vital-graph: the devil and daniel webster

this is part of an ongoing series in which i discuss the films that matter most to me. the only criterion they share is that i find them indispensable, my desert island selections. some are established classics, some are definitely not, some occupy the grey space in between...

this one was tailor-made for me, what with its marriage of early americana, mephistophelean folklore and a lineage going back to german expressionist cinema. that whiff of brimstone you detect is william dieterle's magnificent the devil and daniel webster (1941).

dieterle's adaptation of a stephen vincent benét - who also collaborated on the screenplay - short story tells the story of jabez stone and the faustian bargain that threatens to be his undoing. he is a farmer in cross corners, new hampshire, struggling to keep his head above water. the farm he runs with the help of his wife, mary, and his mother yields just enough to keep them hungry and one instance of bad luck begets another. pushed to his breaking point, he frustratedly exclaims that he would sell his soul for two cents. hey, jabez, check your pocket.

interesting note: these actually appear to be canadian cents, unusable in new hampshire. i don't know if that was a clever bit on dieterle's part to suggest the futility of the bargain about to be struck or if they just found the coins aesthetically pleasing. intentional or not, a nice bit of subtext. at any rate, you go around making statements like that and it's not long before someone comes knocking to get that signature on the dotted line. walter huston is scratch, a role every bit as compelling and career-defining as howard in the treasure of the sierra madre (1948), and he appears amidst a haze of sulfurous smoke to make a deal. he offers jabez seven years of good luck and prosperity - money and all that money can buy - in exchange for his soul. with a prick of the finger, it is done and jabez's corruption is underway. he sets himself up as moneylender to the other downtrodden farmers in the region, eventually charging usurious rates. scratch installs a handmaiden in the stone household as a hedge against the righteous influence of mary and ma and jabez's downfall is all but guaranteed. mary, knowing her husband better than he knows himself, appeals to the famed orator, and godfather to their son, daniel webster for help putting jabez back on the right track. webster eventually ends up wrangling a trial for jabez's soul and argues in front of a jury of the damned for a reprieve for jabez, his own soul now at risk at part of the bargain. his legendary oratorical skills win the day and the devil is left to make due taking the hindmost, though the size of scratch's black book suggests he has no shortage of business and the final frames indicate that you and i might very well find our names on those pages.

this belongs to a school of rough-hewn americana that i hold near and dear to my heart, shouldering its way in between the supernatural pastorals of washington irving and the square-shouldered vigor and optimism of carl sandburg. it takes the highminded desires for infinite knowledge and worldly pleasures of its german antecedent, the scholar faust, and recasts them in a way that americans of every generation can relate to, from its philosophy to its landscape. from the restored opening shot of scratch walking up the road, consulting his book, we are never far from a waving wheat field, its breadth suggestive of expansion and growth, its fecundity suggestive - once in a beautiful dissolve to pregnant mary - of the generations to come whose security depends on the administration of the land, both agricultural and ideological. ma represents the indomitable spirit without which america could not have come to be. as jabez whines about his misfortune, she reminds him "as for what you're calling hard luck? well, we made new england out of it. that and codfish." her hands are never idle, the devil's playthings they are not. she is a constant source of strength and industry. jabez is, of course, weak. the devil doesn't pick fights he can't typically win. jabez is the hindmost in this group, to be sure, but even as corruptible as he is, he represents a particularly rural, american strand of corruptibility when compared to faust. in an early episode in which he talks about the sanctity of a simple seed, it is clear that his desires are rooted in the soil, in labor, not in metaphysical or academic pursuits. mary occupies the pragmatic and loving middle ground between the two. with her love of family and stoic willingness to do what needs to be done, she is the embodiment of the most basic american virtues. all that said, it's not as patriotic as it might seem on the surface.

the savior of the piece, daniel webster, while portrayed as a magnificent orator and friend to every farmer, is obviously not without his flaws. on more than one occasion we are made aware of his fondness for strong drink, which he refers to at one point as "the breath of the promised land". in fact, before the climax, in an illuminating bit of dialogue he tells us that he has "never left a jug or a case half finished" in his life. in this one sentence he makes clear that his love of alcohol and justice are on pretty even footing. you get the notion from this and a previous episode where scratch slips him a tankard at a town gathering that the door to his temptation is far from shut tight. this is the great hope of the republic? this man, drowsing in the town square, adrift in drunken reverie while jabez is forced to speak on his behalf, is the next president? hardly a paragon of virtue, it would seem. america's more sordid episodes are not forgotten either. when accused of being a foreign prince, scratch takes umbrage with webster's assessment and chides him, reminding him that "when the first wrong was done to the first indian, i was there. when the first slaver put out for the congo, i stood on the deck. am i not still spoken of in every church in new england? it's true the north claims me for a southerner and the south for a northerner, but i'm neither. tell the truth, mr. webster - though i don't like to boast of it - my name is older in the country than yours."

ZING! he also does not hesitate to remind us that the jury of that damned that sits in judgment of jabez - a rogues gallery of historic murderers, thieves and, worst of all, traitors - are "americans all". to his credit, webster addresses them as such. his argument for jabez's redemption has no legal basis, it is strictly an appeal to emotion. he finds the last shred of humanity remaining in these men and simply asks them to remember themselves before they made the same mistake he did, and that it is "the eternal right of every man to raise his fist against his fate". it's a surprisingly secular argument, being that this was made in the forties and the property in question is someone's mortal soul, and that thread runs throughout the film. it's a morality tale, yes, but the conflict is never presented as the infernal versus the divine. the struggle is never that old world. what we have instead is a microcosm of a troubled young nation where self-determinism is the coin of the realm, where a man is free to make his way employing honesty and toil and where redemption can be found when we practice compassion and reason in equal measure. no matter how old or complicated our nation becomes, these are things we would do well to remember. someone should write this down.

as a piece of craftsmanship, the film is dazzling. originally released as all that money can buy during RKO's creative peak, it boasts an impressive roster of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. william dieterle brought the angular darkness of german expressionist cinema - where he once performed in f.w. murnau's faust (1926), coincidentally - and combined it seamlessly with a lushness gleaned from working in the hollywood system to strike the perfect tone for this surreal folk tale. shot after shot, dieterle lures us deeper into the story with well-placed key lights and judiciously used special effects until we find ourselves immersed in a haunted world of shadows, fire and smoke.

it really is something to behold. it's a shame that this came out just in the wake of orson welles' citizen kane (1941) because i think if it hadn't, it would receive the recognition it richly deserves for its undeniable skill and style. editor robert wise and vitagraph's favorite film composer bernard herrman both brought their immense talents to bear on this film immediately after kane and their work is here is easily on par with that, herrmann's perhaps even surpassing it. his attention to detail and dedication to finding the right sounds for this film resulted in his only academy award. for the demonic fiddle piece at the harvest dance, he recorded the same musician layering multiple takes of the tune on top of one another, each version more frantic and discordant than the last. it resulted in a piece that sounds like one impossibly skilled player, rather than the sound of a quartet that you would get from recording a group of musicians playing the lines together. in an inspired bit of innovation, for scratch's appearances he recorded the sound of humming telephone wires to be incorporated into the score. the sound design works brilliantly with the score, as well. the way in which things go deadly silent the moment jabez offer his soul up in frustration, the punctuative thunder strike when jabez signs his soul away, the muted, murky voices (more accurately, voice, as they seem to speak as one) emanating from the ghostly party attendees and the jury of the damned - all of it thoroughly, chillingly effective. everyone behind the camera seemed to be operating at the height of their powers. in front of the camera, they hit the jackpot as well.

this is especially true when it comes to scratch and his emissary, belle. huston plays scratch with such malevolent glee that you frequently find yourself nodding in agreement with him. you can't help it. as a raconteur, he is without equal, playing the world's oldest salesman as if he had been around that long himself. one raised eyebrow is worth a thousand words. there is but one false note in the whole performance and if it didn't occur at such a pivotal moment i might not have noticed it. when the jury turns to deliberate what scratch thought was a foregone conclusion, he exhibits surprise. disappointment? sure. indignation? i could understand that, but someone who has been dealing with human beings as long as he presumably has should have enough wisdom and experience to never be surprised by any single thing they do. it's a small quibble, though, easily overcome. in every other frame, he is perfect. the physical aspects of the performance are notable, as well. with every motion, he inches closer, insinuating himself, touching you, resulting in a rancid, queasy intimacy. it's a technique that simone simon excels at as well, though in her case you don't mind so much. from the first second belle appears on screen, she feels like she is slithering around under your skin. she is even more unnerving than scratch as she encroaches the same way on a helpless infant, singing it diabolical lullabies. she is utterly beguiling, easily slipping past the defenses of new england farmers and hollywood censors with equal aplomb.

it is the handling of the relationship between jabez and belle that is easily the most subversive element of the film. scratch's seduction is moral - the powerful argument that bad luck is simply unnecessary - but it is only half of the equation. belle's seduction is decidedly physical, sealing the deal. she is the instrument with which scratch makes certain that jabez's every desire is satisfied. but how to portray that in 1941? cleverly, that's how. on the evening of his son's birth, jabez finds himself chasing belle around the barn as fiddles careen out of control, asking "shall we...dance, belle?" that pause is not mine, by the way. it is delivered just that way and you could drive a haywagon through it. the doctor has barely cut the cord and here he is trying out his best pick up lines. as his degradation continues, he leaves his marital bed one evening to escape the crying of his newborn son and finds himself at what is presumably belle's bedroom door. at that instant, scratch pops in the window, "what's the matter, neighbor stone? your conscience bothering you? ha! we take care of that. give me your hand" and leads jabez directly into temptation. she replaces mary everywhere else in the stone household almost as quickly as the bedroom and people begin to talk. nothing is ever explicit, mind you, but if this movie was equipped with a neon sign it would read "HEY! YOUR PROTAGONIST IS HAVING REALLLLLY HOT ADULTEROUS SEX WITH A LITERAL DEMON WHILE HIS WIFE AND NEWBORN BABY SLEEP NOT THIRTY FEET AWAY!" but this was 1941. so it doesn't. instead, it is depicted so clearly but cleverly that joe breen and his blue-pencil pushers could only throw their hands up in frustration.

i love it for all these reasons and many others. it has charms that are appropriately duplicitous and incendiary, when you look past the first layer or two, and it's about damned time it got its due. do what you have to to see it. go to great lengths, if you must. after all, "what's a little pain to a lucky man?"

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, this is one I have seen.

    This is one of Karen's favorites... and it was great. One of my favorite scenes was the introduction of the jury of "peers", an infernally unsympathetic group.