Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Alternate Title: All That Money Can Buy

Director: William Dieterle

Spoiler-Free Summary

In mid-19th century New England, a young farmer named Jabez Stone is down on his luck. As he hits what seems to be rock-bottom, he pronounces that he would sell his soul to the devil for the money he needs to live. Lo and behold, a demonic man calling himself Mr. Scratch arrives, and makes Jabez the very offer for which he asked. Reluctant at first, Jabez eventually succumbs to temptation, accepting untold riches in exchange for giving up his soul in a set number of years.

The years roll by and the money that Jabez accepted changes him in ways that neither he nor his dedicated wife or mother would ever have predicted. When the time nears for him to give his soul in return, he panics and calls on the only man who he thinks can save him - famed local, orator, and federal senator Daniel Webster. Webster takes up Stone's highly unusual case and attempts to defend his soul against Mr. Scratch and his devilish logic.

What Did I Think?

A really good movie, despite my misgivings during the first ten or fifteen minutes.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is, at the heart of its plot, a religious, didactic, cautionary tale not unlike those that you see on those hilariously ridiculous little cartoon pamphlets warning against the temptations of sin. This is the sort of thing that I would generally have zero interest in. And yet, this film was highly engaging.

What grabbed me was how little the movie flinched, especially for a film made in 1941. As annoyingly "gee-shucks" innocent as the Stone family is, it becomes effective when you see the changes that Jabez undergoes as the film progresses. From my experience, it's rare to find a film from that era in which such naive and innocent characters are put through such worldly and mature trials.

...and the deal is made. This is one of many scenes that
expertly used light, shadow, and fog to create the right
atmosphere for dark dealings. 
Probably the best thing about the movie is the use of supernatural elements. The eeriness with which Daniel Webster's character (based on the real person of the same name) is introduced is spellbinding - he works on a speech in the solitude of his office, with the dark shadow of a demon lurking over him, seeking to tempt him into making a deal that would make him president of the United States. Webster is fighting against hell itself, and this scene sets the stage for the rest of the film incredibly well.

One other feature of this movie warrants mentioning - the performance of Walter Huston as the mischievous Mr. Scratch. It's tough to pull off the right fusion of impishness and sleaze that Huston manages, but the character benefits greatly from it. His facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission.

I must say that the resolution of things was a bit too tidy for my liking, but this didn't kill the movie for me. It is, after all, a fable told through the lens of 1940s cinema. It's a fun, classic film that is a rather unique entry.