Devil and Daniel Webster [1941]

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Stephen Vincent Benet's timeless 1937 short story gets the red-carpet treatment on Criterion's feature-packed DVD of The Devil & Daniel Webster. William Dieterle's inspired film remains the classic it always was, proving that Citizen Kane wasn't the only cinematic marvel to appear in 1941. It's a sturdy, stylish rendition of Benet's original narrative, beginning when a luckless farmer (James Craig) strikes a Faustian bargain with the devil incarnate Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston at his devious best), trading his soul for seven years of prosperity, during which he grows corrupted, despised, and regretful of his mistake. To Scratch's chagrin, legendary orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) intervenes with a triumphant defense, and Dieterle's brilliant direction gives the proceedings a light, economical touch of supernatural mischief. To complement the cleverness of the film adaptation, this delightful DVD also includes a playfully expressive reading of Benet's original story by Alec Baldwin, and vintage radio performances of two of Benet's three "Daniel Webster" stories. The film and radio plays were scored by legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, whose OscarĀ®-winning film score is examined in an interactive essay by Herrmann expert Christopher Husted. Excerpts from an earlier preview version of the film (then titled Here Is a Man) reveal creepy, negative-image shock-shots of Mr. Scratch that were later removed, but they further demonstrate Dieterle's willingness to experiment. With additional essays and archival materials, Criterion's superb DVD shows how a great story can lend itself, with consistent success, to a variety of mediums. --Jeff Shannon

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