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Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is directed by William Dieterle and written by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benet. It stars Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, James Craig, Anne Shirley, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon and Gene Lockhart. Music is by Bernard Herrmann and cinematography by Joseph H. August.

Poor farmer Jabez Stone (Craig) utters in frustration that he would sell his soul to the devil for two cents such is the destitution he and his family find themselves in. So when the mysterious Mr. Scratch (Huston) turns up with the offer of seven years prosperity, Jabez is only to happy too sign away his soul to Scratch’s contract. Prosperity does indeed come, but also a change in Craig alienates his loved ones, and just what will happen when the seven years are up?

Dieterle’s Faustian movie was met with decent critical notices upon release but failed to make a hit at the box offices. It was subsequently snipped by the studio and reduced from a 107 minute movie to one that was shown in a sub-standard 85 minute cut. Suffice to say that the original cut is really the only version to see, it’s a no brainer.

I’d fight 10,000 devils to save a New Hampshire man.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is a film of surreal and ethereal qualities, qualities that sit snugly alongside the moral core of the tale. The story follows the familiar Faust route, man sells his soul but comes to regret it as his character changes for the worse and promptly wants out of the deal before he has to go live with Old Nick and all his hellish instruments. Here there’s the heavy vibe of America’s soul being fought for, so enter famed lawyer Daniel Webster (Arnold) who rocks up to try to save the now frantic Jabez Stone. Not easy since the jury is a roll call of badness and Mr. Scratch himself is of course a wily old fox.

The closing court sequences are just one of many great moments in the piece. Others include a ball at the Stone residence that is tinged with supernatural edginess, a barn dance that is borderline demonic, and Belle’s (a stunningly sensual Simon) disarming dance of death. Herrmann crafts an aural sculpture of a musical score that blends ghostly tensions with tongue in cheek slyness, while Huston, Arnold and Simon give terrific performances. On the negative side Craig is way too animated throughout, irritatingly so, while the set design for 1840s New Hampshire barely passes muster for period oomph. Other than those itches this rounds out as thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. 7.5/10

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