Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Movie Review: The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster/All That Money Can Buy*  (1941)
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.

Favorite Quote:

"Oh, come, come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil that needn't make you a teetotaler."

Favorite Scene:

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

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Lee Marvin Point Blank

Lee Marvin: Point Blank (2013) by Dwayne Epstein

"I don't care what's written about me as long as it's interesting."

Lee Marvin's wish is granted in Dwayne Epstein's new biography, the first serious attempt to trace the life and career of one of cinema's most iconic tough guys. The tall, silver-haired Marvin was always an instantly recognizable screen presence, with a voice that sounded as if its owner was gargling a mixture of vodka and gravel between takes. The actor straddled two generations of movie bad guys. At the start of his career he belonged to the sneering, scene-stealing hoodlums represented by Dan Duryea, Richard Widmark, and Jack Palance. He harassed Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, tormented James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and most memorably of all, threw scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat. But by the late 60s and 70s, Marvin had emerged as the elder statesman of cool, a grumbling drill sergeant that could whip even the most rubber-limbed of recruits into shape. Or, as in the film this book takes its title from, he could be the intrepid and remorseless killer, so stubbornly flat in his motivations that he becomes oddly magnetic. Marvin would live to see his own brand of onscreen violence turn him from monster to hero.

Offscreen, the Lee Marvin that Epstein recreates is a rowdy, charismatic individual, a man who combined the ability to spin a great yarn with a steely capacity for action. In short, he's pretty much the man you would want him to be from watching his films. Despite a rebellious childhood in which Marvin would get kicked out of countless schools, he found a strange kind of fulfillment when he joined the Marines during World War II. His wartime experience would be a constant companion through his acting career. For example, when Marvin tried a stint at the Actor's Studio with Strasberg, he got on the man's bad side by disagreeing with him about a scene. Strasberg claimed that Lee failed to act the great torment of a man suffering from a gangrenous leg. Marvin told him no, that was the whole point. A man in the last stage of gangrene feels no pain. With that, Marvin got himself kicked out of yet another school.

During his film career, Marvin would be drawn to movies that critiqued violence and war; he favored his work in the anti-war The Big Red One and the melancholy Western Monte Walsh far above the crowd-pleasing The Dirty Dozen.  In interviews, he disparaged the old idealized violence of classical Westerns, where "you end up with that little trickle of blood down your cheek and you're both pals and wasn't it a hell of a wonderful fight." When asked about his own style of cinematic cruelty, Marvin explained that "when I do a scene, I make it as rough as I can...make it ugly...I say make it so brutal that a man thinks twice before he does something like that." In one sense, Marvin succeeded in his goal, creating a niche for himself as an exciting screen heavy. But on the other hand, his success also hastened the arrival of newer and even more explicit thrills, for audiences that yearned to live vicariously. For his own part, Marvin had no patience for fans that got disappointed when his movies weren't violent enough. After one friend told him as much, Marvin barked, "Screw 'em, let 'em do their own killing!"

But hand in hand with Lee Marvin's thoughtful approach to his own career was his own potent taste for violence and destruction, a desire that expressed itself through brawling and dangerous pranks. When a friend noticed how often he sported fresh injuries, Marvin told her that he would deliberately go to bars and pick on little guys with lots of big friends, so that he could release his need to fight without getting anybody seriously hurt. Worse than the fighting was Marvin's alcholism. While the man was a loyal friend, generous to his family and courteous to costars, the alcohol exacerbated his worst traits, making him positively self-destructive with the passage of time. 

Epstein records these events with distant sympathy but doesn't let them distract us from the glories of Marvin's career. He spends time on each movie, although sadly not as much as my movie-loving heart would wish. And he follows his own interests on that score, giving more time to Marvin's performance in Monte Walsh (a movie that's definitely going on my must-see list after reading this book) than he does to The Dirty Dozen. For the most part, Epstein manages to balance the career with the character, giving weight to the personal stuff but never forgetting why we're interested in Marvin in the first place.

Epstein does a lot of things with this book that I wish biographers would do more often. He takes the space to think deeply about Lee Marvin's legacy and what his films mean to the current cinema. He muses about what today's action stars and directors owe to Marvin. Epstein also provides a list of all the films that Marvin came close to making during his Hollywood tenure (The Wild Bunch is the most frustrating near-miss), along with movies made after his death that the actor could have been perfect for, like The Untouchables or Unforgiven. Most importantly, he refuses to psychoanalyze Marvin. He doesn't try to explain away the man's alcoholism. He's doesn't blame everything on post-traumatic-stress disorder. He simply lets Marvin be who he is, without censure or excuse. It's an approach that Lee Marvin himself would no doubt have approved of.

Epstein's biography elides certain aspects of Marvin's life, for reasons that weren't always clear to me. The man's relationship with his children is kept to a few short comments on how Marvin, despite his affection, could never settle down to parenthood. Christopher Marvin, his only son, does re-enter the story to give a touching afterword to his father's life, but the daughters are given short shrift. Marvin's whirlwind second marriage to Pamela Feeley is almost as mysterious. At times, because this biography is on the slender side, it gives the impression of a book that was heavily dependent on certain sources, to the point that these sources often end up driving the narrative.

However, if Epstein had to rely heavily on one source, he chose well in giving lots of space to Betty Ebeling Marvin, Marvin's first wife. On the page, Betty comes off as a tart, sympathetic presence, fully capable of zinging her husband with a sharp one-liner. When Marvin asked if he had to pay for his daughter's wedding, Betty responded with, "I think that's your privilege, dear". Her marriage to Lee would slowly deteriorate over many years, worn down by alcoholism and adultery, but Betty gives her husband credit for his good points, commenting that her husband taught her to be strong and assertive. Those qualities would come back to bite him later; when he suggested a reconciliation after the divorce, Betty snapped back, "Why would I want to break back into prison?"

My own favorite Lee Marvin role remains Liberty Valance from the classic John Ford film. Both of my parents were avid fans of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and my dad would always lean forward in his seat before the entrance of Liberty Valance, grinning in anticipation. Marvin would have more nuanced and sympathetic roles later, but for my money, nobody's more enjoyable than Liberty. Not only does he have one of the best names of any cinematic villain, he's got a vivid, crackling personality, relishing his own nastiness with a glee that can't be matched. Just watching him stretch out his long leg to trip James Stewart is a pleasure. It's so outrageously larger-than-life and yet the savagery feels real. His scenes with Edmond O'Brien are hauntingly cruel, so much so that it's always a surprise to me that O'Brien turns up alive afterward, no matter how many times I see the movie. The assault is too harsh to be forgotten.

At his best, Marvin's appearance in a film was the equivalent of a knife cutting through the celluloid, a sudden flash of real brutality or hardened experience that could make other actors seem like so much make-believe. At his worst, he was never boring. And neither is this biography, an important step in crafting a full image of Lee Marvin as a man, an actor, and as a living presence in Hollywood history.

Final Six Words:

Straight-shooting account of dynamic actor

Note: This book was given to me as a review copy by Independent Publishers Group. It is published by Schaffner Press. It is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and directly from the Independent Publishers Group website .

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bette Davis has the latest blogging news...

I've enlisted the help of Miss Davis to bring some good news to my readers. Thankfully, it seems like we've finally turned the corner from those winter doldrums to a busy and bright new year. It's like everyone took a cue from the groundhog and decided to emerge from their hibernation. For the past few weeks, I've been pelted with movie blogging news from every corner. I'll start with the blogathons. It looks like a good crop this year. Some familiar players in the game, some newcomers. Some devoted to the stars, some to the films, and some just happily celebrating the cinema. But all of them are well worth a look.

Blogathons in February

Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon (February 17th-22nd), Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association

The 1940s are my favorite decade in Hollywood film. More stately and polished than the madcap 30s but not as neurotic as the 1950s. The 40s was the time of dames and dark alleys, glittering studio productions and quirky little B-films. Westerns, comedies, dramas, and fantasies all flourished and larger-than-life movie stars still reigned at the box office. But along with that, it was also a dark and troubled time of censorship, blacklisting, propaganda, and war. Taking all that into account, it seems only natural that we should have a blogathon to celebrate the films, great and small, that came to life in the 40s.

Participation: Restricted to CMBA members but everyone is welcome to drop in and comment.

I Totally F***ing Love This Movie Blogathon (February 22nd-24th), Hosted by The Kitty Packard Pictorial

I don't think I could describe this blogathon more eloquently than the delightful Miss K so I'll just let her do the intro:
"We completely, totally, absolutely, unconditionally love every last frame of it. In fact, we effing love every last frame of it. This is the film we tune into on the days we’re depressed, deranged, delirious, or just plain determined to numb the pain out of this hurtful existence we call the 21st century. It’s the Bad Day At Work movie. It’s the My Ex Is A Total Jerkface movie. It’s the OMG I Totally Got The Job movie. It’s the I Just Paid My Rent And Still Have Money For Chinese Take-Out movie. In short: It’s THAT movie. We all have one. Or two. Or fifty. For three days in February, the Pictorial warmly invites you to toss care to the wind and bare it all in the I Totally F***cking Love This Movie Blogation– the blogathon dedicated to the moves that are who we are."
Participation: Open to all

Blogathons in March

John Garfield Blogathon (March 1st-4th), Hosted by Patti at They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

It's hard for me to find something to say about John Garfield that hasn't already been said by Sheila, the Siren, or by Kim Morgan. He led the way for actors like Montgomery Clift and Brando. He was the modern movie man ahead of his time: tough, yearning, and always unpredictable. He dug into the characters of boyish Brooklyn nobodies, conniving lawyers, and sexy drifters and convinced you they had souls. Garfield died at 39. He should have had the full 100 years. Lucky for us that Patti has taken on the task of giving the man a well-deserved centenary celebration:
"As regular readers of this blog already know, John Garfield is one of my absolute favorite actors (one of my "beloveds"), and with March 4th being the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought a blogathon in his honor would be the perfect way to celebrate. The blogathon will be taking place that entire weekend---Friday to Monday, March 1st through March 4th.  I would like to see huge participation in the event---Mr. Garfield deserves that!  Besides being a brilliant actor, with the shameful treatment he received in Hollywood upon his refusal to "name names" in the HUAC hearings, I believe it is right and fitting that in some small way, we seek to make it up to him by singing his praises and giving him a portion of the honor and respect due him."
Participation: Open to all

Fashion in Film Blogathon II (March 29th-30th), Hosted by Angela at The Hollywood Revue

I had a wonderful time at last year's Fashion in Film Blogathon so I'm so glad Angela's decided to hold it again. Perhaps you've been itching for a discussion about Joan Crawford's shoulder pads or Errol Flynn's green tights. Or for a debate on whether Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn is the true icon of cinematic elegance. Or maybe you just want to stare at pretty pictures of beautiful people in the world's most gorgeous costumes. This is the blogathon for you:
"It was too much fun to only do it once!  That’s right, the Fashion in Film Blogathon will be returning to The Hollywood Revue on March 29 and 30.  If you’re in the mood to write about costume designers, style icons, trendsetting movies, the costumes in a particular movie, or anything else that relates to costume design, please join in! As always, even though this is a classic film blog, don’t feel obligated to stick to movies from the classic era.  Posts about costume design from any and all eras of film are very welcome."
Participation: Open to all

Blogathons in April

James Cagney Blogathon (April 8th-12th), Hosted by R. D. Finch at The Movie Projector

Who needs an excuse to celebrate Cagney, really? I mean, don't we all just go home thinking, "Hmm, I just saved two dollars at the store, better celebrate with The Public Enemy?" Speaking for myself, I had the joy of seeing The Roaring Twenties for the first time not too long ago and it made me fall in love with Cagney's acting all over again. I'm very glad that the formidably talented R.D. Finch (you might remember he hosted last year's fantastic William Wyler Blogathon) has decided to become the torchbearer for a Cagney blogathon this year. Dates and details are still a little tentative on this one but it'll be worth sticking around for.

Participation: Already full, to the best of my knowledge (parties desperate to get in on the Cagney action might try contacting R.D. anyway), but commenters are always welcome.

That's all for now, guys, but I'll keep you updated on any other blogging news I hear. And I'd like to give a special thanks to the gals at True Classics for linking me to several blogathons I hadn't heard about. You four are the best!