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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Devil and Daniel Webster: Criterion Collection
The Devil and Daniel Webster: Criterion Collection
Criterion // Unrated // September 30, 2003
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted September 29, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The Movie

When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? 'Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself - and of the best descent - for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.

- spoken by "Mr. Scratch" in Stephen Vincent Benét's The Devil and Daniel Webster

One thing that makes being a Film Nerd so unbelievably fun is the constant discovery and celebration of delectable screen characters, and one such magnificent creation is Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch. With his deviously elfin grin, arched eyebrows, sparkling eyes and boyishly demonical demeanor, Mr. Scratch dominates the action anytime he's onscreen during The Devil and Daniel Webster. An classic piece of Americana from start to finish, William Dieterle's brilliant 1941 film is a cautionary fable against greed, a celebration of idealized American spirit, an apologist reaction to the darker aspects of this country's genesis, and a brilliant (if too-often unnoticed) piece of fantasy filmmaking and smashing entertainment.

Based on the classic short story by Stephen Vincent Benét (who also worked on the screenplay), The Devil and Daniel Webster tells the story of Jabez Stone (James Craig), a 19th-Century down-on-his-luck New Hampshire farmer. Living with his young wife and mother on a small farm, Stone is deep in debt without any release in sight. He is behind on his mortgage, and running out of farm animals and seed with which to pay his outstanding loans (money is almost out of the question.) While the legendary Massachusetts senator and orator Daniel Webster fights for the protection of farmers in the senate, Stone's neighbors seek to form a Farmer's Association in order to stave off bankruptcy. One afternoon, as Stone accidentally drops a bag of seed to be used for a mortgage payment into a puddle, he swears that he would sell his soul to the Devil for two cents.

Enter Mr. Scratch (aka Lucifer Morningstar, the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Louis Cyphere, etc.), who offers Stone seven years of wealth and prosperity in exchange for his mortal soul. Stone agrees, signs his name in blood, and does indeed prosper. He not only gets out of debt but accumulates even more wealth and prosperity by exploiting the hard luck of his fellow friends and farmers. The Devil even sends a demonic temptress (the absolutely ravishing Simone Simon, a luscious screen beauty who also lit up the screen in Val Lewton's Cat People) to work for Stone as a housemaid and to tempt Stone away from his wife, a constant reminder of Mr. Scratch's omnipresence. But when the seven years are up, Mr. Scratch comes to collect, and the only thing separating Jabez Stone from eternal damnation are the legendary oratorical skills of Daniel Webster, Senator from Massachusetts .

I would like to think of The Devil and Daniel Webster as a film directed by Jean Cocteau from a Frank Capra screenplay, but that would detract from the fine efforts of the actual cast and crew of this movie. Everything in this movie works, from William Dieterle's sharp direction, the screenplay by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét, and especially Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score. The cast is uniformly excellent, especially the two title roles, whose characters are about as iconic as roles get. And naturally, I could write volumes about Simone Simon, who is sexier and more alluring with a bat of an eyelash than most charmless sacks nowadays could ever comprehend. But overall, the most appealing aspect of this movie has to be its gothic tone, its juxtaposition of can-do American spirit with dark temptation, its growing sense of apprehension as Jabez Stone's contract nears its expiration of term. The Devil and Daniel Webster is a great movie, an American fable that entertains just as much on screen as it does in the pages of Benét's original short story.

The DVD

Video:

Our friends at Criterion have created a new high-definition transfer for The Devil and Daniel Webster, featuring an extensive restoration of the film's original 106-minute edit (the movie was previously released as Here Is a Man and All That Money Can Buy, a curtailed 84-minute version that does away with many of the film's important character moments.) The movie is presented in its original black-and-white, 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. While the film certainly looks worlds above any previous version I have seen, there are still inherent flaws to the presentation. Noticeable wear, marks, and defects are still noticeable throughout the transfer. There is some occasional shakiness and noticeable frame jumps throughout the presentation. Sharpness and contrast levels are very reasonable rendered, resulting in a fine-looking picture that, aside from the unavoidable and omnipresent print defects, looks moderately pleasing for a sixty-year old film.

Audio:

The audio is delivered in monaural Dolby Digital 1.0, and has also been subject to digital restoration from original elements. The audio fares a little worse than the video during the presentation of the film. There is a discernable hiss throughout the movie, which detracts from the quality of the dialog. Often I had to turn up the volume considerably in order to understand many of the film's lines, making the hiss and static somewhat more prominent. While the audio quality on an objective scale is a little disappointing, one must make concessions for the limitations of the source material. It certainly doesn't make for a frustrating movie-watching experience, and overall provides for an acceptable if not enjoyable listening experience. But compared to other mono presentations of films from the same era, The Devil and Daniel Webster falls a little short.

Extras:

Film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith provide a feature-length Commentary. Eder is a Criterion evergreen, having provided fantastic commentary tracks for such Criterion DVDs as Henry V, The Lady Vanishes, Brief Encounter, and The Most Dangerous Game, and he is certainly on his game on this release. His comments are fascinating and informative throughout the film, providing extensive production anecdotes and detailed information about the cast and crew. Smith's comments are predominantly centered about the music of the film, relating Herrmann's score for this film to his other works. Film score fans will find Smith's comments to be an absolute treasure-trove of information. Overall this is a fine commentary track, and well worth your time.

The bulk of the remaining supplements are found in the "Scratch's Black Book" section of the DVD. Here Is a Man Comparison is an exploration of the differences between earlier edits of the film and the final version. This feature runs nearly five minutes in length, and juxtaposes scenes from The Devil and Daniel Webster with similar scenes from Here Is A Man to highlight the differences an edit can make. Most of these edits feature the inclusion of reaction shots of Mr. Scratch, enjoying the sight of Jabez Stone's woes and misfortunes.

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is an audio reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's original short story by actor/director Alec Baldwin. The running time of the story is thirty-three minutes, and Baldwin provides a fine audio performance in his narration. Baldwin himself directed a adaptation of the tale in 2001, featuring himself as Jabez Stone, Anthony Hopkins as Daniel Webster, and Jennifer Love Hewitt (!) as The Devil, only to have funding pulled from him during post-production, leaving the film unfinished to this date.

The Devil and Daniel Webster may perhaps be the most famous of Stephen Vincent Benét's stories featuring Daniel Webster, but he also wrote two others: "Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent" and "Daniel Webster and the Ides of March." The Columbia Workshop showcases radio dramatizations for both "The Devil and Daniel Webster" as well as "Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent." The former, originally broadcast on August 6, 1938, runs for nearly a half-an-hour, while the latter was first broadcast on August 1, 1937, and also has a half-hour running time. Selecting About the Columbia Workshop reveals a short text piece detailing the history of the radio show, which ran from 1936 through 1947.

The Devil in Context is an essay by Christopher Husted, the official representative of the Bernard Herrmann Estate. The essay details Bernard Herrmann's unique approach to the score for the film, offering the ability to select the "Play Cue" option, which allows you to view the film while listening to the musical cues being discussed.

Finally, Gallery showcases several photographic stills featuring the cast, crew, and poster art relating to the film.

Final Thoughts

The Devil and Daniel Webster is about as entertaining a piece of American storytelling can be, both as a short story and a film. Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch is just one of those phenomenal movie creations that one simply cannot get enough of while watching it on-screen. Throw in Herrmann's powerful score, some powerful visual storytelling, and one of the single best third-acts ever filmed (the "Jury of the Damned" scene is just magnificent to behold), and you have a piece of work that thrills and entertains from start to finish. This is truly a great, great film.

While the presentation of the film definitely has its flaws and can seem somewhat disappointing at times, I yet stand impressed by the amount of work and love that went into the restoration of The Devil and Daniel Webster. Simply put, the film has never looked better, and if the restoration experts at Criterion couldn't squeeze blood from the rock, they still produced a transfer that does more justice to the movie than any other iteration has done before. The supplemental material included on this disc provides for an informative and entertaining further look into the production of the film, its history, and its legacy.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is an American classic, and this DVD comes highly recommended indeed.

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