directed by William Dieterle, starring James Craig, Walter Huston, Edward Arnold
*The Devil and Daniel Webster is the original title of this movie; it was changed to All That Money Can Buy for its first release. Later releases of the film would revert back to the former title and that's the one I will use for this review.
(Note: This film review is my entry for the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association.)
Nothing seems to go right for Jabez Stone (James Craig). His farm is failing, he's in debt to a greedy moneylender, and no matter what he does, he'll always be poor. In a fit of anger, he vows he'd sell his soul to the devil for two cents. Well, quick as a wink, a silver-tongued gentleman appears with a contract all ready and waiting. The Devil (Walter Huston) assures Jabez that for seven years, he can have "all that money can buy" and then his soul will belong to Hell. Tempted by the sight of gold coins pouring out of the earth, Jabez accepts. With the help of the gold, he suddenly find himself able to do everything he ever wanted. He can loan money to his needy friends, buy his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) a new bonnet, and treat himself to the best of everything. But his mother (Jane Darwell) is suspicious of his miraculous wealth: "When a man gets his money in a bad way...the Devil's in his heart."
As time passes, Jabez goes from being a simple, honest man into a greedy, arrogant bully, egged on by the Devil's kindly advice. His moral dissolution is also hastened by the arrival of the mysterious Belle Dee (Simone Simon), sent to be his child's nursemaid. With soft words and seductive smiles, Belle soon ousts the goodhearted Mary from her husband's life. But Mary, driven to desperation, enlists the help of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), the politician that everyone respects for his oratory and loyalty to the working man. Webster vows he'd "fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man." But it will take all of Webster's eloquence and all of Jabez's desperate, sincere repentance to win the trial for a man's soul. And when you're going up against the Devil, don't expect it to be a fair fight...
This simple morality tale, adapted from Stephen Vincent Benét's short story, is yet another superb movie from 1941. Yes, there were a lot of them that year, weren't there? Directed by the underrated William Dieterle, with cinematography by Joseph H. August and musical scoring by Bernard Herrmann, The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of those rare films that's a perfect example of classic Hollywood filmmaking and yet doesn't really feel like any other movie. The filmmakers take Benét's relatively simple narrative and expand it with humor, depth, and an imaginative perspective on eternal damnation. Believe me when I say that after watching this, you will never look at moths, recruitment posters, or "Pop Goes the Weasel" the same way again. But more than that, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a movie that can turn the old tale of good versus evil into something truly fascinating.
Something about tales of the fantastic and otherworldly seemed to strike a chord with director William Dieterle since his other great film of the 40s, Portrait of Jennie, was also about the arrival of the uncanny into ordinary life. Also made with the help of August and Herrmann and damn, why didn't those three collaborate more often? But while Jennie was lushly romantic, Devil is archly funny and straight-faced, lulling the audience in with its portrait of bygone America before it takes you by surprise. The visuals here are some of the most striking I've ever seen in a film. Like the first entrance of Satan, backlit and glowing more like an angel than the Prince of Darkness. Or the way Dieterle and August show the final temptation of Jabez, with the man caught in a crowd of whirling dancers, the play of light and shadow on their bodies slowly morphing into the image of hellfire. Even a relatively simple romantic moment between Jabez and his wife becomes something more, with the already-corrupted Jabez leaning over Mary in dark silence and her looking back with an expression that hints both at fright and sensual surrender. It's like the Tippi Hedren close-up from Marnie, twenty years before Hitchcock ever thought of it.
If Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," then it's just as fair to say that this movie is very much of the Devil's party and is fully aware of that fact. Oh sure, we're rooting for Jabez to free his soul, but who could begrudge Walter Huston's incredibly charismatic Devil the chance to make some mischief? Like Ray Milland would find out in Alias Nick Beal (another great Faustian film), playing the Devil is just about as much fun as an actor can have. Huston's grin is so wide it doesn't quite seem attached to his face. He's a joking, courteous Devil ("I won't come to the christening...it would be in wretched bad taste"), running rings around Jabez with ease. The sinister aspect comes not so much from Huston trying to project real menace but from the good-natured satisfaction he has when explaining his position. Huston's performance as the unhappily married millionaire in Dodsworth is one of my personal favorites but this film shows he's just as wonderful when he plays it broad as when he plays it subtle. He was nominated for Best Actor (losing to Gary Cooper), but I wish it had been in the supporting category where he might have had a better chance.
Have I mentioned how much I love Edward Arnold? He was the consummate character actor, a man who could play outsized comic parts or dead-eyed villains with equal mastery. But he shone brightest when he could play it smart. He had a way of sizing someone up with one quick, shrewd glance, saying nothing but letting his presence speak for him. In von Sternberg's adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Arnold was a surprisingly effective Inspector Porfiry, smilingly working at poor Peter Lorre's nerves the way an old woman would wind up a ball of yarn. Here he has the immense task of creating a Daniel Webster that lives up to all the hype. The Webster in this tale is a noble and courageous politician, a man whose fiery rhetoric is in service to the people, not his own ambition. In short, he's the kind of man we dream of, not the man we ever meet.
In Arnold's hands however, Daniel Webster is a very enjoyable hero, clever and funny but with an air of real experience that makes his nobility seem hard-earned. Part of it can be attributed to the script, which allows Webster to be a little less than perfect. He's an overly enthusiastic drinker and smoker. He allows himself to get carried away by arrogance at times. And we can see that he too has to live with the Devil at his elbow, always tempting him with promises of the Presidency. Thomas Mitchell was slated for the role of Webster before breaking his leg. He would have been superb, but Arnold's performance is there already. When he makes his speech at Jabez's trial, we can see both the very real fear of a man facing the Devil himself and the deeper courage and fire that all of us would want to see raised in our defense.
There's a surplus of other great supporting perfomances in The Devil and Daniel Webster, from Jane Darwell's no-nonsense Ma Stone to John Qualen's hauntingly frightened Miser Stevens, the last man to make a bargain with the Devil. But by far the one you can't take your eyes from is Simone Simon as Belle Dee. She's ravishingly sexy here, so much so that it's no surprise that poor, simple Jabez falls for her charms in the space of about five seconds. Simon's French accent gives a strange, sing-song quality to her lines that's totally appropriate to a character that's meant to be otherworldly. "I'm from over the mountain," Belle says, in lieu of any other explanation. As attractive as Belle is, she's also quite creepy, with her constant smiles and ability to insinuate herself completely into the Stone household, replacing Mary entirely. It's hard to look at Simon's performance here and not imagine that Val Lewton was thinking of it when she was cast as the equally sexy and supernatural Irena in Cat People.
With Huston and Arnold holding up the smart, comic side of things and Simon handily taking care of the sex, there isn't much left over for our simple lead couple, James Craig and Anne Shirley. They represent the good American Everyman and his wife; two people that were meant to lead ordinary, uneventful lives. Craig gets the potentially interesting challenge of depicting Jabez's disintegration from true-hearted farmer into greedy, immoral layabout. But Craig doesn't have the ability to give any kind of complexity to the part. He's not bad, but he can only feel one thing at a time. Whether he's beaten down with remorse or trembling with greed, well that's all he feels. I feel that an actor like Joel McCrea or James Stewart could have made Jabez seem less like a pantomime character and more like a tormented, recognizable human being.
Anne Shirley is even less interesting than Craig and no wonder, she gets the worst part in the movie. The fact is that Mary Stone is such a monument of patience and sincerity that I doubt even Teresa Wright could make her credible. She waits in hopeless obedience for her husband to return to the path of goodness for seven years. She bows her head even when he forbids her from disciplining their son. She loves him even when he kicks her out of the new house so he can live there with his mistress. The only direct action she can take is to implore Daniel Webster to help her, crying that her lousy husband's behavior must be her fault somehow. Shirley does what she can (she tended to get stuck with these winsome ingenues time after time) and you can believe that she's a devout, loving woman and all that. But after all she endures, it's close to impossible to believe that she could ever trust and respect her husband again. There's too much poison between them.
In the end, we know that good will triumph and villainy will slink away unrewarded. Still this film is all about the journey we take to get there and it's a fun, fantastic trip all the way. It has rich performances, witty lines, and an imaginative use of sound and shadow that will linger in your memory. It deserves to be classed as one of the great films of the 1940s. And I suggest you spread the word about it right now, before Walter Huston makes you his next victim.
"Oh, come, come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil that needn't make you a teetotaler."
The party at Jabez Stone's new mansion. While spoilers don't really apply to a straightforward plot like The Devil and Daniel Webster, I think it's best when Dieterle and August's uncanny visuals are left as a surprise. So I won't give too much away about what happens at the party and what we see. Suffice to say that it's one of the most memorable parties in cinema, one to put alongside The Masque of the Red Death. We get to see the final sum of all that Jabez has hoped for, along with his well-deserved comeuppance. We get to see the Devil's sharp assessment of the man he has caught: "I could fit your soul in my vest pocket." We see Belle's true nature revealed as she leads the revelry of the damned. And we're left with the haunting image of what happens when the Devil chooses to bring you into the dance.
Final Six Words:
Bewitching tale of dark fantasies fulfilled