Dir: William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Life of Emile Zola, and born July 15, a splendid day indeed)
Another film I would have probably passed over if it were not under the Criterion Banner. And again the good folks at CC fail to disappoint. Jabez Stone is a down on his luck New Hampshire farmer. Mounting debts, inclement weather, and bad harvests keep Jabez and the family Stone poor. As his spills his last bag of seed, he foolishly utters that he would give his soul for two cents and then some. Wishing to oblige, Mr. Scratch appears with gold and offers Mr. Stone the expected Faustian bargain. Intoxicated by the wealth that lays before him, Stone gladly accepts the terms of the agreement (first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women). Mr. Scratch promises seven years of good fortune in exchange for his "worthless soul." This fortune is parlayed into plentiful harvests, excessive wealth and a newborn son. However, the temptations mount, both material and corporeal, and Stone is caught up in the glamour of worldly possessions and slowly turns his back on his faith.
Seven years pass, and Stone has alienated his family and friends, and Mr. Scratch comes to collect. But Stone realizes the error of his ways and enlists the help of his son's godfather, Daniel Webster (I'll spare you the backstory, but back then I guess politicians were extremely accessible). What ensues is the often mimicked courtroom battle with the Devil over the ownership of the soul. Daniel Webster's heroic speech to a jury of deceased American traitors (Benedict Arnold is the foreman), appeals to an American ideal where true citizens have already given their soul to the cause of freedom (I was hoping for a less pathos driven argument--even Marge Simpson had a contractually-based legal appeal, but the orator is the good guy, so I'll take that).
The film is an adaptation of a 1937 Stephen Vincent Benet short story, which is one of three stories that mythologize Webster as a Bunyanesque figure who is an ardent defender of the American ideal. And with the film being released in 1941, there are clear rallying cries for American support to stop the spread of tyranny (although, the closing shot troubles a sincere read, as Mr. Scratch, perusing his black book looking for another "victim," points at the camera, imitating the pose of Uncle Sam from the army recruitment posters). The film does not boast any incredible depth beyond an allegorical interpretation. There is a sincere reverence for Webster as the virtuous guard of the Union, destined to promote the community (he does enable the grange to reunite). However, Mr. Scratch does make some pointed attacks on the American ideal, noting that he was there when the Americans killed their first Indian and the first slave ship that sailed from the Congo. This provides the only real indict of Websterian ideals. However, it was the historic Webster, an abolitionist, who pushed the Missouri Compromise, his own Faustian bargain to keep the Union together. And yet, the warnings of materialism shine though; the subsequent arguments Webster makes suggest that the violence levied against others during the founding of America was the product of a polluted ideal, brought down by unfettered greed.
William Huston's Mr. Scratch provides the only real standout performance. Everyone else is passable. But the real winners are the Oscar winning score, by the incomparable Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock's longtime musical author), and the cinematography (a young Robert Wise as editor, btw). Clever lighting, special effects, and spooky instrumentals capture the demonic power of Mr. Scratch, cultivating a disquieting mood for a film that spends most of its time being cheeky.
If you have the chance, see it. But if the queue long, it can wait behind the clearly recognizable classics.