Nov 29, 2014

Walter Huston, The Devil and Daniel Webster


The Devil and Daniel Webster is such a stimulatingly eccentric picture. This coupled with the fact that it managed to snag Walter Huston a Best Actor nomination surely has to speak to the industry's immense respect for him. I say this because while it's not a bad performance by any means, Huston's role is noticeably tinier than that of fellow co-stars Edward Arnold and James Craig. To say that his performance should fall into the lead category is a total joke, but at the same time I can't help but cheer on this nomination.

Sporting a look that brings to mind Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and a speaking voice that brings to mind Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Huston's Mr. Scratch is a vivid and interesting creation, certainly more compelling than the works of any of Huston's fellow nominees. The moment Huston appears on screen, he brings with him a grin that permeates a sort of ugly creepiness, and in that instance I found myself drawn to him. He speaks in a breathy manner that is hypnotic and slightly seductive, just soothing enough to evoke the wiles of temptation. What makes Mr. Scratch so fascinating is how Huston can convey Mr. Scratch's sinisterness and make it look so easy and welcoming; contrast this character to his work in Dodsworth and you'll find two achievements that are night and day, not just in their obvious makeups as a literal good guy and the literal Devil, but the ways in which Huston fully embodies both Dodsworth and Mr. Scratch showcase how talented a character actor he was. But my main issue (and it's a cumbersome one) with this performance is the duration--this is by no means a lead performance, and while it's a critical role to the film, its length is garishly petite. After having made such a big impression early on, Huston dips in and out of the narrative with spastic appearances that last a mere few seconds. He is missing from the picture entirely for quite a long stretch in the midsection of the film. He finally appears again in the last stretch of the film, but even then the focus is more concerned with Arnold and Craig than it is with Huston. There's just not much for him to work with, and what we have is a rather ordinary finish to what was a majestic start. Thus I felt that the length of Huston's screen time severely handicaps him, with Huston unable retain his initial command with such large holes in his overall performance. Regardless, it's still a unique nomination--during a time when family values, God, and war were frequent themes at the cinema, the Academy took the time to place the Devil in lead. And how often do you find supporting villainous turns in the lead category? What Huston achieves in his limited screen time is still much more potent than what Gary Cooper does in the entirety of his surefire lead performance. And while he would go on to get two more nominations during this decade--both supporting, with one resulting in a win--I see this particular nomination as a nice nod of approval for a great (and underutilized) actor.


  1. Once I read that Simone Simon is very good in this film, is it true?

    1. I really liked her! She's very seductive and alluring, and hits all the qualities that her character requires very well. I think I might have been a tad bit more interested in Anne Shirley though..

  2. I always wanted to see this. Never did. :)