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Friday, May 02, 2014

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) d. William Dieterle

Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster in the The Devil and Daniel Webster

Movie Review
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
 d. William Dieterle
Criterion Collection #214

  I guess this is what you would call a "lost classic."  Based on a now forgotten short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster is about a small New England farmer who hits a run of bad luck and sells his soul to the devil in exchange for seven years of fortune.  The Devil or "Mr. Scratch" is memorably depicted by Walter Huston in a "worth it just to see him" kind of way. His Mr. Scratch is more akin to a character our of a 90s independent film then one from an American film shot in the early 1940s.

  The Devil and Daniel Webster is really ABOUT Daniel Webster and America in a way that strikes a contemporary viewer as being, to say the least, overly sentimental.  That's more a flaw of the source material then the film itself, which uses expressionistic effects and surreal dream time sequences to elevate the film far above the short story which spawned it.

  Watching The Devil and Daniel Webster almost requires reading the two(!) accompanying essays at the Criterion Collection website.  The 2003 essay by Tom Piazza about the performance of Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch, and the 1990s essay about the troubled post release and restoration history of the film; both give the needed background to really get into the mode of the film.  Without context, a modern viewer is likely to want to take a pass after the first ten minutes.

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