The Devil and Daniel Webster (Dieterle, 1941) is truly one of my desert island films. You couldn’t have assembled a more perfect film for me in a laboratory. The cinematic and literary traditions it belongs to are among my favorites and it’s topped off with that unmistakably sulphurous scent of brimstone that is so hard to resist. It’s a brilliant, very specifically American look at the Faustian bargain and how that notion is inextricably intertwined with the development of our young nation. I was taken with it from the very first time I saw it and each subsequent viewing only confirms that I was right to feel that way. I think it is a masterpiece and a career high point for everyone involved.
At the top of that list of contributors sits Walter Huston. He is easily my favorite devil to appear on the big screen. He has just the right mischievous twinkle in his eye and the perfect amount of contempt for humanity and potential for violence just beneath the surface. Other cinematic devils have had excellent diabolical qualities. Robert De Niro had malevolence and eternal patience in Angel Heart. No one was better at capriciously exploiting devilish loopholes than Peter Cook in Bedazzled. Tim Curry certainly had the look in Legend. None of them, though, were the total package the way Huston was in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Of all of them, he is the one I would least like to have on my shoulder. His foul whispers were seductive in the 1840s, the 1940s and they are still powerful today. Mind that your name doesn’t end up in his book!
What you’ll find in this episode: the fate of the real Daniel Webster, our favorite screen devils, Bernard Herrmann and a missing scene that we are dying to see, and the seductive darkness that lives just over the mountain.
Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Devil and Daniel Webster on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Vampyr.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Faust.
What the myth of Faust can teach us.
Movie devils you might have missed.