A Movie A Day: THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)
Gentlemen of the jury, don’t let this country go to the devil.
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
We go from yesterday’s Robert Wise: The Director to today’s AMAD, showcasing Robert Wise: The Editor.
THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER represents the 2nd Criterion of this column, the first being ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS. There are many, many more… the trick is fitting a lot of the indie, super-obscure and foreign stuff into the connecting structure of this column.
But boy do I love Criterion. They treat their titles better than anyone else pressing discs.
So I knew that this movie was quality even before I put it in the DVD player. It had the Criterion stamp of approval, not to mention a reputation for being a classic.
I’m actually one of the few people to see the much troubled remake starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins theatrically thanks to it playing AFM before the damn thing imploded on itself. I couldn’t tell you any specifics of the movie today, if that speaks to how memorable it is, but I wasn’t offended. Hopkins is great in everything.
But I can say that if I had seen this movie first I would have been pissed right the fuck off. Going from Walter Huston’s gleefully demented performance to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s look at my tits, I’m the devil performance? Naww… Although, what if Walter Huston had tried the “look at my tits, I’m the devil” angle… what could have been?
Ultimately, this story can be moved to modern day, but why? I love that it takes place in the 1800s, that the Devil can be a gleeful little man that pops in and out of the lives of rural people. It makes the story more mythical and involving, giving it the feel of a tale passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. Since the flick is a morality tale anyway, it’s the perfect setting.
You have this poor farmer, Jabez Stone (James Craig), who is barely holding on to his farm, barely keeping up with his mortgage and keeping a roof over the heads of his rotund, Jiminy Cricket mother (Jane Darwell) and beautiful, devoted wife (the stunningly attractive Anne Shirley, who also figured into previous AMAD MURDER, MY SWEET).
Everything is going wrong for this poor bastard and in a moment of desperation he swears he’d sell his soul to the devil for two cents.
Well, that’s all Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch needs to hear and he comes prancing in promising 7 years of the best luck and an armload of gold, but only if he agrees to forfeit his soul at the end of the contract. But what is a soul, anyway? Have you ever seen one? Have you touched a soul, felt it, tasted it? It’s a small little thing anyway, why not get some use out of it?
Huston plays Mr. Scratch like some sort of demented leprechaun. He gets his kicks tempting people and manipulating them, so he’s all over the town, whispering into the ears of the locals. It’s souls he’s after, but not all souls are the same quality. Old Scratch has been trying to get the soul of a politician, friend to the farmer and working man… honest through and through… Scratch has wanted that soul for years, always whispering doubt into this man’s ear, but he’s too strong for temptation.
This man is the titular Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) who is befriended by Jabez Stone shortly after the sale of his soul. In fact this friendship is quickly used by Stone to kick off his new career.
In a supreme case of be careful what you wish for, we watch Stone lose himself piece by piece, like an onion being peeled, leaving just a rotten, bitter, mean, ego-centric, money-grubbing horrible being underneath.
It’s not until the Devil returns to collect on his debt that Stone realizes what a mistake he’s made, how he’s aliented his family, turned his friends into slave-work and become the exact person he never wanted to be.
That puts the last act into motion, where Daniel Webster wages his own soul that he can beat Mr. Scratch in a jury trail, treating the soul contract like any other property dispute.
The thing that shocked me the most about this film was just how quick-inhale creepy the movie is. Huston’s a likable character (as the devil should be), but the early effects work and vaudevillian-esque parlor tricks really do make him a menacing character. The fact that he’s all smiles and light-hearted chuckles only makes him more disturbing.
But it’s not just Huston, it’s the entire visual aspect of the movie. William Dieterle’s direction is sharp and experiemental… playful. That’s the main thing, the movie’s very playful, which is why when it turns creepy (screaming pigs, dead people dancing, etc) it really does unnerve you.
There’s a particular scene, our introduction to Daniel Webster, that really fucking floored me. Webster is writing a speech and as he’s writing the blank wall behind him is filled with Mr. Scratch’s silhouette, positioned so he looks massive and like the shadow IS the man, speaking into Webster’s ear.
He’s whispering doubt, trying to corrupt the man who seems to accept that the devil is always there, tempting him, but does have a limit on what he can take. After a minute or so of the poison being poured into his ears, Webster screams “That’s enough!” and in an instant the shadow disappears.
Arnold plays Daniel Webster with a regality and sincere goodness that you don’t doubt for a second this guy could stand up to the devil. He has a speech at the end of the movie that really could have broken a good movie if it hadn’t succeeded, but it does and becomes one of the great monologues in film history.
James Craig is likewise perfect for his role, playing the tormented farmer and possessor of the soul in danger of being swallowed up by Mr. Scratch. Craig’s a little more a product of the acting style of the time (meaning very theatrical, which passes the realistic line a few times, going pretty over-the-top), but considering he’s perfectly cast and the movie really doesn’t rest on his shoulders there’s no drawback. Craig is likable enough that you don’t want to see him end up in Mr. Scratch’s pocket.
Simone Simon plays Belle, a compatriot of Mr. Scratch who is introduced to Stone’s life when his wife is giving birth to their son. Simon is, of course, stunning to look at, so she is real temptation for Stone. They don’t ever explicitely state that he’s fucking this demon bitch, but there’s no doubt that’s the implication. He’s cheating on his family no matter what physical contact happens, that’s clear as day.
Simon is the biggest and strongest string Mr. Scratch has in Stone’s life, manipulating him to get more greedy and evil as the years go by.
And one can not discuss this movie without mentioning Bernard Hermann’s amazing (and Oscar-winning) score. I’m not good at breaking down elements of a score and describing them in detail, but I can say that Hermann’s work here had me on edge, especially the incredibly horrific fiddle version of Pop Goes The Weasel that Mr. Scratch plays at a dance early on in the movie.
Final Thoughts: I’d go so far as to say that this film is one of the most genuinely creepy movies of the era, which was a big surprise to me. I expected a message movie, a high-concept drama or maybe dramedy that would be great and live up to its reputation, but I never once considered that it’d be actually scary. Walter Huston’s performance is out of this world amazing and should be one for the history books. If nothing else worked in this movie, that one performance alone would have made it worth waiting through the rest, but thankfully I actually really liked the little family unit that are our leads. I loved this flick.
The schedule for the next 7 days is:
Friday, August 29th: CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Saturday, August 30th: CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)
Sunday, August 31st: THE 7TH VICTIM (1943)
Monday, September 1st: THE GHOST SHIP (1943)
Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946)
Thursday, September 4th: BLACK SABBATH (1964)
Tomorrow I finally crack open that Val Lewton box set and fill a larger hole in my film knowledge: Jacques Tourneur’s famous gothic horror film CAT PEOPLE. That kicks off almost a full week of Val Lewton horror! Very exciting! See you folks then!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
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Aug. 29, 2008, 2:57 a.m. CST
which is brilliant. Not seen it for years, so will go back to it. Thanks, Quint, and keep the column up (if you know what I mean)...
Aug. 29, 2008, 3:44 a.m. CST
Obama better fucking win. And Quint, you really are a fucking beast. I tried to adopt a director a week movie schedule and I only lasted one week. Freaking terrible.
Aug. 29, 2008, 4:59 a.m. CST
The thing that always bugged meabout the original short story is we never heard Webster's closing argument that convinces Hell's most ruthless inmates to negate the contract. it was supposed to be left to the imagination since nothing actually said could measure up to what the reader could think up, but i always thought itwas a cop out.
Aug. 29, 2008, 5:46 a.m. CST
Some ignorant hillbilly will kill him so your voting for Biden ( I don't endorse such things , it makes us look like primitive dipshits) but I have a feeling that it'll happen and be just some lonely pissed off wannabe klansman
Aug. 29, 2008, 7:24 a.m. CST
I mean, the guy promises to show up on The Factor then chickens out. How can he be trusted to take on the bad guys in the world if he can't even take on one Irishman?
Aug. 29, 2008, 7:25 a.m. CST
I hate a limited subject line.
Aug. 29, 2008, 7:36 a.m. CST
It is a great movie and the creepy sneaks up on you. I saw it many years ago and thought it was well done.
Aug. 29, 2008, 7:45 a.m. CST
I'm pulling that classic out of my collection and watching it again tonite. You reminded me how great it was.
Aug. 29, 2008, 7:49 a.m. CST
by Mr Gorilla
i'm gonna buy it.
Aug. 29, 2008, 8:03 a.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
doesn't look like William Shatner.
Aug. 29, 2008, 8:07 a.m. CST
Then do Oh God You Devil.
Aug. 29, 2008, 8:34 a.m. CST
in a post-Harbor film commissioned by the Navy about the attack at Pearl. I kid you not. It's a freaky and yet amazing little piece. Reasonably well balanced, too, all things considered! But the freakiest thing is watching that as a double-feature following Dev&DanWeb. (Fun mind-blowing followup: Clint Eastwood playing Walter Huston filming _The African Queen_ in _White Hunter, Black Heart_.)
Aug. 29, 2008, 9:23 a.m. CST
Good genes, I guess. <p> P.S. JasonPratt, you're referring to John Huston filming The African Queen, right?
Aug. 29, 2008, 10:27 a.m. CST
Glad to have an excuse to go back to my own Val Lewton box set.
Aug. 29, 2008, 10:57 a.m. CST
by Little Beavis
Hi, how are you?
Aug. 29, 2008, 11:48 a.m. CST
This AMAD column is about the only interesting thing to come out of this site in years.
Aug. 29, 2008, 12:18 p.m. CST
by Napoleon Park
Peter finds a harp in a pawn shop and will give anything to be able to play it. "Mister Zero" makes that deal and the Monkees become the first Harp band to have a run of smash hits - a brilliant metaphor for their very existence as a TV-made pre-fab pop group.<p>When Mr. Zero tries to claim Peter's soul they challenge him in court and, unable to afford a lawyer, Mike argues the case in a way that brings tears to the Hangin' Judge and the jury of cutthroats, outlaws and pirates.<p>Not classic literature or art or anything, but a darn good episode of The Monkees if you like that sort of thing.
Aug. 29, 2008, 1:03 p.m. CST
quint what a great choice and a classic film this was a fav as a kid it was always being played on british tv when i was younger loved think i'll have to go out and purchase myself a copy asap and cant wait to read your reviews of cat people etc great creepy black and white horror films simone simon looks fantastic in this film loving the movie of the day reviews long may they carry on
Aug. 29, 2008, 2:48 p.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Devil and Daniel Mouse. I saw that once or twice as a kid. Of course there was the Simpons parody.
Aug. 29, 2008, 2:53 p.m. CST
Yes, there was a 30 min short called The Devil and Daniel Mouse from Nevelanimation. It was kinda dark and a bit scary when it aired, especially because it was aimed at children. The music was pretty good too. This actually inspired Nevelanimation to do a feature lenght movie with big name rock stars called Rock and Rule.
Aug. 29, 2008, 9:21 p.m. CST
by Tar Heel
Quint, I commend you on keeping up the pace of AMAD. But you're well into it now and can ditch the intro. If a newbie stumbles in, they'll figure it out.
Aug. 29, 2008, 11:24 p.m. CST
....loved James Craig's G-rated curse,everytime something was going wrong for him..and that's pretty much all the time. And you've gotta love Simone, who was sort of the Jurassic-era Meg Tilly. And Herrmann, with this score and his "Citizen Kane" score was just beginning his legendary career. Terrific film, one of the all time greats.
Aug. 30, 2008, 5:22 a.m. CST
It's by no means a scary movie, but like any morality play there's darkness in it and the way the flick was executed... well, it's just fucking creepy. Screaming pigs set my skin crawling...
Aug. 30, 2008, 9:50 a.m. CST
Wowzers! This was my introduction to Simone, and I do believe I'll have to be tracking down more of her movies. She had such a personality and charisma that shined in this. Her introduction at the fireplace was indeed creepy.
Aug. 30, 2008, 10:57 a.m. CST
I should've realized he was too old to be still doing things later. The family resemblance is amazing, though.
Aug. 31, 2008, 11:47 p.m. CST
Sept. 1, 2008, 12:07 a.m. CST
Runner-up is Al Pacino (DEVIL'S ADVOCATE), over-the-top but fuckin' irresistible. Clarence Williams III (TALES FROM THE HOOD). Undiluted ham ("You want the shit?"), loved it. Houston was hardly subdued but knew how to negitate the role; he should have earned an Oscar nomination (love the concluding iris-in). His apprentice, Simone Simon, was smoking hot (should have challenged Rita Hayworth),
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