The Devil and Daniel Webster (5 stars)

The Devil and Daniel Webster

(U) 106min

(Eureka DVD retail)


A very welcome release for this diabolically undervalued 1941 masterpiece of 19th century American folklore fantasy. Based on a story by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet-writer Stephen Vincent Benét (upon whose work Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was also based), it’s a version of the Faust myth in which a down-on-his-luck New England farmer sells his soul to the devil, an impish vagrant named Mr Scratch (brilliantly played by Oscar-nominated Walter Huston) whose right of collection seven prosperous years later is challenged by champion of the common man Daniel Webster (Frank Capra regular Edward Arnold) and settled in a court of law populated by the nation’s dead traitors.

Directed by German émigré William Dieterle from a screenplay by Dan Totheroh and scored by Oscar-winner Bernard Herrmann, it’s a gloriously executed flight of fantasy that comes on like an episode of The Twilight Zone directed by Orson Welles. Also known as All That Money Can Buy, it was ill-advisedly remade in 2004 by Daniel Baldwin with Anthony Hopkins as Webster and – the horror! – Jennifer Love Hewitt as the devil. This director’s cut of the film (it was badly mutilated on its original release) is a beautiful, fully restored transfer and it comes with a lavish 60-page booklet with archival publicity stills, an essay by professor Tony Williams, an article by director William Dieterle and a celebration of the film by author Benét.

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