Friday, April 1, 2011

A brilliant blend of cinema elements

I've finally had the opportunity to see a film I've been after for over 40 years, the original 106-minute version of The Devil and Daniel Webster, a variation on the Faust legend which has been traveling around in 99- and 84-minute versions as All That Money Can Buy, which isn't that bad a title. Having finally seen it, I'm wondering if I shouldn't substitute it for the rather chilly Citizen Kane as a demonstration of how the elements of classical studio-style filmmaking could be orchestrated for a stunning and complex total effect.

That would make particular sense since so many key Kane craftsmen were involved in DADW, including editor Robert Wise, sound recordist James G. Stewart, effects artist Vernon Walker, and most critically, composer Bernard Herrman, here earning an Academy Award for his second film ever. Cinematography is by veteran Joe August rather than renegade Gregg Toland, but August has clearly absorbed Toland's lessons in deep focus and strong sources, added to a penchant for chiarascuro already evident in August's career.

Exhibit A, the entrance of the devil, known as Scratch, from an unidentified source so bright and smoky as to suggest a back entrance to Hell. His musical accompaniment is an electronic distortion of a recording of wind stirring some humming high-voltage wiring -- extremely avant for the Spring of 1941 when it was filmed. Add to that the unemphatic fire effects of Mr. Walker and you have one of the devil's best film entrances in film history:

Notice the daring rapidity of Wise's cut at 2:23, harking back to silent film technique. Speaking of rapid cuts, check out this sequence as the Devil's seduction advances at a country dance. Scratch has provided the hero with a new seductive housemaid in the person of Simone Simon, whose film entrance is kneeling in front of a hearth that looks as though it were a portal to sulfurous fires somewhere below. Here he is tempted to dance with her in order to hold her body, while the Devil fiddles to a hellish mix of a four different recordings of the same violinist improvising to "Pop Goes The Weasel." Again, Wise goes to town, especially starting at 1:09 in this clip.

Take that, Charlie Daniels!

The supernatural elements, work of Wise, Stewart and Walker and the career-rescuing performance of Simone Simon also point the film forward toward the low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton later in the 1940s, such as Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher and I Walked With A Zombie, especially in its use of suggestion and dark and light. (Lewton upped the ante with his use of off-screen sound to dramatize the unseen.)

The film is co-written by Stephen Vincent Benet, based on his own story. Benet was popular in the 20s and 30s for his use of American folklore to reflect on then-contemporary themes. The result for this film is an unparalleled mix of Americana, surrealism, theatricality, mysticism, horror and Christian myth. That might seem like an unpalatable mix, or at least a rather lumpy stew, but the result is completely coherent, moving easily from Daniel Webster's lecture about freedom to the hero's son straight into his pleading to a jury of the damned including Blackbeard and Benedict Arnold for the soul of the hero.

The only flaw in the film is the unfortunate necessity of substituting the incomparable Thomas Mitchell, who was injured in an on-set accident, with the more limited Edward Arnold, who despite best intentions, and whether through his own shortcomings or our memory of his other roles as a slimy business comes over as a bit greasy and pontificating for the role of Webster, who is meant to be well-educated but homespun (a stand-in for Lincoln, who was a very popular character in Depression culture). But despite Webster's titular billing, he is not central to the film, and Arnold is adequate, not terrible and does not demolish the film.

Let's leave the last word to actor Walter Huston, director William Dieterle (best known to me for being fired from The Adventures of Robin Hood for working too slowly) and most of all, Bernard Herrman, who really gets to show off his vivacious and sharp-elbowed musical voice in this final moment of the film, as Scratch considers his next "customer." The music looks forward to Herrman's classic Hitchcock scores, the iris-out looks backwards toward D.W. Griffith, and Huston's gaze into the viewer's eyes must have been bone-chilling projected on movie screens in 1941.

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