Monday, 3 May 2010

Best Actor 1941: Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster

Walter Huston received his second Oscar nomination for playing Mr. Scratch in the Devil and Daniel Webster. Mr. Scratch though is no man but the devil himself.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is a terrific retelling of the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil for all that money can buy (an alternative title for this film), and later has to be defended by a popular politician Daniel Webster to try and keep his soul. I like many aspects of this film, from the great direction in most scenes to the brilliant Bernard Herman score which deservedly won the Oscar over Herman's other score for Citizen Kane. There are a few problems with the film such as the lead  James Craig leaves something to be desired from his performance. There are many great things in the film such as every scene with the underrated Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster, and every scene with Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch.

Huston does have a supporting part but his performance and the character really controls the film. Huston would easily be my personal pick for best supporting actor there is no doubt about that. Huston though it completely brilliant in every scene of this movie, and I just loved watching his performance. I could watch the film over and over again just for his performance, he is that good. His first appearance in the film is incredibly well done, where he is a shadow tempting Daniel Webster. Huston finds the right voice for this making the scene incredibly effective. But later Huston has his full on entrance when he goes to successfully tempt Jabez Stone (James Craig). Huston must have one of the best entrances in the history of film here. The way the music plays and his presence appears is really unforgettable. This entrance would not matter though if Huston did not support the part, but Huston does. He is entertaining but also incredibly effective in his manner of speaking and his physical posture. You can easily see why he could convince anyone to sell their soul just do to the way he carries himself. I love his slightly at odds stance, almost like a goat standing on its hind legs.

After that unforgettable scene which's success largely comes from Huston, Scratch recedes into the background and lets events unfold, but he always makes sure they unfold to his liking. Once again Huston has very few lines in these scenes but every time you see him in the corner, talking over someone's shoulder, playing in the marching band, or playing the fiddle, Huston makes more than the most out of every single one of these scenes. He truly creates the devil here, as the conniving thing that is always present, and acting even if it is in small ways. Huston does more with this little time than many actors could do with three hours of screentime. Old Scratch does come more into the fore front again when he wants Jabez Stone's soul. In the earlier scenes he seemed partially likable, but here his true nature comes even more prevalent. Once again Huston is brilliant, he makes truly haunting devil here, that is not a man you want to lose your soul to. He never stops being partially playful but Huston makes everything work without ever seeming to go off a deep end. After all he is playing the devil, a role that is trickier to get right than it might seem.

Huston steals almost every single scene he is in, the only one I do not think he does, is when he goes to toe to toe with Edward Arnold in the climatic trial scene. I do not think Arnold steals it from him but instead the brilliantly share the scene, and when Scratch finally is not charge, I love the fact that he still does not act defeated, just slightly bested. After the trial Scratch has one last scene which is probably one of the best exits in a film too. After comically stealing Webster's peach pie Scratch checks his black book and seems like he needs a new customer. So he thinks about it and then points directly at the viewer. I gotta say that really got me, and was great ending. Breaking the fourth wall can easily fall flat but when you have the right context as this film does and a brilliant actor to handle the scene like Huston it can be incredibly effective. Huston makes that scene absolutely perfect and does the same for many others


Anonymous said...

My pick :)

Louis Morgan said...

An interesting performance that is not the usual sort recognized by the Oscars at this time, like Gene Tierney's.