there may be little disparity in terms of the quality of these features. The sole digital extra from MoC is a comparison (4:37) with the original preview version of the film, then known as Here Is a Man, that was also on Criterion's release. The format is to show a scene from The Devil and Daniel Webster and then show how the same scene played in Here Is a Man. Aside from an obvious change in the opening titles to reflect the difference in name, the only contrast is a quick negative shot of Scratch reacting to Jabez's misfortunes, occurring for three scenes. The addition of a smoldering Scratch is still unnerving, and you can imagine why it was excised at the time.

The MoC, then, doesn't have Criterion's commentary track with film historian Bruce Eder, which also features some insight from Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. Eder's contribution, ported over from Criterion's 1991 laserdisc and updated a bit, is an excellent listen for those interested in the film's production and release. It doesn't have much in the way of analysis, though, and the long essay included in the MoC booklet probably goes much further in depth from that standpoint. Also not carried over for UK buyers are a couple of radio dramatisations for "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and Benét's related "Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent," as well as an interactive essay on the film's music.

Where the Masters of Cinema version undoubtedly prevails is in its 60-page book found inside the case. An essay by Tony Williams runs 24 pages, a couple of which are stills, and provides a fairly in-depth look at the picture. Some of his conclusions are debatable, and he favours the word "also" quite a bit in the first few pages, but I found the essay as a whole better than anything from the entirety of the Criterion disc. Additionally, there's a short piece written by Dieterle at the time of The Devil and Daniel Webster's release entitled "On Hollywood and the Masses," lasting two pages, and a reaction from Benét which can be found in the Criterion insert as well. Finally, MoC has done the sensible thing and included Benét's original short story, all 24 pages of it, in the booklet instead of having Alec Baldwin read it aloud on the disc like Criterion decided to do.

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