Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay by: Dan Totheroh, Stephen Vincent Benet
Based on a Story by: Stephen Vincent Benet
Starring: James Craig, Anne Shirley, Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, H.B. Warner
Country: USA
Running Time: 107 min
Year: 1941
BBFC Certificate: PG

Stephen Vincent Benét’s fable-like short story ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’, first published in 1936, was a huge success. Not only did it win the O. Henry Award, but it was soon after adapted into a play and folk opera, as well as several films, TV broadcasts and radio plays over the years that followed.

The most famous adaptation was William Dieterle’s 1941 film version. This went through various title changes before it was released as All That Money Can Buy. It was renamed once again on its re-release in the 50s, to The Devil and Daniel Webster. This version was quite heavily cut too and sadly remained the most readily available print for a long while, leading to that title becoming how the film was best known.

The Criterion Collection got their hands on the uncut version of All That Money Can Buy and released it on Laserdisc in the 90s, albeit with the Devil and Daniel Webster title. Now, around 30 years later, the label has turned its attention back to the film and are releasing it on Blu-ray in a gorgeous new transfer, complete with the original All That Money Can Buy title.

I got hold of a copy of Criterion’s new release and my thoughts follow.

All That Money Can Buy is set in New Hampshire during the 1840s. It tells the story of Jabez Stone (James Craig), a struggling farmer facing hardship and despair. A series of misfortunes push him to desperately decree that he would sell his soul to the devil in exchange for a better life. His plea is answered by the sly Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), who appears and offers Jabez a Faustian bargain: seven years of prosperity in return for his soul. Blinded by the promise of wealth and relief, Jabez readily agrees.

The initial years are idyllic. Jabez finds prosperity, aids his neighbours, and even becomes a champion for the esteemed politician Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). However, the deal with Mr. Scratch comes with a hidden cost. As time progresses, Jabez’s newfound wealth fuels his ego, leading him down a path of arrogance and moral decline. He neglects his family, embraces greed and loses sight of the values he once held dear.

As the seven years near their end, Jabez faces a terrifying reality: he must face Mr. Scratch and surrender his soul. Realizing the true price of his deal, he desperately seeks help from Webster. The film then culminates in a dramatic courtroom battle, where Webster fights to save Jabez from the clutches of the devil.

I am not a religious man. In fact, I have quite strong views against the practice. As such, some of the messages and moralising in All That Money Can Buy felt simplistic and outdated to my eyes and ears. However, I was fully invested in the way the tale was told.

All That Money Can Buy is a masterfully crafted film. Each element of its construction adds to a wonderfully lyrical quality. Joseph H. August’s gloriously atmospheric cinematography stands out from the offset. There’s some stunning use of smoke and backlighting in particular, as well as some suitably creepy shadowplay.

The editing is beautifully handled too. This was the work of a young Robert Wise. He edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane the same year and his work here is equally as impressive. Not only does he have a perfect sense of rhythm and pace, shifting between scenes like the breathlessly intense barn dance sequence and elegant montages that signify the passing of the seasons, but he also throws in some more experimental touches. In particular, we get some slightly slower-than-subliminal shots of Mr. Scratch (basically a stand-in for the devil) shown in negative, that invade early scenes when life is getting too much for Jabez.

Also standing out is the music of Bernard Herrmann, another Citizen Kane collaborator. His score is simply glorious, blending pastoral sections with abstract, subtle yet unsettling cues and his grand, frightening Mr. Scratch theme that has a flavour of some of his later Hitchcock scores. The Academy must have thought the music was special as, despite composing many of the most famous film scores of all time, it was with All That Money Can Buy that Herrmann won his only Oscar.

There are some fantastic performances too. Craig is a little wooden and Anne Shirley, who plays his saintly wife, is a little bland, but the supporting cast more than makes up for it. Huston is the stand-out. His performance of Mr. Scratch is wonderfully animated, charismatic and villainous without veering into over-the-top territory. Arnold is eloquent and magnetic too, delivering his showstopping speeches with suitable gravitas. Then you’ve got the entrancing Simone Simon as a seductress sent to stear Jabez away from his family. Elsewhere, the film’s world is made rich through a variety of memorable character actors and actresses.

So, whilst the film was a little preachy for my tastes and some elements haven’t aged well, as an example of the fine craft of golden age Hollywood filmmaking, it has few peers.

Film:

All That Money Can Buy is out on 8th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is exceptional, particularly for the film’s age. Details are rich and sharp, yet natural and there is next to no visible damage. I had no issues with the audio either and Herrmann’s music comes through particularly well.

SPECIAL FEATURES

– New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and Steven C. Smith, biographer of composer Bernard Herrmann
– New restoration demonstration
– Reading by actor Alec Baldwin of the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét on which the film is based
– Episode of the Criterion Channel series Observations on Film Art about the film’s editing
– Comparison of the differences between the July 1941 preview version of the film, Here Is a Man, and the film’s 1943 rerelease as The Devil and Daniel Webster
– The Columbia Workshop’s radio adaptations of Benét’s short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent,” both featuring music by Herrmann
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by author Tom Piazza and a 1941 article by Benét

The commentary is a tag-team effort with Bruce Eder providing a well-researched track digging into the backgrounds of those involved as well as some analysis, whilst Steven C. Smith jumps in for a short while to talk about Bernard Herrmann’s work on the film.

There’s also a piece on the marvellous continuity editing in the film. This not only helps you appreciate how well the film was put together, but it also acts as a mini film school for those interested in the art of editing.

The restoration piece included also provides a short coverall piece on the film itself. Due to this, it’s a must for those without the time to watch the commentary and other extras. It also shows some of the differences between cut and uncut versions, as well as demonstrating the vast improvements to picture and sound quality following the recent restoration. There’s another short piece that compares a few early sequences from the different versions of the film too.

I enjoyed hearing Alec Baldwin’s reading of the short story. It’s interesting to hear how it began life before getting fleshed out into the film. Plus there’s a dramatised radio play version and another Daniel Webster radio play. The latter, “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent”, sounds rather rough so I couldn’t always make out what was being said but it’s a fun little piece nonetheless.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, Criterion have given a wonderful film the first-class treatment. As such, the disc comes strongly recommended.

Disc/Package:

Where to watch All That Money Can Buy
All That Money Can Buy (a.k.a. The Devil and Daniel Webster) - Criterion
Film
Disc/package
4.0Overall:
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.