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The Devil and Daniel Webster: The Criterion Collection

What if you had such a good lawyer that he could argue you out of hell? That's the hook of William Dieterle's Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. Jabez Stone (James Craig) lives with his mother (Jane Darnell) and wife (Anne Shirley) and is going through some hard times. He's worried about losing his farmland to the bank, and after a series of mishaps around the farm he crosses paths with old Scratch himself (Walter Huston), who offers him seven years of prosperity in exchange for his soul. As those seven years pass Jabez grows rich and has a son, but his soul grows more and more corrupted as he becomes a loan shark and takes a mistress in the form of Belle (Simone Simon). But folk legend Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) gets involved in his life after Jabez becomes one of the richest men in America, and when the Devil comes to collect his due, Webster stakes his own soul alongside Jabez's. Dieterle was a German émigré, and the influence of German Expressionism is evident throughout Daniel Webster, heightening the emotions of this set-bound film. But the story creaks along, hitting all of the obvious notes in the parable while soaking the story in patriotism. It's the tale's moral that makes the middle section seem a bit long in the tooth, but Walter Huston's playful Satan and Arnold's impressive orator inject life into the stuffiness, as does Bernard Hermann's wonderful score. Released in 1941, the film flopped and was later re-cut from its 106 minute run-time to 99 and then 84 minutes. The Criterion Laserdisc restored the picture to its original length, and it's that cut which is included here on the DVD, along with Criterion's usual bounty of illuminating extras. Bruce Eder and Steven C. Smith provide a running commentary; there's a five minute video comparison between the preview version (which played up the Devil's role) and the released version; two radio dramatizations of Benet's short stories are included: The Devil and Daniel Webster and Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent, both featuring music by Hermann; Alec Baldwin (the director of an unreleased remake of Devil and Daniel Webster) is heard reading the original short story; and a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials are on hand. Keep-case.

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