Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something_Wicked_This_Way_Comes_(1983_movie_poster)

  • Year: 1983
  • Director: Jack Clayton
  • Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Vidal Peterson

The 1980s were an experimental decade for Disney, leading to not one, but two Faustian films.

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But seeing how this movie does not exist, let’s look at the other.

The one that is still comfortable to talk about is 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name. What a title. Even before you start the movie, the title has sucked you in—both a reference to Macbeth and a hint of the nightmares that will follow.

The movie was made over a decade after Walt Disney’s death, but it’s dripped in the early 20th century small town charm that he loved so much. Greentown, Illinois is essentially a moving Norman Rockwell painting, and I mean that in a good way. There’s the elderly teacher who used to be a knockout, the football player who never made it to the big time, the pet shop owner who always wanted to be a lumberjack, you know the drill. Even before the carnival comes, we’re immediately sucked in by the feel of autumn in this town.

Best friends Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) discover a carnival has come into town in October, long after the season has ended. I like how these two characters fit tropes without being cliched. Will is definitely more of a dutiful son, while Jim is more rebellious, but it’s not overdone. The child actors do alright. They’re not spectacular in any scenes, but there isn’t anything that brings the movie to a screeching halt.

Carnivals are always a bit creepy, and to a wholesome small town, they are definitely something bizarre, but there’s also something enticing about them. Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival takes both of these sides to an extreme. It’s led by Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and features such tempting attractions as a Hall of Mirrors that shows you your idealized self and a carousel that changes your age depending which direction you ride it. The carnival will grant your wishes in the classic “deal with the Devil” fashion—you’ll get your wish, but there will always be a loophole. When the elderly teacher wishes to be young and beautiful again, she gets it, but she is struck blind and can never see her own beauty. When the local barber asks for a beautiful woman, he is turned into one. Plus, anyone whose wish is granted also joins Mr. Dark’s carnival of souls.

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So is Mr. Dark the Devil? YES! Okay, I’m sure there are some out there who would argue that since he’s never mentioned by name, it’s not guaranteed, but let’s take a look at it. Carnival of souls? Check. Quick deals that will ultimately screw you? Check. Defeated by goodness and love? Check. Will’s father (Jason Robards) reads up on when the carnival came through town before, and says it grants people’s wishes and destroys their lives “as has been the way of the Devil since God created the world.” There’s also a good bit of subtext in the scene where Charles confronts Mr. Dark, saying “I know who you are.” He does follow it up by calling him one of the “autumn people,” but the implication is definitely there.

Like so many portrayals of the Devil, Pryce’s is very much “the other.” Unlike the clean-cut, all-American, hardworking folks of Greentown, he is bearded, British, and thrives on those who wants to get rich quick. He’s not the sleazy huckster of The Devil and Daniel Webster, but more of an imposing and charming conman. Yeah, you know he is a conman, but he’s affable enough that you’re still drawn to him.

Pryce’s Mr. Dark is a perfect foil for Will’s father Charles, and the scenes they share together are thoroughly enjoyable. As entertainingly devilish as Pryce is, Jason Robards is the best part about this movie. He’s an older man (Robards was 60ish at the time) who has a very young son, and he wishes he could be a better father. It’s rare we get to see this kind of father-son relationship on screen, and it sort of makes me wish we got to see it more. Robards pours so much heart into every line, but also sometimes saying just as much with what he doesn’t say. For example, he never has a line like “Son, I know I won’t be around for much in your life. I may never see you get married or have children,” but we know that this is exactly what he’s feeling.

Charles also has some regret about not being a good enough father in the past. There’s a great scene where he tells Will about the time he couldn’t save him when he was drowning, since his own father never taught him how to swim. It’s just heartbreaking. We get the impression, just from a few lines of dialogue and some facial expressions, that Charles’ relationship with his father wasn’t bad per say, but it was a bit distant. Charles is trying to do better with his own son, and by the end, he realizes he is. Plus, it’s nice to see a film centering around kids where a parent actually does something helpful.

Of course, it’s Charles’ insecurity that Mr. Dark preys on, tempting him with youth over and over again. In one of the most memorable scenes, he rips out pages of the town’s history as he offers Charles various years of his life back.

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That’s right, Jonathan Pryce just made counting scary.

And that leads us to what this movie is best known for—being a horror film brought to you by Disney. The carnival scenes in particular have all kinds of weird imagery on display, and plenty of people remember being scared to death of this movie as children. I never saw this movie as a kid, but I can see how it affected some. The problem with the “scary” scenes is that they’re just so random. Why is there a scene where Will sees himself decapitated?

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Disney presents The French Revolution.

Will and Jim are running away from Mr. Dark, and out of nowhere, Will sees his own head get cut off by a guillotine, and it’s never spoken of again. It just doesn’t make any sense. Why does Mr. Dark invade the boys’ houses with spiders (Ok, it’s a dream he causes, but still)? I guess for some it’s scary, but it just feels so out of place.

The atmosphere is great and eerie, but the scares are all over the place. The only ones that are really effective are the ones where Mr. Dark is threatening Charles’ worst fears. When he rips those pages out of the book, it’s chilling. The scariest moment is when he actually gives Charles a taste of death, so he’ll know when it actually is coming. It’s internal horror, unlike the hit-or-miss visual scares throughout the film.

There’s just so much going on, from many characters getting a little bit of focus, to a good number of plot threads. There’s Charles feeling insecure as a father, Will and Jim investigating the carnival, Jim’s father not being around, Jim being tempted to join the carnival, Charles looking for a way to stop the carnival, the whole thing with the teacher wanting to be young again…it’s a lot to contain in 95 minutes. Another half hour would have really done this movie a lot of good. I suppose that’s the blessing and curse of working with Disney—you’ll get a gorgeous, atmospheric film, but it will also try to be for everyone.

The ending works alright, as Charles finds himself in the hall of mirrors, knowing his son is lost in there. He views the scene of his son drowning, but hearing him cry out, Charles punches the mirror, shattering the illusion and instead seeing himself saving his son. It really is a poignant moment, and it’s a great message about forgiving yourself. He’s been replaying the scene over and over in his mind, and only he himself can shatter the image.

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Mr. Dark’s defeat is a bit overblown, as this expression of love forces his carousel to rapidly age him, killing him after a few go-rounds. I don’t know, maybe it would have been more interesting if the carnival just left town, because it wasn’t going to be successful in Greentown anymore. Of course, all the souls from the town are released back as well. We end on a scene of Charles deciding to embrace the years he has left, acting young but not lying to himself.

Not surprisingly, Something Wicked This Way Comes had a lot of trouble during production, from fired composers to many re-writes and re-shoots, so it’s kind of amazing it turned out as coherent as it did. That said, I have to judge it for what it is. The stuff I like most is probably not the stuff people talk about most. Some of the creepy stuff works, but I just love the feel we get for this small town. It just kind of puts you in a mood, like Halloween is just around the corner. Most of all, I love Jason Robards’ performance. He really is the star here, and his character arc could have been focused on more. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (14/20 Points)

A lot is going on at once, and some of it works really well. It’s a bit too busy for a 90 minute movie, though, and it makes some things feel a bit rushed. The stuff between Will and his father is pretty great. The scene at the end where Charles saves his son and the glass shatters creates a great emotional climax.

Faust (10/20 Points)

Well, none of our main characters actually make a deal with the Devil, but since it’s the two boys who are drawn into the carnival and tempted, I’m counting them. They have some good discovery scenes early in the film, but when the big dramatic scenes come at the end, they’re only okay.

Devil (16/20 Points)

Jonathan Pryce is genuinely creepy when he needs to be, particularly in his confrontation with Charles, but at some points he’s just a bit too over-the-top. Pryce is a great transformative actor, and it’s incredible that he did this and Brazil in a period of just a few years.

Supporting Characters (16/20 Points)

Jason Robards is the best part of the film, hands down. We know everything we need to know about his character from his first few scenes, and he just has so much heartbreak in all of his lines. The film is loaded with other minor characters, who I feel would have been expanded on more if the film had a greater run time.

Experience (18/20 Points)

A few effects are a little cheesy, but for the most part, this is a great visual and musical experience. James Horner’s score is perfect, capturing both the horror and the wonder. Like so many great Disney films, it just captures its environment, and that’s really what draws you in right from the start.

FINAL SCORE: 74%

I may not have the die-hard nostalgia so many have for this film, but I enjoyed it enough. It’s definitely worth a watch, and even though the scary stuff doesn’t all work, it just feels like October. I could easily see myself going back to it around Halloween simply for the experience it creates.

Next week, the Karate Kid himself Ralph Macchio delves into a blues legend in 1986’s Crossroads.

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Bedazzled (1967)

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  • Year: 1967
  • Director: Stanley Donen
  • Starring: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron

Since the deal with the devil story dates back centuries, it’s clearly one that’s rife for parody. However, there just aren’t many famous comedic takes on the tale. They’ve been done, but Bedazzled is probably the best known.

Bedazzled is the brainchild of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a British comedy duo who worked together on shows like Beyond the Fringe and Not Only… But Also. While Moore became relatively famous in America with hits like Arthur and 10, you probably know Peter Cook best as this guy.

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It’s not all bad, because it is one of the funniest scenes in all of cinema, but he was more than just the Impressive Clergyman (and yes, that is how he’s billed in The Princess Bride). Cook plays the Devil here to Moore’s Stanley Moon in a fast-paced and modernized take on the Faustian story.

Stanley Moon is your average loser, with a lousy job at a burger joint and a huge crush on a co-worker Margaret (Eleanor Bron), but he lacks the strength to talk to her. He asks God for a sign, but when he doesn’t get one, he attempts to hang himself. Before he can finish the deed, he’s interrupted by the devil, who hilariously makes no attempt to hide his identity. For obvious reasons, Cook and Moore play off each other wonderfully. Most of the film’s humor comes not just from well-written lines (and they are well-written don’t get me wrong), but the quippy way Cook and Moore exchange them. Take for example the scene where the Devil has just revealed his identity.

  • Stanley: You’re a nutcase, you’re a bleeding nutcase.
  • Devil: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
  • Stanley: They said it of a lot of nutcases, too.

You see what I mean? It’s a funny enough line on paper, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know how much funnier their delivery makes it. It’s the kind of comedy that only a team who has worked together for years can pull off so wonderfully.

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Cook’s Devil, also known as George Spiggott, is one of the only devils who appears to be the same age as the Faust character. Of course he’s actually millennia older, but he usually incarnates himself as someone at least slightly older. Here, we see the Devil trying to win Stanley to his side via friendship, showing himself as the sympathetic and personable one in comparison God. Of course he’s only giving one side of the story, but Stanley falls for it, even seeming to become a bit obsessed with him. It could perhaps be interpreted as falling for him, but seeing as how Stanley never really had a close friend, it’s probably just not knowing boundaries.

That said, Stanley probably views George as someone he’d like to be (minus the whole being the devil thing). George is successful, good looking, fashionable, and seems to have no trouble with women. In fact, it would seem that George is trying to hook up with Margaret in basically all of their scenes together.

We get an interesting spin on the traditional X years of good luck, with the Devil instead giving Stanley seven wishes. He even gets a trial wish to prove that George is the Devil. He is then taken to headquarters, an office environment where George has the seven deadly sins working for him. Now this of course leads to some of the funniest moments in the film (Anger wearing a “Make War, Not Love” shirt, anyone?), but it’s also right out of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

Personifying the seven deadly sins goes back to medieval tradition, but featuring it in a film like Bedazzled definitely proves that it is smarter than your average comedy. All of the sins make an appearance, with the most hilarious being Sloth. When Stanley needs someone to look over his contract, George says, “Sloth would be best. He’s a lawyer.”

It’s amusing seeing the Devil working out of an office like this, being so casual about flipping through the souls in his file cabinet. There’s a very Monty Python-esque joke when he’s flipping through the “M’s,” “Machiavelli, McCarthy, Masoff, Miller, Moses.” Stanley is obviously taken aback at this, but the Devil clarifies offhandedly that it’s Irving Moses, the fruiterer. The sketches that result from the wishes are funny, sure, but these remarks are what had me laughing out loud over and over.

The Devil at the end of the day is mostly a prankster, enjoying playing jokes on people in between the dealing. He also pulls loopholes on all of Stanley’s wishes, explaining that, as the Devil, he has to do it. When Stanley asks to be more articulate, he does indeed impress Margaret, but she’s only interested in his mind and screams “Rape” when he tries to make a physical move. This is an uncomfortable enough scene on its own, but it leads to an asinine subplot where a police officer becomes attracted to her and even claims that rape victims are often asking for it. Look, I get that the cop isn’t supposed to be a sympathetic character, but rape jokes in any context just don’t go over. It’s really the movie’s only major flaw, though.

When Stanley wishes to be rich with a “physical” wife, he gets his wish, except she’s physical with somebody else. The wishes go on like this, leading to the most hilarious one where Stanley finally believes he has figured out the whole system. He makes an incredibly specific wish—somewhere quiet where he and Margaret will love each other and be together forever, as well as the thrill of meeting her for the first time.

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And it’s still not specific enough as the Devil turns him into a nun of the Leaping Beryllians of the Order of St. Beryl, as he didn’t specify that he wished to be male. The extended scene in the convent is incredibly silly, and it’s clearly something that was created outside the context of the movie, but it’ll have you in stitches. It leads to a ridiculous initiation ceremony where the new nuns jump on trampolines in honor of their founder.

The way Stanley finally gets out of his contract isn’t anywhere near as clever as the trial in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but it does the job alright. It’s revealed that the Devil was in a battle with God to get 100 million souls, and the Devil hits his number. Trying to cultivate a kinder image for himself, the Devil gives Stanley his soul back. However, God still does not let the Devil back into Heaven, as his “good deed” was still an act for his own benefit. It’s too late to get Stanley’s soul back, though, and the Devil curses God left and right. It’s nothing ingenious, but it works.

Bedazzled is not a perfect film, but there are so many lines that cause huge laughs. The scenes without Cook and Moore both on screen do drag a bit, but anytime they’re together, it makes up for it. Cook’s Devil is the best character in the film, making hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comments. The Seven Deadly Sins are enjoyable too, including Raquel Welch as Lust and Barry Humphries as Envy. Eleanor Bron is fine as Margaret, but she doesn’t have much character outside of being the object of Stanley’s affection and whatever she’s turned into via his wishes. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (15/20 Points)

It’s the typical Deal with the Devil/Bad Genie story, but it leads to some clever and sometimes hilarious sketches. It’s definitely a film of its time, but it doesn’t feel dated. Take for example the scene where Stanley becomes a pop star. The music is clearly of the ’60s, but the message of 15 minutes of fame is a timeless one.

Faust (16/20 Points)

While many Fausts are guys who had a stroke of bad luck, Stanley Moon is a real loser, and Dudley Moore does a pretty good job portraying him. His scenes with Margaret work pretty well, and it’s nice to see at the end that he has actually learned something and become a more confident person.

Devil (18/20 Points)

Peter Cook’s young and hip Devil is a joy to watch, getting almost all of the film’s funniest lines, like pointing out that the paintings in his office are early Hitler. Like so many, he is the perfect Devil for the setting. I find his conversation with God and eventual break down a little underwhelming, but that’s splitting hairs.

Supporting Cast (12/20 Points)

The Seven Deadly Sins are funny, but the movie mostly comes down to the Devil and Stanley, which is fine. I don’t find the portrayal of God, just a booming voice, all that creative either. I did get a laugh out of the little old lady the Devil plays a prank on, though.

Experience (19/20 Points)

The jokes and rapid fire delivery are just so enjoyable. I would have been fine if the whole thing was just a discussion between the two about good and evil, because it’s so funny. Who can forget lines like “I Love Lucifer it was in those days”? The music and constantly changing set pieces enhance the experience as well.

FINAL SCORE: 80%

There are places Bedazzled drags a little, but it never really gets tired. There are so many hysterical lines, mostly from Cook, and it’s definitely worth the watch. It may not be for everyone, but I think for most people it will be a lot of fun, which only worries me more about reviewing the remake.

Next week, though, we’ll be looking at Disney and Ray Bradbury’s take on the tale, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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A Eulogy for The Blacklist

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WARNING: Do not read on unless you have watched up through “Mr. Solomon: Conclusion,” unless you don’t care at all about major spoilers. You’ve been warned.

I’ve been watching NBC’s The Blacklist since day one, and from the moment James Spader’s Red Reddington walked into FBI headquarters and turned himself in, I knew we were in for a different kind of show. It was a marvelous cinematic scene, David Fincher-esque even, and it led to some incredible television.

Season 1 of The Blacklist did a great job of unveiling pieces of the puzzle at the right moment. We knew Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and Raymond Reddington had a connection, and the internet exploded with the theory that he was her father. With most shows, yeah, it would have been that easy, but The Blacklist quickly revealed itself to be much more complex than that.

The first two-and-a-half seasons were great, not perfect, but smart. We had a great cast of well-rounded characters, led of course by the charmingly evil Reddington.

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Seriously, his face is saying 7 things right now. Spader is an acting treasure.

So what got us to where we are now? What was the first fumble that led us to a show that allegedly has now killed off its main character? Why has the show lost its edge? I’m afraid it goes all the way back to the season 1 finale “Berlin.”

Over the course of season 1, we learned that “Tom Keen” was merely an alias, and his marriage to Liz was an operation from Berlin, a mysterious foreign villain played by (who else?) Peter Stormare. Now, “Berlin” was a great episode, showing that every blacklister so far was a piece of a puzzle leading to Berlin, and also having the guts to kill off Meera Malik (Parminder Nagra), but it did one thing wrong. There’s a moment where Red and Liz are about to leave Tom to die, but Liz wants another moment with him. I think she was supposed to kill him here and wrap up their arc, but the writers or the network liked Ryan Eggold’s performance as Tom so much that they kept him around. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan Eggold did a spectacular job, but if you don’t end a story where it’s supposed to, you find yourself with discontinuity and plot holes all over the place. Plus, it led to one of The Blacklist‘s worst trademarks—the fakeout.

When Malik died in “Berlin,” it was a quick, shocking throat slit, and that was it. There was no “Maybe she made it” or “Maybe she staged her own death.” She was dead, and it stung. HARD. When a show or movie fakes out deaths like Tom Keen’s, it lessens the impact when someone actually dies, because instead of mourning, we’re immediately wondering how they got away. It’s perhaps a flaw of being a network show, being forced into 22 episodes a season, instead of 10 or 13 on cable, but we’re getting really sick of it.

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Tom, have you ever seen that Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps over the shark?

Imagine if the most painful death on The Sopranos (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know which one I’m referring to) turned out to not be real. Sure, there were plenty of fan theories at the time, like “Oh, we never saw the body” or “The character got away,” but they held no ground. These days, when a show doesn’t clearly show a lifeless corpse being lowered into the ground and covered with dirt, there’s a 99% chance they made it. If the show had the guts to actually kill Tom Keen at the end of “Berlin,” it would have made clear that The Blacklist wasn’t going to spin us around in circles.

Instead, The Blacklist continued the Tom Keen story into territory that, frankly, makes zero sense. Liz kept him locked up on a boat somewhere to get information and then maybe kill him, but of course she doesn’t do it then either. Then we find out that Tom was working for Reddington too, or at least in the past (they kind of went back-and-forth on this). Reddington tells Tom to never come near Liz again or he’ll kill him. Great, so we’re done with Tom, right?

NOPE. We now have to deal with Tom and Liz developing romantic feelings for each other again. Tom, the INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL who married Liz in order to kill her. Oh, but he developed romantic feelings for her along the way, right? If you want to go with that, remember when he cheated on her? When he was physically abusive with her? The whole “actually fell in love with her” BS wasn’t added until season 2 when they decided to keep him around. He was a villain, plain and simple.

By season 3, Liz was pregnant with Tom’s child and they decided to get married. Liz, who has been built up as a strong, powerful, and increasingly ruthless protagonist is now getting back together with her abusive, fake ex-husband. The entire first season was about her getting him out of her life, and now she’s getting back together with him. You’ve just ruined two seasons worth of character development for a reunion that literally no one was rooting for. No Mad Men fan was holding out hope for Joan and Greg Harris to get back together, but it seems the writers of The Blacklist really wanted Tom and Liz back together, entirely putting aside the physical and emotional abuse.

So that brings us to the two-part episode “Mr. Solomon.” Tom and Liz are about to get married, when they’re interrupted by Solomon’s (Edi Gathegi) men. The show has had a string of villains played by wonderful actors like Alan Alda and David Strathairn, and Solomon seemed to be one at first, but he’s gradually turned into someone who just starts a lot of shootouts. In the middle of the crossfire, Tom and Liz drive away in the wedding car, cans still dangling, at which point I pondered if I was suddenly watching a sitcom. Doesn’t one of them realize they’re going to give themselves away? Whatever.

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This shot was actually in this week’s episode…

But what else could go wrong in this sitcom? What if Liz goes into labor? Of course, so they go to an abandoned nightclub Red has picked out, but who’s the doctor? Oh, it’s Liz’s old boyfriend. Who could have predicted that? There was forced drama before, but why all of a sudden are we getting forced comedy?

It looks like the baby might not make it, but she does, but then Liz has complications. As the doctors take her to a hospital, Solomon continues to pursue, and along the way Liz dies. It was clearly a moment meant to shock the audience, but at this point it leaves us apathetic. Whether she’s dead or alive, the show has crossed a point of no return.

Let’s for one second imagine that she’s actually dead. The show has gone and killed off its protagonist to mix things up. This would be a terrible direction to take the story, as Liz still has a lot of mysteries to find out. Reddington would only speak to her, and it is very clear with her gone that Red’s entire plan would fall apart. Plus, after gradually derailing her character since we found out she was pregnant, killing her at this point would leave a bad taste in our mouth forever.

So that leaves us with another fakeout. I’m sure there’s some stupidly elaborate plot that Reddington or someone set up for her to fake her death, but who cares? When you toy with the audience’s emotions and fake deaths this many times, we aren’t invested anymore.

When BBC’s Sherlock adapted the classic story “The Final Problem,” they clearly showed that Sherlock was alive at the end of the episode. It wasn’t a cliffhanger whether he was alive, because we knew he would be back. The question instead was why he faked his death. It would appear The Blacklist doesn’t give its audience as much credit as Sherlock‘s does.

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No matter what the resolution of this cliffhanger is, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been dragged through the dirt for so long that even if we get back on track, we’ll still be covered in it. There’s no saving this once-great show, I’m sorry to say. Whether or not Liz is actually dead, I’m afraid the show is.  The Blacklist is dead, really dead, Meera Malik dead, lifeless corpse being lowered into the ground and covered with dirt dead, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible dead. This is an ex-show, which of course, being on network television, means it will last another ten years. It was fun while it lasted.

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The Devil and Daniel Webster

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  • Year: 1941
  • Director: William Dieterle
  • Starring: Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, James Craig

It’s only appropriate to be following Faust with The Devil and Daniel Webster, because William Dieterle actually had a role in the former as Gretchen’s brother. He takes the director’s chair here and adapts a 1936 Stephen Vincent Benet story into one of the most famous Faustian tales.

Although the title may suggest otherwise, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) is not the one who sells his soul to the Devil. Our Faust is actually a poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig), who makes an offhand comment that he would sell his soul to the Devil “for about two cents.” To his surprise, the Devil (Walter Huston) actually appears. When Jabez tries to take his words back, the devil challenges his word as a New Hampshire man, convincing him to sell his soul for seven years of prosperity and “all that money can buy.” (Interestingly, All That Money Can Buy was the original print title of the film, so it wouldn’t be confused with The Devil and Miss Jones, which should really not be confused with The Devil in Miss Jones.)

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It’s fascinating seeing how different time periods view the Devil. In 1840s New England, where hard work is lionized, he’s seen as a huckster and a conman, with his deerstalker cap, cane, and scruffy goatee. He focuses on getting rich quick instead of a life of toil and labor, showing Jabez a fortune in Hessian gold buried in his own barn.

Also, this Devil has no issue immediately revealing who he is. Granted, Jabez called for him (not literally), but he’s right upfront about it. He calls himself Scratch, but that was a common name for the Devil in New England, as he points out. There’s no cheap alias here like Louis Cyphre or John Milton.

Walter Huston is clearly having a ball playing Scratch, grinning deviously and rubbing his hands together at every opportunity, but this is absolutely perfect in the context of the film. There should be something appealing and even fun about him that would tempt Jabez away from his life of work. He’s over the top, but he doesn’t raise his voice or try to overpower people forcefully. Huston’s is more the “whisper in your ear” Devil, always around you trying to steer you wrong, but never trying to use power to intimidate. He also has a hilarious moment after Jabez sells his soul and says “Well, I’ll be (damned),” to which Scratch replies, “Yes, yes indeed, but not now—not for seven years.”

Alternately, it’s always fascinating to see how these films portray God. It’s always more subtle than how Satan is portrayed, except perhaps in Faust, where it’s just an archangel challenging Mephisto, but God is almost always shown in some medium. Here, it’s in the character of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). Webster is portrayed as a near perfect politician, a friend to the farmer and a completely honest man. Once again, The Devil and Daniel Webster is essentially a cinematic folktale, so this kind of character archetype works. No one is mistaking this as a biopic of the real life Daniel Webster.

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And then, my boy, I exorcised three demons from Cornwallis himself. We might leave that out.

Arnold and Huston are the stand-outs of the film, which is only appropriate, because they really represent the struggle between good and evil. Honestly, Jabez Stone is more of a pawn by the end. That said, there is a wonderful supporting cast around them. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath) plays Jabez’s religious mother, and while the character is a bit of a stereotype, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Darwell’s performance makes it all the better. Anne Shirley is also memorable as Jabez’s wife, Mary, although you’d think her character would be quicker to catch on that Jabez is clearly having an affair with Belle (Simone Simon).

Unfortunately, that does bring us to the film’s one major flaw—Jabez himself. Now sure, he has a huge character arc, going from a simple farmer to the richest man in New Hampshire, but James Craig’s performance is really hit-or-miss. There are some scenes that are fine, but he often slips into very wooden acting. He doesn’t come off as very intelligent, which is fine for the character, but even when he’s corrupted, I never really buy him as a loan shark. His favorite word “consarnit” is silly at first and progressively more annoying as the film goes on. Perhaps this was considered foul language in the ’40s (1840s that is), but when his mother calls him out for using that kind of language, it just sounds silly.

Even though Jabez’s corruption isn’t entirely believable, it is fascinating how the Devil becomes more and more openly evil as the film progresses. In his first scene, he’s cunning and clearly selfish, but he comes off as charming and a bit comical. In a later scene, Jabez is reconsidering and tries to end his contract by cutting down the tree the Devil carved the end date in. To prevent this, the Devil causes a hail storm, and we hear him laugh maniacally in what is a genuinely creepy scene. Scratch has gone from chuckling to an all-out evil laugh.

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This is followed the barn dance scene where a normal rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” becomes more manic and insane, representing Jabez’s own mind as the Devil encourages him to seduce Belle (with his wife and newborn baby upstairs). The Devil just keeps telling him “faster, faster” as the scene gets increasingly frantic. Even in a movie full of incredible scenes, it’s one of the best.

But all deals with the Devil must come to an end, and this one ends after seven years as promised. Jabez has turned away all of his friends, even though he has the biggest house in New Hampshire. Not long before his time is up, he sees the soul of his old loan shark, Miser Stephens, get taken.

With just hours to go, Jabez seeks out the assistance of Daniel Webster to plead his case. When the Devil enters to take Jabez, Webster argues for his client, saying no American can be forced to work for a foreign prince. The Devil replies brilliantly with…

Foreign? Who calls me a foreigner?… When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I not still spoken of in every church in New England? It’s true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I’m neither. Tell the truth, Mr. Webster—though I don’t like to boast of it—my name is older in the country than yours.

I get chills every time. This is such a great little speech—scary, sad, a little funny, and true. With all the boisterous patriotism that this movie has, it doesn’t back away from admitting the horrifying acts that plague America’s history. Plus, Walter Huston just delivers it so chillingly, in a way only a Huston could. This is perhaps the greatest quote about the Devil of all time, even greater than “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.”

Daniel Webster declares that the case must be settled in court, and says that he doesn’t care if the jury is the “quick or the dead” as long as they’re American. Of course, this Devil is a literalist, so he grants Webster’s wish with a jury of the damned. He brings up from hell twelve Americans who were traitors, thieves, and murderers, including Captain Kidd and, of course, Benedict Arnold.

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The judge is Justice John Haythorne, who presided over the corrupt Salem Witch Trials. The only time the Devil removes his hat in the whole film is to tip it when Haythorne enters. Interestingly, Haythorne is played by H.B. Warner, who portrayed Jesus in Cecil B. Demille’s King of Kings.

The Devil expects an open-and-shut case, as he held up his end of the bargain, and the contract is clear. Daniel Webster is not even allowed to cross-examine until he puts his own soul on the line. Webster cannot win the case by proving the contract void, so he instead gives one of his famous speeches to win over the jury. He tells them that they all were Americans, and asks them if they would have liked a second chance. It truly is a rousing speech, especially when he touches on the little things in life meaning nothing without your soul.

To the surprise of the Devil, they free Jabez Stone, even though the Devil clearly had a fair legal argument and could probably call a mistrial if he so wished. That said, he’s fair about it and leaves, but not without vowing Daniel Webster will never be President. Jabez’s huge mansion burns, but everyone forgives him, and his life goes back to normal.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is such a clever spin on the classic tale. It could have been predictable and run-of-the-mill, but the jury of the damned scene is a stroke of genius. With incredible performances from Walter Huston and Edward Arnold, as well as a script drenched in 19th century Americana, it’s quite an entertaining film, even in spite of its occasional flaws. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (18/20 Points)

Jabez’s character arc goes about as you’d expect, but the addition of Daniel Webster and the large supporting cast add enough originality. The final scenes where the Devil and Daniel Webster actually face off are easily the best part of the story.

Faust (13/20 Points)

James Craig does have some fine moments, but he’s a bit too “golly, that’s a lot of gold” throughout. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who’d understand how an affair works.

Devil (20/20 Points)

Even in a film as great as this, the best scenes across the board are the ones where Huston is on screen. He just steals the whole thing, and he was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance. His huckster archetype is the exact way 1840s farmers would picture the Devil.

Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)

There are so many supporting players who give memorable performances, from Anne Shirley and Jane Darwell as Jabez’s wife and mother to H.B. Warner’s brief turn as the ghastly Justice Haythorne. Of course, Edward Arnold is commanding and patriotic as the great orator Daniel Webster.

Experience (18/20 Points)

I do have to mention that a few of the painted backgrounds are clearly backgrounds, but that’s the only flaw. The music is great, and we really get a great feel for this small community of Cross Corners. There’s just a great atmosphere all around, and the creepy and lighthearted mix pretty well.

FINAL SCORE: 89%

The performance of James Craig may weigh it down every-so-slightly, but The Devil and Daniel Webster is such an enjoyable take on the Faust tale that it doesn’t really matter. It’s fun and also genuinely creepy at points, and it’s just a fulfilling film-going experience. I love it.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at a British comedic spin on the tale with 1967’s Bedazzled.

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Faust

faust

  • Year: 1926
  • Director: F.W. Murnau
  • Starring: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn

Well, because I’m sure you all want to read a blogger talk about a 1920s silent film from the German Expressionism era, here goes nothing—F.W. Murnau’s Faust. F. W. Murnau was one of the most famous silent film directors, and gave us one of the prototypical horror films, 1922’s Nosferatu, and went on to give us Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, often considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The legend of Faust has been told many times throughout literature and theater, and Murnau’s film take some notes from both the classic folk tale and the first half of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Some portray Faust as more sympathetic, while others show him as a hedonist. Murnau’s film leans toward the sympathetic, at least at first, but definitely shows both sides.

In Heaven, the devil and an archangel are having a bet about the goodness of man, with the devil believing that he can corrupt a man’s soul.

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Oh yeah, anytime I feel the need to insert a sarcastic comment, I’m going to have to do it on a silent film title card. Anyway, the angel and Satan make a bet on Faust’s soul, and if the devil wins, he gets control of the ENTIRE. FREAKING. EARTH.

Alright, alright, but if the angel wins, the devil goes away forever right? No, well what happens if the angel wins?

Actually, no conditions are ever established, making this bet not really a bet at all. It’s more of a competition. This probably came up in the angel’s quarterly review. For the devil’s first move, he contaminates an entire village with the plague in this now famous shot.

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This impressive scene also went on to inspire the classic “Night on Bald Mountain” in Disney’s Fantasia. Oscar winning actor Emil Jannings plays Mephisto here, and he balances the campy with the pure evil. However, the form he takes on for most of the movie is far less creepy than his old beggar form with which he first appears to Faust.

As more and more people in the village begin dying of the plague, the devil offers Faust (Gösta Ekman) whatever he wants in return for his soul. Faust realizes he could help the people of his village and agrees to a 24 hour trial run.

Although Faust tries to help the villagers, they see he cannot face a cross that a sick girl is holding and try to stone him. Although he perhaps should have realized that this was a sign of things to come, Faust asks for his youth back and runs away.

Faust pays such a great attention to the visuals, which is perhaps a given considering it’s a silent film, but just look at the older and younger Faust, and consider that they are played by the same actor.

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The sets and endless use of smoke just add to the atmosphere, and there are no effects or scenes that ever take you out of the movie.

The 24 hour trial run ends right as Faust has won the love of a foreign princess, so of course he agrees to a lifelong contract with the devil. However, the devil enjoys committing crimes along the way and framing Faust for them, just because he feels like it, which kind of gets in the way. Faust only fell in love with this princess because the devil killed her lover.

Surprisingly quickly, Faust grows tired of his new lifestyle… and I mean really quickly… and reconsiders his life.

 

He decides to return home, where he is immediately attracted to the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn), something which even the devil is opposed to. When the devil, who just in the course of this movie has infected an entire town due to a wager and killed a man for fun (in addition to you know, being the devil), thinks it is a bad idea, perhaps you should reconsider. The power of lust ultimately prevails and the devil makes the two fall in love, as he meanwhile woos the girl’s aunt in a completely useless and not-that-funny bit of slapstick.

As Gretchen and Faust look to consummate their relationship, the devil wakes up Gretchen’s mother, who sees what is going on and drops dead. Still not satisfied, the devil goes and tells Gretchen’s brother, Valentin, what she is up to. I understand that in most of these stories, things will never work out happily for someone who sells their soul. However, in this story, the devil is doing this because of a bet. All he bet was that Faust’s soul would be corrupted. If he gives Faust years of happiness on earth and takes his soul at the end, he’s won. Is he doing this extra trickery just because he feels like it? If there is still a possibility for Faust’s soul to be saved (which the ending shows there is), why is he letting anything bad happen to Faust?

Valentin returns and tries to kill Faust, but the devil stabs him in the back. Amusingly, the devil runs around the town, waking up the residents and screaming “MURDER!”

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The shots of the devil running around the village work really well, giving us a feel for the closed-in community, and also the quite unsettling shot shown above. From beginning to end, Faust is such a visual treat, and this scene is one of the most memorable.

The rest of the film is pretty predictable, as things only get worse for Gretchen. Her brother calls her a harlot with his dying breath, and she is mocked in the streets. Of course, she gives birth to Faust’s child, but eventually abandons the baby when she hallucinates a cradle. Faust has of course left by this point, but he returns when he learns she will be burned at the stake.

Faust curses the wish for youth, which the devil takes as an un-wish, and makes Faust old again. The old Faust reunites with Gretchen as she is being burned, and of course she sees him for the man he was.

Their souls ascend to heaven, and the archangel explains to the devil that Faust’s soul was not corrupted due to the power of love (which I assume was a part of the Huey Lewis clause the devil merely skimmed over). Since this movie did one day get made…

I cannot insist enough this film is real, but I will not be reviewing it.

It would appear the archangel won the bet. I’m not sure how it was the power of love, seeing as how Faust wished Gretchen to fall in love with him, and it’s not really a selfless act, as she’s dying too. It’s just a crazy final “I love you” which somehow saves his soul.

The story of Faust 1926 doesn’t have a lot of flair to it, but the visuals make up for that. The performances are good all around, although the devil may perhaps be a bit too campy at times. Murnau’s wonderful direction still looks great today, and the music really tells the story where words cannot. Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (12/20 Points)

It’s pretty standard, and the hedonism portion lasts shorter than you would expect it too. Some of the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense, but this is a commonly done tale for a reason—it lends itself to good stories.

Faust (15/20 Points)

Gösta Ekman is perfectly believable as both the old, weary Faust and the young, rejuvenated one. There may not be any particular scenes that really stand out, but he carries the thing.

Devil (13/20 Points)

Emil Jannings, on the other hand, has some great moments as Mephisto or the Devil or whatever you want to call him, particularly the screaming bloody murder scene and the old beggar scenes. However, he also has some scenes that are a bit too over the top, and that hurts the film a bit.

Supporting Cast (9/20 Points)

I suppose it’s not Camilla Horn’s fault that Gretchen’s character is rather flat, but she doesn’t bring too much extra to the performance. The villagers are enjoyable for their brief moments on screen, but no one really steals the show.

Experience (19/20 Points)

Murnau was such a great director, and many of the techniques here still hold up. Like so many of the old horror classics, it’s a very eerie film, and the music is really colorful too.

FINAL SCORE: 68%

If a two-hour silent film interests you, check it out. It’s worth watching. A lot of the images will stick with you, and the performances and story are good enough to keep you invested.

Next week, I’ll be taking a look at 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.

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