As Bruce Eder begins in his commentary, “The Devil & Daniel Webster” was the product of a rare burst of dynamic innovation at RKO, a mid-level Hollywood studios that, unlike the larger rivals, suffered a constant rotation of corporate and executive heads (and was ultimately ruined by the indulgences of its later owner, Howard Hughes).
Following the production of “Citizen Kane,” “Devil” is easily one of the studio's finest productions, and not unlike “Kane,” didn't fare particularly well with audiences during its original release. Criterion's DVD includes alternate main titles from the preview version (titled “Here Is A Man,” when RKO felt the use of “Devil” might upset Southern audiences). There's also scene comparisons, showing slightly different editing, and the use of a negative extreme close-up of grinning Walter Huston, used in three shock sequences that precede the Devil's first appearance.
Criterion's print is the first DVD release of the 106 minute version, after the film had been severely trimmed for theatrical reissue engagements and TV showings. Eder points out some of the major sections lopped off over the years, and also details the magnificent lighting and camera trickery. A few shots have noticeable breaks - either from pre-release editing, or perhaps from lost frames that formerly bridged restored scenes – but the overall print and transfer is lovely. Joseph August's chiaroscuro cinematography is also remarkable for its dramatic use of high contrast and stylish backlighting, and Criterion's transfer faithfully reproduces deep gray levels.
The mono soundtrack is a bit harsh and sometimes coarse in spots, but dialogue and sound effects levels are otherwise balanced. Of particular note is Bernard Herrmann's innovative score, which is also given a special essay by Herrmann estate bigwig Christopher Husted. Followed by a quartet of stills, the score analysis has links to film clips, and illustrate the composer's incredible imagination that was soon followed by another RKO gem, “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Herrmann's music can also be heard in two archived radio plays from the Columbia Workshop; and Stephen Vincent Benet's original short story is given a reading by Alec Baldwin, so viewers can trace the author's own changes for the film version.
Though “Devil” experienced a major mishap when star Thomas Mitchell was injured during shooting (and was replaced by Walter Huston), the final product has aged into an accepted classic. Made at a time when another wave of younger filmmakers were entering the American film scene from radio (and as European refugees), “Devil” also represents a creative highpoint for director Dieterle, who subsequently returned to Germany in the late Fifties after an eclectic string of projects.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan