(Originally released as All That Money Can Buy)
Beguiling slice of Americana that, if seen when in the right frame of mind, can be incredibly creepy. This is one of those films that perfectly fits the adage “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” as it delivers a lot of entertainment in its running time. Unlike today’s films, which usually pick a tone and keep to it, The Devil and Daniel Webster is somewhat chameleon-like, changing mood and pace often, constantly keeping the viewer off guard.
Generally, I don’t tend to cotton to period films such as this one (see, for instance, my take on Adventures of Captain Fabian), as I find that they often feel dry and somewhat bloodless. The Devil and Daniel Webster is far from boring. It’s a near-perfect fantasy film about yet another poor hapless schmuck selling his soul to the devil. Because I’d seen that particular scenario played out many, many times, I went into the film with a bit of trepidation, thinking that, at best, it might equal Alias Nick Beal, and, at worst, it might be sickly sweet and cloying like The Devil and Max Devlin. Luckily, the film turned out to be incredible, and I look forward to seeing it again really, really soon.
While the film does have something to do with both The Devil and Daniel Webster, they don’t actually have a lot of interaction until the last few minutes of the film. If you’re a fan of the historical Daniel Webster, you may be a little upset at some of the liberties that have been taken with his real-life persona—but I thought that his character in this film was pitch-perfect for the kind of tall tale that’s being told. I mean, it’s nearly impossible to dislike a character who gives advice such as “Just because you sold your soul to the Devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler.” And while there’s plenty of humor in the film, it does get downright creepy in spots, particularly at the introduction of Simone Simon’s character and her later dance with Miser Stevens (which prefigures the dancing dead in the abandoned pavilion of Carnival of Souls by over twenty years). Because of her effectiveness in the role of Belle, Simone Simon was given the lead role in Cat People the next year at RKO, the studio that produced The Devil and Daniel Webster. While she’s great in Cat People, I think that she’s even better in this film.
Of course, in every “deal with the devil” movie, the success of the film depends in large part to the effectiveness of the actor playing the devil. In the case of The Devil and Daniel Webster, that actor is Walter Huston. I haven’t seen a lot of Walter Huston films, but because of this film, I’m going to be seeking ALL of them out. Huston is brilliant in the part of “Mr. Scratch,” balancing the humor and the horror inherent in the role perfectly. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar that year, but lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. Consarn it!
Although Huston didn’t take home the Oscar, The Devil and Daniel Webster DID win one of the gold statuettes for its music. Bernard Herrmann was up against himself in the “Best Original Score” category for The Devil and Daniel Webster and Citizen Kane, and, oddly enough, he won for this film. It was to be his only competitive Oscar win in a career that spanned some 35 years and over 50 film scores, including the classic scores to such films as Psycho, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Twisted Nerve, and Taxi Driver. If you listen closely, you can pick out echoes of the music of Charles Ives. (If you’re unfamiliar with Ives, you can find out more about him here.) The Criterion Collection DVD has a fascinating (well, fascinating if you’re a film music fan) “interactive essay” about the film’s music on the disc, and it’s definitely worth taking time to go through. It’ll make you appreciate what Bernard Herrmann did with the music that made it so groundbreaking.
Free up a couple of hours and check out The Devil and Daniel Webster. You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably end up telling at least one other person about how great it is. And then, like me, you’ll probably want to watch it again.
Here’s the trailer from YouTube:
But if you’d like to watch the whole thing and don’t want to wait for Netflix to send it to you, YouTube has that, too–but make sure that you watch it quickly, in case it gets taken down: