Sunday, January 25, 2009

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (William Dieterle, 1941, USA) Jabez Stone has an itch that needs Scratched, and in a profane moment of weakness consigns himself to seven years good fortune…and an eternity of bad luck. A modern interpretation of Goethe’s Faust, Director William Dieterle has elevated a derivative and clich├ęd premise into a beautifully crafted film: shot in glorious black and white, the inspired cinematography is ingrained with Wellsian genius, utilizing great low-angle shots and chiaroscuro lighting to great effect. When Jabez signs the contract, his face is hidden in deep shadow while Scratch’s visage lightens and becomes gleefully angelic. Contemplate the mansion scene, where demonic face leer through patterned curtains, and their danse macabre is filmed in soft nightmarish focus. Or the gloating shadow that hovers over Daniel Webster, whispering trickery and cruel thoughts, promising him pure power and his heart’s desire. The Bernard Herrmann score pumps the narrative full of suspense and humor, and then echoes the soft heresy of the damned. Robert Wise’s editing is paced beautifully; the jury scene creates an edge-of-your-seat drama with medium shot to four quick edits where we end peering into the eyes of the doomed Judge, his final decision about to be revealed. Walter Huston as Scratch is a sight to behold, his Cheshire grin beguiling and seductive, but lurking beneath is a man of wealth and taste…whose could lay your soul to waste. Jabez’s innocence is slowly eroded from within by his lust for money, his good intentions leading him towards a spiritual conflagration. And only one man save Jabez: the great orator Daniel Webster. He must deliver a closing argument so convincing that a jury of the damned must be sympathetic, evil men whose cruelty is legendary, corrupt souls devoid of the last vestiges of humanity. The final speech is oversaturated with patriotic fervor and he taps into their regrets, asking them free Jabez from the hellish contract. Finally, Scratch believes he has the last word, a scrumptious peach pie, but the joke is on him. (B+)

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