Performance of the week: Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Walter Huston received his second Oscar nomination for playing Mr Scratch, the devil in William Dieterie’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is a fantastic film. I’d highly recommend it to people who want to see more films from this era. It’s a story that most people are familiar with, and yet this version is probably the best that I’ve seen: a poor farmer Jabez Stone sells his soul to the devil for 7 years of good fortune, only to chicken out in the end and recruit the help of the righteous Daniel Webster to “bargain” with the devil. The story is very well-handled, and I really like how the main character’s change is gradually portrayed. The acting is solid all around, and it was so nice to see the great Jane Darwell again, who gives an excellent performance as the warm and loving mother (and moral compass) of the main character. Although some of the effects and editing may be a bit dated, the simplicity of it somehow adds to the uneasiness of the entire film, like the way Mr Scratch sets the hatchet that was thrown on him on fire. Some scenes are actually fairly unsettling, such as a dance sequence where Belle, Scratch’s assistant, attempts to seduce Jabez Stone. The use of flashing shadows, combined with Scratch’s increasingly fast violin playing in the background, gives the scene this effective nightmarish feeling that is still pretty impressive today.

Like most classical period actors, I am not familiar with Walter Huston – at all. I only know he is Anjelica Huston’s grandfather. He seems to be a very respected actor from the classical era, and unfortunately, this is the only film of his that I’ve watched. I probably need to watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre one day. Although he is nominated for best actor for his performance here, I really feel that Scratch is actually more of a supporting performance. Yes, he is the main reason why the story even takes place, but to be honest he isn’t really the one driving the story forward. His main purpose is to trick the main character into signing the contract, and then take a step back and observe, like a hunter who lays down the trap and watches his prey get lured into it. Still, I try not to let this odd category placement influence my opinion of the performance.

Such a performance is incredibly hard to judge; obviously it’s impossible to judge how “realistic” or how “layered” his performance is since his character isn’t a real human being. In my own words, this is a performance that I’d say is veered towards the “technical” side. Scratch isn’t an emotionally complex character, but he still needs to be handled carefully or else the entire performance will end up silly and cartoonish. The creation of the character is primarily through the use of mannerisms, and this is where Huston succeeds. Scratch is full of mannerisms and facial expressions, like the scratching of his beard and the cheeky smile that he always uses to taunt his “clients”. Huston never overdoes his mannerisms, in fact he doesn’t really take himself too seriously, and this actually makes the performance so much more effective because it makes all these grim matters like soul-selling seem like a game to Scratch.

Huston gives the impression that Scratch is having a whole lot of fun sitting in the background observing his clients, such as when he is playing in the band or when he is playing the violin. He somehow manages to strike a balance between being overblown with mannerisms, and making the performance “too light” to take seriously. While Scratch is having fun and fooling around, you can always sense that he is a dangerous character. I will never forget the scene where his tone suddenly changes and he threatens to collect Jabez’s son instead. His delivery is actually very natural (“I’ll give you until midnight. Until midnight, Mr Stone, but not one minute more.”), and the calmness of it somehow makes him even more disturbing.

Scratch is actually a dangerously charismatic character, and this aspect is also well shown by Huston. He is like this smooth-talking salesman who can easily persuade his clients to do as his wishes, and as he tricks Jabez Stone into signing the contract (“Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it?”), you can easily believe it because of how the natural charisma and persuasiveness that Huston brought out.

The most memorable part of the performance would be the ending of the film. It’s a scene where Scratch is searching for his next client before breaking the fourth wall and pointing directly at the audience. It is such a bloody difficult scene to handle, and it could have been so badly done and lame, but Huston really nailed it. It’s so strangely funny, weird and creepy at the same time.

 

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