B&W, 1941, 107m. / Directed by William Dieterle / Starring Edward Arnold, Walter Huston / Criterion (US R1 NTSC)


A film as famous for its tumultuous production and distribution history as its overall quality (which is considerable), this magnificent horror/fantasy adaptation of the classic Stephen Vincent Benet story offers a twist on the durable Faust saga with a distinctly Americana twist. The storyline is simplicity itself but filled with memorable flourishes; New England farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) makes a deal with the devil, offers to sell his soul in exchange for a good luck streak. Sure enough, a tobacco-puffing Old Scratch (Huston) appears in the barn doorway and offers seven years of good fortune. His family, including wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and mother (Jane Darwell), benefits from the results, but Jabez notes a few odd occurrences over the next few years, such as the supernatural arrival of sexy nanny Belle (Cat People's Simone Simon), one of the devil's more attractive minions. When the deadline for payment finally closes in, Jabez panics and solicits the aid of legendary lawyer Daniel Webster (Arnold), who accepts the case under extremely perilous circumstances: if he loses the case before a jury of famous damned men, both the lawyer and his client lose their souls to Old Scratch.

The Devil and Daniel Webster was released the same year as Citizen Kane and in many respects is the horror/fantasy equivalent to that legendary film. Like a colonial etching sprung to life, this is a visual marvel with expert use of light and framing; the device of streaming light as a harbinger of evil is a terrific reversal of expectations (and technically more accurate in theological terms), while the pacing and performances are honed to perfection. Huston and Arnold get the juiciest dramatic moments, of course, but the charming Simon also makes a searing impression in her limited screen time. Like Kane (which shares the same composer, Bernard Herrmann), this is filmmaking but also more than a bit chilly and austere at times; director Dieterle later imbued a bit more passion in the sloppier but more heartfelt Portrait of Jennie. However, that's a minor quibble with what is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of film fantastique.

Financed as an independent production and subjected to endless recutting and retitlings, The Devil and Daniel Webster (widely shown as All that Money Can Buy) became something of a critical cause for film restoration during the early 1980s. Eventually Criterion restored the film to an approximation of its original condition with a welcome laserdisc in the company's early days, the 85 minutes of pristine material were fleshed out with recovered 16mm footage of the excised scenes, resulting in a patchwork of a vital cinema classic. The DVD goes one better with a transfer as close to immaculate as this film will probably ever be; while the restored footage is still identifiable by a very slight image softness, the results are much smoother and cleaner. Element damage is extremely minimal; there's a barely visible hairline scratch during the extended opening sequence, but for the most part this is a very satisfying presentation similar to the restoration done on Warner's The Thing (from Another World) disc. Carried over from the laser is an excellent audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and author/Herrmann expert Steven C. Smith; it's an extremely fast-paced and informative talk, still one of the finest in the Criterion canon. The reasons for the film's troubled history are laid out in detail, with much attention paid to the use of historical details (both visual and musical). The rest of the supplements, amusingly tucked away as a "Scratch's Notebook," kick off with a video comparison between the finished product and an alternate preview version entitled Here Is a Man. The editing differences are fairly minor, but it's an instructional look at the tweaking done to a film on its road to release. In a nice companion piece to the commentary, Herrmann's music score is analyzed on a cue-by-cue basis; written comments are provided for each composition, after which one can skip to many of the musical highlights of the film. Other goodies include a radio production by the Columbia Workshop (with Herrmann music), an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials, a written essay by author Tom Piazza, and most interestingly, a reading of the original story by Alec Baldwin, whose own production of the same story encountered even more drastic difficulties before its eventual completion.


B&W, 1948, 86m. / Directed by William Dieterle / Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ethel Barrymore / Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC)


An eerie, romantic oddity from producer David O. Selznick, Portrait of Jennie is much closer in spirit to his cycle of Hitchcock films like Rebecca than his famous grandiose epics like Gone with the Wind or Duel in the Sun, the latter starring his lover and eventual wife, Jennifer Jones. Selznick and Jones reteamed more successfully with this film, a delicate New York ghost story produced under conditions which would have defeated a film in lesser hands. Fortunately, director William Dieterle never loses his grip on the story's poetic edge, bringing it close to an American equivalent to the unearthly surrealism of Jean Cocteau. Struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) passes his days in postwar New York by trying to sell his landscape paintings to anyone in sight. A local art dealer and curator, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), takes an interest in him, noting that his technically perfect work lacks passion but shows some promise for development. One day in the park Eben meets a strange young girl, Jennie Appleton (Jones), who prattles on about long past events and locations as if they were recent. Claiming to be the daughter of acrobats, she captures his imagination and sings a ghostly song about being alone before vanishing off into the woods. Adams goes about his routine and gets a job painting a mural of Michael Collins for a pub owner but finds himself distracted when he meets Jennie again while ice skating, though now she appears several years older. The two begin to fall in love, and Eben sketches out a possible portrait of the young woman. However, Eben investigates her story and learns that Jennie's story really happened many years earlier, with a few tragic surprises in store. In fact, the object of his love and artistic passion may not be entirely of this world. Nevertheless, Eben continues to meet Jennie, inspired at last to create a work of art worthy of his talents. However, his relationship with the elusive Jennie is far from over.

Though the storyline doesn't hold up at all under scrutiny (for example, can anyone explain exactly why that tidal wave happens to show up at the end?), Portrait of Jennie is an unusually effective, memorable ghost story, with Cotten's melancholy and intelligent presence anchoring material that could have been trite. The film went through many different rewrites and edits, and the cloying opening sequence (which features pretentious quotes from both Archimedes and Keats) shows just how much trouble studio execs had in trying to hammer this film into some kind of genre. Fortunately the breathtaking cinematography by Joseph August (who died immediately after filming) ties together the film's various moods, from romantic to menacing to spiritual, and glosses over some technical problems like Jones' awkward impersonation of a preteen girl and some sloppily looped dialogue (see Jennie's song and her dialogue with Eben during the climax, in which no one's lips actually move). Bernard Herrmann originally began the film, but due to scheduling problems (and a reported clashing of wills) he stepped aside to allow Dimitri Tiomkin to complete the music, with some judicious use of Debussy for good measure. The musical tapestry works very well, creating a subtle and wistful atmosphere without ever becoming sugary or obvious. (Herrmann still receives a brief nod in the end credits, however.) The film also features some novel cinematic devices, such as superimposing a canvas-like texture over establishing shots of the city and some of Jones' close-ups to recreate the "portrait" effect on film. Originally announced on laserdisc by Fox but never released, Portrait of Jennie has been surprisingly difficult to see over the years, with only a few brief VHS releases and cable screenings keeping it from obscurity. Anchor Bay's DVD is a great improvement over prior versions, with crisp definition and only some moderate print damage and scratching visible during the last reel. Some TV and video prints concluded with a final Technicolor shot of the portrait (shades of The Picture of Dorian Gray), but the DVD goes one step better by restoring the original tinting: green during the climax, and a reddish sepia during the aftermath. The mono audio is very strong and clear for a film of this vintage, and the disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, which tries to sell the film as something far more sprawling and socially important than it actually is.


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