The Devil and Daniel Webster

"Extraordinary"

The Devil and Daniel Webster Review


It's the 1840s, and times are tough for New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, just as they are for other New Englanders. He's a hard-working, God-fearing man, but he's prone to cursing ("consarn it" is his favorite), and he doesn't always find time to attend church on Sundays. He has a good wife (named Mary, of course) and a Bible-reading Ma, but when he can't make his mortgage payments, that just doesn't seem like enough. In Washington, a heroic Massachusetts senator named Daniel Webster is introducing legislation that will ease his plight. But in the meantime, what's a working man to do?

In this folklore New England, the devil is a real thing, like a fox that steals hens or a dog that barks at nights, and if you want to make a deal with him, it's not too hard to do. One rainy day Jabez curses in the barn, and a little man named Scratch (Walter Huston) appears out of nowhere with a bargain to make: Jabez will have seven years' worth of prosperity and everything that goes with it, and at the end of the seven years, Scratch will get his soul. Jabez signs the contract, and Scratch kicks at the floor of the barn, where a pile of gold rises up from a loose plank. The devil is in the details though, and anyone who's ever seen a movie knows there's going to be Hell to pay.

Spooky, light-hearted, and never less than a joy to watch, 1941's The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of the major - if overlooked - pleasures of its decade. The film followed on the heels of Citizen Kane, and director William Dieterle avails himself freely of Welles's rich, deep bag of tricks as he chronicles Jabez's slide. One of Kane's primary achievements was to reintroduce German Expressionist technique to the mainstream: evocative, mostly-black black-and-white, high- and low-angle cinematography, innovative lighting design. This was something Dieterle knew something about, having himself acted in such key Expressionist films as 1924's Waxworks, and almost every frame of Daniel Webster is animated by cinematic sleight-of-hand: Scratch appears backlit amid rolling fog, windows fill with the faces of the damned, a mansion burns in the background like Manderley.

Among the film's chief pleasures is Huston's Scratch, a personable devil with a pipe that's always lit and a pointy little goatee that's far less hipster and much more goat. His sidekick Belle, a homewrecker in the guise of a maid, is played by Simone Simon; when we first see her in front of the hearth, the fire silhouettes her alluring curls into little horns. Or maybe cat's ears? Her round face, a picture of innocence and evil all rolled into one, begs for whiskers, and when asked about her accent, she purrs "I'm from over the mountain," or, "I'm not from anywhere."

In the company of these two diabolical marvels, Jabez's morals take a slide until he's doing the unthinkable: playing cards on the Sabbath, hiring out work he should do himself, lending less fortunate farmers money at usurious rates. Virtuous Mary knows that only Daniel Webster, the greatest orator of his time and an unbeatable foe at horseshoes and drinking, can save him. The film's centerpiece is a trial before a hanging judge and a jury of the damned, with Webster (wonderfully played by Edward Arnold) representing Jabez and Scratch pleading his own case with a contract signed in blood.

Criterion has tricked out The Devil and Daniel Webster with tons of archival goodies drawn from the short stories that inspired the film. There's also a commentary from film historian Bruce Eder and author Steven C. Smith, and Criterion has cleaned up the sound problems that marred video releases. Kick open this box and the gold just keeps rising.

Aka All That Money Can Buy, Daniel and the Devil, Here is a Man, A Certain Mr. Scratch.



The Devil and Daniel Webster

Facts and Figures

Run time: 107 mins

In Theaters: Wednesday 29th October 1941

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Production compaines: RKO Radio Pictures

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 17

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Starring: as Daniel Webster, as Mr. Scratch, as Ma Stone, as Belle, as Squire Slossum, as Miser Stevens, H.B. Warner as Justice John Hathorne, Frank Conlan as Sheriff, Lindy Wade as Daniel Stone, George Cleveland as Cy Bibber, as Jabez Stone, as Mary Stone

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Alice Through the Looking Glass Movie Review

Alice Through the Looking Glass Movie Review

This much more light-hearted sequel reinvigorates the franchise after Disney's quirky but murky 2010 reboot...

Love & Friendship Movie Review

Love & Friendship Movie Review

Acclaimed filmmaker Whit Stillman reunites the stars of his 1998 drama The Last Days of...

Money Monster Movie Review

Money Monster Movie Review

A sleekly made thriller with a sparky sense of humour, this is also a rare...

X-Men: Apocalypse Movie Review

X-Men: Apocalypse Movie Review

This closing chapter of the First Class trilogy falls into the same trap as The...

Sing Street Movie Review

Sing Street Movie Review

A buoyant celebration of the power of music, this is the third blissfully entertaining musical...

Departure Movie Review

Departure Movie Review

Complex, dark and very moving, this British drama never makes things easy for the audience,...

Everybody Wants Some!! Movie Review

Everybody Wants Some!! Movie Review

Richard Linklater loosely follows on from two of his most acclaimed films with this lively...

Advertisement
Our Kind of Traitor Movie Review

Our Kind of Traitor Movie Review

John le Carre's novel is adapted with plenty of inventive style into a remarkably personal...

The Angry Birds Movie Movie Review

The Angry Birds Movie Movie Review

There's nothing particularly memorable about this frantic animated romp, which adapts the iconic phone-app game...

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising [Bad Neighbours 2] Movie Review

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising [Bad Neighbours 2] Movie Review

While it's amusing and sometimes very funny, there's an air of desperation about this sequel...

Florence Foster Jenkins Movie Review

Florence Foster Jenkins Movie Review

Although this comedy-drama seems to have been written specifically to give Meryl Streep a chance...

I Saw the Light Movie Review

I Saw the Light Movie Review

Writer-director Marc Abraham gets ambitious with this biopic about iconic country music star Hank Williams,...

Captain America: Civil War Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War Movie Review

After the formulaic thrills of The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, Marvel's Avengers were...

Son of Saul Movie Review

Son of Saul Movie Review

From Hungary, this year's Oscar-winning foreign film is a remarkably fresh take on the Holocaust...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.