The Devil and Daniel Webster
Jabez Stone is a hard-working farmer trying to make an honest living, but a streak of bad luck tempts him to do the unthinkable: bargain with the Devil himself. For seven years of good fortune, Stone promises “Mr. Scratch” his soul when the contract ends. When the troubled farmer begins to realize the error of his choice, he enlists the aid of the one man who might save him: the legendary orator and politician Daniel Webster. Directed with stylish flair by William Dieterle, The Devil and Daniel Webster brings the classic short story by Stephen Vincent Benét to life with inspired visuals, an unforgettable Oscar-winning score by Bernard Herrmann, and a truly diabolical performance from Walter Huston.
The Criterion Collection presents the original 106-minute version of William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy) on DVD in a ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. Due to the film’s aspect ratio, the film has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions. The standard-definition presentation is sourced from a 2003 reconstruction and restoration of the film. A 35mm duplicate negative was the primary source for the base high-def scan, with a 35mm print filling in where needed. This DVD marks the first time the original version has been seen since it was cut down to 84 minutes in the ’50s.
Though I have to say it with few caveats in place—including the limitations of the DVD format and the fact that its presentation is sourced from a now 20-year-old restoration—I found the image to have held up reasonably well all these decades later, with aspects of it quite striking. Yes, the standard-definition encode features the expected limitations around bitrate, resolution, and all of that, but detail levels are still remarkably high much of the time, with film grain even looking half-decent (again, for the format). What I found most striking, though, were black levels and contrast. In his included commentary, Bruce Eder talks about the film’s look and use of shadows, explaining how much of it had been lost in previous prints and home video releases, which could blow out the contrast. This aspect looks significantly better here, with a surprisingly wide range of grays alongside inky blacks. Admittedly, the finer details can still get lost in the darker scenes due to the format’s still inherent shortcomings, yet—outside of a few scenes that come from that later generation print and feature a dupier look—depth looks fantastic, and there’s a beautiful photographic look.
The restoration is solid, though open to improvement, limited to the tools of the time. Damage has been cleaned up extensively, and there’s very little in the way of dirt and marks left, but there is a constant flicker and pulse throughout, which could more than likely be corrected further today. More significant scratches and reel-change marks (cigarette burns) are also present.
It could benefit from an upgrade (and a 4K restoration was done last year), but as it is, this looked incredibly strong for the format and period, even holding up when upscaled.
The film’s audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural. The audio track shows its age through background noise and crackling, while fidelity and range are limited. Still, the dialogue sounds clear and easy to hear, while Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds sharp without ever coming off all that harshly. As with the picture presentation, there is room for improvement.
Criterion puts together an interesting, if not an especially loaded, edition, starting with an exclusive audio commentary featuring film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. Eder has the bulk of the track, getting into the film’s production background and the reasons behind its various titles (there were not only issues with having the word “Devil” in the title, but apparently, it was also not ideal to have Daniel Webster’s name there, too). This leads to why the film was cut down significantly to 84 minutes in the 50s. He also talks about troubled production (Thomas Mitchell, cast initially to play Webster, was replaced following a severe on-set injury he was lucky to survive) and its disastrous release, being met with less-than-stellar reviews and a cold audience reaction, with Eder hypothesizing as to why the film ultimately flopped. Throughout, he also talks about the cast, points out how some of the effects were done, admires the photography, and even talks extensively about the members of the “jury” who appear at the end. I like Eder’s tracks and found this one to be another solid one, keeping a good pace while being well-researched.
Smith only pops up about 50 minutes in for a short time, 12 minutes or so. His focus ends up being on Herrmann’s score, explaining how the composer came to be involved in the project, what inspired him, and how some of the effects in his score were created, including how Herrmann incorporated the hum of telephone wires. Criterion also includes a multimedia essay (under the menu’s supplement section labeled “Scratch’s Black Book”) covering Herrmann’s score, entitled “The Devil” in Context, assembled by Christopher Husted. Made up primarily of text and presented in a gallery format divided into seven sections, the essay covers Herrmann’s background and the influences on the film’s score, from folk music to lullabies and more. Scatter throughout are options to play clips providing a sample of Herrmann’s score to provide context. I always liked these presentations (a holdover from LaserDisc) and do miss them, and this one has been nicely assembled. (As a note, my Panasonic UB820 4K player would only allow me to page forward through the text notes. Hitting the back option would result in being thrown to some random page. I did not try on another player.)
The supplement section also offers a 5-minute video presentation comparing the film to a preview cut entitled Here Is a Man. The feature includes comparisons for a few sequences (and the opening credits with the alternate title) with slightly different edits. Two of these sequences also feature subliminal inserts of Huston’s Mr. Scratch.
You’ll also find a few audio features, including two radio adaptations: one for The Devil and Daniel Webster and the other for Daniel Webster and Sea Serpent, running 29 minutes each and created for CBS Radio’s Columbia Workshop. Alec Baldwin also pops in to read the original Stephen Vincent Benét short story, running 34 minutes. I assume Baldwin's participation was based on his attempt at directing a remake that was ultimately plagued by production issues, including the F.B.I. looking into fraud. (The film would eventually be released as Shortcut to Happiness with Baldwin's name removed as director.)
The supplements then close with a small gallery featuring production photos (including an on-set birthday party) and a couple of posters featuring the original title, All That Money Can Buy.
It is a lot of static content, and the material could use an update, but it's okay for what it is, with Eder's track being solid on its own.
The film is long due for a revisit with an updated restoration and a new batch of features. Until then, the DVD holds up shockingly well thanks to an incredibly sharp standard-definition presentation.