225. The Devil and Daniel Webster (US 1941)

director: William Dieterle

Starring: James Craig, Anne Shirley, Walter Huston, Edward Arnold, Simone Simon

Cinematography: Joseph August

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Script: Stephen Benet (also original story), Dan Totheroth

Fact: AKA 'All That Money Can Buy' (and several others!)

An New Hampshire framer sells his soul to the Devil.

Summary

Hard working and clean living farmer Jabez Stone has a run of terrible luck. When his final sack of seed (yoiks!) is destroyed, he tells no-one in particular that he will sell his soul for two cents. Two cents appear in his hand. The Devil appears in the form of a 'Mr Scratch' (Huston) who tells Stone that he will have seven years of good fortune if he signs away his soul. Stone signs, has lots of good fortune (unlike his neighbours), ignores his wife and child and becomes hard-hearted and venal. When the seven years are up, Mr Scratch returns and demands payment. Stone and his wife appeal to New Hampshire's finest lawyer Daniel Webster (Arnold) to save him from oblivion. Webster has to confront Scratch in an otherworldly court in front of a jury of the damned (Captain Kydd, Benedict Arnold, Alan Hardaker) in order save stone from the fiery furnaces of Hell.

'The Devil' was made a roughly the same time as Citizen Kane. Both have the haunting music of Bernard Herrmann and both use Expressionist lighting techniques to create a sense of alienation and damnation. Ditererle's direction and August's cinematography often mimic Kane's artiness (although there is no real deep focus photography in the film) and sometimes it seems that one film is an extension of the other.

There are many unsettling moments in the film, particularly the first appearance of Mr Scratch and the disorienting and spooky 'feast of the damned' in the film's final section. There is always a sense of damnation and sin throughout this often very sombre film.

Arnold is a commanding presence as Daniel Webster, but it's Walter Huston who (once again) steals the film with his fantastic, sly portrayal of a timeless villain.

There are any number of Faust retellings on film; this is up there with the best.

Walter Huston: the original 'Rice Krispies' look.