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In the realm of cinema, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER ($40) is a movie with an interesting history. Released under several titles, including ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER also suffered a terrible fate of having been severely cut for reissue, with the expurgated footage assumed permanently lost for decades. Back in the 1990s, The Criterion Collection released a reconstructed version of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER on Laserdisc, consisting of 35mm footage of the truncated version of the film, with unearthed 16mm materials utilized to restore the missing portions of the film. For their 2003 release of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER Criterion has restored the film to its complete running time, utilizing 35mm materials discovered since their Laserdisc release.

Based upon the story by Stephen Vincent Benet, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER tells of a poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig), whose continuing string of misfortune drives him to declare that he would sell his soul to the devil for two cents. Of course, the declaration doesnít go unheeded, with a certain Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) showing up with a contact, which promises Jabez seven years of prosperity in return for his soul. After signing away his soul, Jabez gets more than he bargained for, becoming the richest man in the state, as well as gaining an alluring mistress named Belle (Simone Simon), courtesy of Mr. Scratch.

Despite the changes in Jabez, his long-suffering wife Mary (Anne Shirley) remains at his side through the seven years, at which time, Mr. Scratch comes to collect his contracted property. It is at this point that family friend and statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) takes up Jabezís cause, thus challenging Mr. Scratchís legal claim on his soul. The performances in THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER are absolutely first rate, especially Walter Hustonís Devil, who proves to be charming amusing and malevolent- all at the same time. The fine cast of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER also features Jane Darwell, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, H.B. Warner, Frank Conlan and George Cleveland.

The Criterion Collection has made THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER available on DVD in a pretty good-looking black and white transfer that frames the film in its proper 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. There are some inconsistencies in the image owing to the restored sections of the film not being as carefully preserved as the main body of the film. These restored sections have some minor contrast problems and occasionally appear a bit soft, but for the most part THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER looks really quite good. The image is usually pretty crisp and sports nice definition. Blacks are generally inky and the whites usually appear stable. Most of the time, the grayscale appears very good and the image produces a nice sense of dimensionality. The restored film elements display some blemishes and scratches, as well as an occasionally noticeable grain structure. Digital compression artifacts are never a concern on this very smartly authored DVD. Overall, Criterion has done an excellent job with the video transcription of the film.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER comes with a decent sounding Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack. Considering that THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER features Bernard Herrmannís Academy Award winning score, I really wish something more could be done to rejuvenate this vintage track. Since there is a noticeable amount of hiss on the track, I would imagine the folks at Criterion decided against any kind of digital filtering that might have muddied Hermannís beautiful Americana score. The eerie off kilter quality of the "sleigh ride" music is nicely maintained, although this soundtrack sounds nowhere as good as the digital rerecordings of said music, which have turned up on CD over the years. Dialogue is always intelligible, but voices lack consistency- sounding perfectly crisp sometimes and a bit fuzzy at other times. All things considered, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER doesnít sound bad for a six-decade-old movie whose sound elements werenít carefully preserved by a major studio. No other language tracks are encoded onto the DVD, although English subtitles are provided.

Music underscores the basic interactive menus, which allow one access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as some nice supplemental materials. Film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Hermann biographer Steven Smith are on hand for a rather informative audio commentary track the will satiate any fan of the film looking for details on the production. Other supplements include a comparison of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER with a slightly different version of the film entitled HERE IS A MAN. Actor Alec Baldwin is on hand to read Stephen Vincent Benetís original short story. The Columbia Workshop radio dramatizations of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER and DANIEL WEBSTER AND THE SEA SERPENT from 1937, featuring music by Bernard Herrmann, are also provided. Christopher Husted, an official representative of the Bernard Herrmann estate provides an essay about the filmís music, of which, particular cues from the score are interspersed. A gallery of production stills closes out the supplements.

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER is a wonderful piece of cinematic storytelling punctuated by the terrific performances of Walter Huston and Edward Arnold, as well as Bernard Herrmannís outstanding Oscar winning score. Criterion has done a great job of resurrecting this marvelous film for DVD, as well as supplying a fine complement of supplements. Very highly recommended.



The Devil & Daniel Webster - Criterion Collection (1941)


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2003 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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