Retro-reviews: The Devil and Daniel Webster
The film opens on a disquieting note: A lone figure approaches a cozy farmhouse and pauses to check something in a book he retrieves from his breast pocket. We see the page he settles on, the name “Jabez Stone” is scrawled at the top in some eerie font. Below is his age, marital status, and finances. Right away we know everything we need to know about Jabez Stone, but who is this man with the book? Who on earth would have a book like that in such a quaint little place like this, except…oh…
And after that “oh,” we’re introduced to Jabez (James Craig), who’s broke, has a sick wife, and just spilled the last bag of seed he was saving for rainy days like this one. It’s just the kind of day that would make someone sell their…oh…
“Good evening, neighbor Stone!” calls the lone figure, who identifies himself as Mr. Scratch. Jabez signs the contract to bargain his soul and goes on to wealth and fame, sires a child, and gradually alienates himself from the townsfolk, his child, mother, and wife, before the Devil comes to collect his due. Thought not quite before endearing himself to revered statesman and skilled debater Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold).
Released from RKO in 1941 under the title All That Money Can Buy, the film garnered critical praise but flopped. RKO trimmed the 107-minute running time down to 84 and rereleased it under its current title.
The Devil and Daniel Webster came out not long after Citizen Kane and profits mightily from having many of the same crew: editor Robert Wise, special effects wizard Vernon L. Walker, and music by the incomparable Bernard Hermann. There are others, but the contributions of these three stand out the most.
Wise masterfully keeps the film moving. A deeply moralistic tale lends itself to ponderousness, but he never once loses your attention or gives you a moment to glance at the clock. Perhaps even more impressive is the town dance, where the menfolk salivate waiting for their turn to take Belle (Simone Simon), the lascivious acolyte of Mr. Scratch, for a spin. Scratch himself provides the music, and as the tune, and hence the dance, becomes faster and faster, Wise increases the speed of each cut, alternating between the rhapsodic dancers and the grinning Scratch until the whole of it spirals out of control and into a dizzying blur.
Walker’s effects, under Dieterle’s direction, are subtle triumphs. The scene where Mr. Scrath casually tosses his business card aside and it’s quickly eaten up by flames is just long enough for you to notice it but short enough that it’s not distracting. When Belle does something similar later in the film, it’s an exquisite callback that removes any doubt of her true nature.
And Hermann’s Oscar-winning score (the only Oscar he won) hauntingly invokes the bleakness of the film’s setting and theme, and the dance melody is just as disconcerting. With Scratch behind the fiddle, the music is aching to fly out of control—and take the town along with it.
The cinematographer, Joseph August, did not work on Kane, but he might as well have: The angles, lighting, and techniques are almost as diverse. There’s the long shots of Stone’s isolated farm and the creepily lit and smoky background announcing the entrance of Mr. Scratch, but most impressive are the ethereal blurs that accompany Scratch’s gallery of lost souls. They’re people, but not quite of this earth. Add to that the distant echoes of their speech, and the effect is chilling.
It’s almost overwhelming how many elements of The Devil and Daniel Webster leap out at you. They’re all so skillfully executed and yet never once do they call attention to themselves; you simply can’t help but notice and appreciate them, almost as an afterthought, because they keep you in the story.
And then the actors. The cast is perhaps Devil’s greatest strength. James Craig has the difficult task of portraying a boring character but is able to keep our attention. Edward Arnold knows that the secret to making heavy-handed Daniel Webster interesting is to make him equally passionate. But the key performance is Walter Huston. You can imagine someone else as Jabez, even as Webster, but take out Huston and you steal the film’s soul. Every movement, tic, sly grin, raised eyebrow, squint takes the performance right to the edge of over-the-top, but Huston is so in control that he not only doesn’t fall over, he dances and fiddles and laughs at you from the tip!
Moral stories are difficult to do well because at their core they’re disapproving of the audience—and ever try to convince a room of hostile people that they’re wrong? It may be a failure on the movie’s part that I’m not convinced of its moral—that collectivism is superior to the individual—but I have a feeling The Devil and Daniel Webster was more echoing a common sentiment than addressing what it felt was a serious problem.
There are a few pedantic moments, but Devil’s much more entertaining than instructive. The opening message bashes the moral over the viewers’ collective heads, but then there’s the closing shot, which reiterates that point through Walter Huston’s facial expressions and only a few hand movements (in some 40 seconds of the best acting ever caught on screen). I don’t think that’s a spoiler because you see it coming when he breaks the fourth wall. I got the point, but I was much more caught up in the performance.