The Devil & Daniel Webster

Numbers 215 and 218 of the Criterion Collection DVD series were more celebrated recently, Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge, yet the unheralded No. 214 was the true devil in the woodpile.

DVD Watch

The Devil & Daniel Webster

Criterion, $39.95

Numbers 215 and 218 of the Criterion Collection DVD series were more celebrated recently, Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge, yet the unheralded No. 214 was the true devil in the woodpile. William Dieterle's The Devil & Daniel Webster remains a forgotten classic, hacked up over time, but finally restored here to its original 106 minutes. It lost money upon its initial 1941 release, this Faustian fantasy, though Bernard Herrmann's wily score won the Academy Award (his only), beating out his cinematic debut that year, Citizen Kane. As a matter of fact, director-to-be Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story) edited both films, which share the same type of narrative fluidity. Only one features Walter Huston as a certain Mr. Scratch, however. Seems that New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) has fallen on hard times, the mid-1800s, so much so that a barnyard mishap elicits a curse from his lips that summons a folksy stranger with a toothy grin. Seven years of prosperity, Master Stone -- what's a soul anyway? A moth in a handkerchief, it turns out later, just one of many masterstrokes that will keep The Devil & Daniel Webster smoldering sulfur on your movie shelf. From Huston's entrance out of the inferno, echoed by his playmate Simone Simon's own appearance, to the ghostly lost souls dance and finally the nightmarish jury of the damned, where historic New England statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) must defend poor Jabez Stone against eternal damnation, Dieterle leverages the same sort of stoic Germanic morality applied to his The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A cast including Oscar-winner Jane "Ma Joad" Darwell, Anne Shirley, Gene Lockhart, and John Qualen, plus an adept commentary track and extras such as Alec Baldwin's potent reading of Stephen Vincent Benet's original short story, all but damn The Devil & Daniel Webster to Criterion bliss. Mr. Scratch awaits your curse.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Devil & Daniel Webster, Criterion, Stephen Vincent Benet, William Dieterle

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