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  • Jeff Beck

All That Money Can Buy: A Compelling Rendition of the Classic Faustian Bargain (Criterion Blu-ray)


The Film:


Stories about making a pact with the devil have been around for centuries, permeating literature (perhaps most famously in "Faust") and cinema in various iterations. One of them that is perhaps not quite as well known as others is William Dieterle's "All That Money Can Buy" (aka "The Devil and Daniel Webster," based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét) from 1941. This week, Criterion is giving this intriguing, atmospheric film a grand upgrade to Blu-ray, so once more we take a deep dive into the past to see where this version of the classic "devil's bargain" tale stands.


Taking place in New Hampshire in 1840, we meet Jabez Stone (James Craig), a poor, down-on-his-luck farmer who is struggling to get by. One day his string of bad luck has him declaring that he'd sell his soul to the devil, which causes Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) to appear, offering a bargain for his soul that would give Jabez seven years of good luck and wealth. After further tempting him with gold, Jabez signs the contract and immediately begins paying off his debts. As time goes on, Jabez's behavior begins to change towards his friends and loved ones, including his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and mother (Jane Darwell), giving him a rather notorious reputation in the community. All of this comes to a head when the devil comes for his due, causing Jabez to reach out in desperation to friend, lawyer, and congressman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), who just might be able to save his soul.


"All That Money Can Buy" is indeed a pretty standard telling of the classic tale of a desperate man making a deal with the devil, and while it may not go in any particularly surprising directions, William Dieterle's film (as adapted by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét) is a fascinating, engrossing take on the concept that features several memorable elements which help lift it beyond its somewhat predictable trajectory.


Several sequences stand out that perfectly encapsulate the film's ethereal, other-worldly vibe, including the pivotal scene in which poor Jabez signs away his soul, as well as a barn dance featuring Mr. Scratch on the fiddle (naturally). This forebodes a more formal occasion later in the film that could be deemed a "ball of the damned," in which many of Mr. Scratch's former victims attend. However, the scene that would most likely rank as best capturing the film's dark themes is the final trial sequence, in which a judge & jury of the damned are rendered forth to pass judgment on Jabez's case. If any part of the film was going to leave a lasting impression, this haunting, last-minute play for the welfare of a man's soul is it.


The film's other remarkable element is its impressive cast. James Craig does a wonderful job with his character arc, from kind-hearted farmer to greedy miser to desperation for redemption. Again, there aren't really any surprises on his path, but he follows it quite well. Edward Arnold also delivers a great turn as the titular politician & lawyer, particularly when he delivers his riveting, passionate plea to the jury near the end of the film. However, the very best performance in the film comes from the great Walter Huston, who is delightfully devilish as Mr. Scratch, imbuing him with just the right mannerisms to bring such a wicked character to life.


Overall, while "All That Money Can Buy" may follow a well-known course, it's still an eerily engrossing rendition of the tale thanks to its wonderful ensemble and the splendid presentation of its particularly memorable key sequences. Even after 80+ years, Dieterle's film still casts a haunting spell when it comes to telling this familiar & timeless story, and will very likely continue to do so for a very long time to come.


Video/Audio:


"All That Money Can Buy" comes to Criterion Blu-ray in a 1.37:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. This new 4K digital restoration is absolutely phenomenal, making the image look sharper than ever before. Likewise, the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is exquisite, giving you all of the dialogue and music in fantastic quality. Overall, it comes as no surprise that Criterion has done a wonderful job on the upgrade of this intriguing little film.


Special Features:


Commentary with Film Historian Bruce Eder and Biographer Steven C. Smith

Version Comparison (5 Minutes)

The Devil and Daniel Webster Reading (34 Minutes)

Observations on Film Art (13 Minutes)

The Devil and Daniel Webster Radio Dramatization (30 Minutes)

Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent Radio Dramatization (30 Minutes)

Restoration Demonstration (6 Minutes)


The Blu-ray features a somewhat mixed bag of extras, most of which are dramatic audio or brief demonstration pieces. The ones that stand out the most are the intriguing, informative commentary and the episode of Criterion's Observation on Film Art, which discusses certain technical aspects of the film.


Conclusion:


William Dieterle's "All That Money Can Buy" may follow a rather predictable trajectory, but it's easily able to rise above above it thanks to its wonderful cast (featuring a particularly delightful devilish turn from Walter Huston) and several memorable, marvelously-fashioned sequences that perfectly encapsulate the film's dark themes, ultimately making this rendition of the classic Faustian bargain one worth seeking out.


Score: 3.5/5


Now available on Criterion Blu-ray.


Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.



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