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The 1941 New England folk fantasy THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, also known (among other titles) as has long held a special place in the Criterion Collection. Initially released at 106 minutes then shorn of over 20 minutes for subsequent re-issues, Criterion first restored director William Dieterle’s independent production for laserdisc in the 1990s from the best elements they could find at the time. A subsequent DVD edition improved upon that release, but neither can compare to the movie’s spectacular new 4K restoration, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Scott MacQueen, The Film Foundation and Criterion, which is now available for viewers on Blu-Ray.

Working from the 35mm nitrate original camera negative as well as a German 35mm nitrate duplicate discovered since Criterion’s DVD was issued, MacQueen has been able to restore problematic sections of this badly-treated picture back to nearly a pristine condition. Further restoration with modern digital tools has been employed as well, resulting in a crisp, high grain image with detail like you’ve never seen before, as well as a consistency between the disparate source elements that previous restorations lacked. In all, watching the film here – which Criterion has released under its first theatrical title, ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY – is a true revelation.

The work better enables viewers to appreciate this unique Dieterle production, which adapts Stephen Vincent Benet’s story of Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer (James Craig) who, upon feeling the weight of misfortune in 1840, makes a pact with devilish “Mr. Scratch” (Walter Huston). The result is financial success over a seven year span, albeit at the price of his wife (Anne Shirley) and family – Jabez having been further corrupted by a jezebel (“Cat People”’s Simone Simon). While Stone’s fate appears to be sealed, his wife ultimately enlists the help of Granite State politician Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to argue against that contract, setting in motion a one-of-a-kind otherworldly litigation for the farmer’s soul.

“The Devil and Daniel Webster” has a memorable look and sense of mood – no surprise with the film having been shot by Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August at RKO in between Orson Welles’ storied “Citizen Kane” and its ill-fated follow-up “The Magnificent Ambersons.” As such, the picture boasts the same type of glorious black-and-white “feel”, with Robert Wise’s editing adding to the film’s rich and unusual mix of New England folklore, supernatural fantasy, and moral fable with just a dash of patriotic politics thrown in for good measure.

The performances are mostly superb with the exception of Craig, who’s never more than serviceable and feels a peg or two above William Sanderson’s Larry from the “Newhart” sitcom of the 1980s. It’s an overly broad performance from Craig that doesn’t generate much sympathy for Stone’s plight, but thankfully the rest of the cast compensates, most especially Huston. With his conniving grin and good humor, Huston’s “Mr. Scratch” is a classic performance that brightens the film every time he’s on-screen, and his enthusiasm is matched by Bernard Herrmann’s score. This is one of the maestro’s very best efforts, infusing traditional folk melodies into a broad symphonic milieu that further distinguishes the movie.

It’s an irresistible film given an enhanced presentation on Criterion’s Blu-Ray (1.37 B&W, PCM mono), which has also been augmented with its various extras from previous Criterion releases: these include the “revised” Bruce Eder/Steven C. Smith commentary track; Alec Baldwin’s reading of Benet’s story; a quick comparison of the movie’s different versions; two Columbia Workshop radio dramas; the trailer; and, new for the Blu-Ray, an episode from the Criterion Channel series “Observations on Film Art” about Wise’s editorial prowess. Bravo!


Also New & Notable

Even though the history of “Star Wars” has been told and retold, documentary specialist Brian Volk-Weiss (“The Toys That Made Us”) has produced a new program with some fresh insights: STAR WARS: ICONS UNEARTHED (aprx. 5 hours, 2023; Mill Creek).

Looking exclusively at George Lucas’ work in the series he created, the six-episode series boasts a fairly candid and breezy overview of his output’s production history with interviewees like set decorator Roger Christian, FX greats Richard Edlund, John Dykstra, Ken Ralston and Rick Baker, Lucas biographer Dale Pollock, editor Paul Hirsch, plus Anthony Daniels among others – yet its most compelling element is the exclusive sit-down interview Volk-Weiss was able to land with Marcia Lucas.

Marcia Lucas’ involvement in these films, as a veteran and in-demand editor (before she met Lucas) and an obvious companion to her future ex-husband, has been discussed in books but seldom in these documentaries. I believe this is the first on-camera interview she’s ever given on “Star Wars” and it’s worthwhile to hear her dish about the suggestions she made (she’s the one who wanted to kill off Obi-Wan, who decided to use wipes as scene transitions, etc.) to anecdotes about Gary Kurtz and the considerable friction that existed with the movie’s British crew, most especially on the original “Star Wars.”

In fact, much of the series is relayed from her perspective but, given how many of these docs there have been, it’s a welcome point of view to hear her discussing her involvement – and how, coincidentally or not, the prequels seemed to suffer from her (among others) not being involved at all.

What the series leaves you with is George Lucas was filled with amazing ideas and concepts, as well as being a superb visual filmmaker — but it certainly helped to have as many adept and resourceful collaborators on the original “Star Wars” as he did. Whether it was his then-wife, or co-editor Paul Hirsch (who worked with Marcia to save a disastrously edited cut that had been assembled in the UK and nearly caused Fox to shut “Star Wars” down), or Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who rewrote a good amount of the film’s dialogue…Lucas’ sensibilities were shaped by the team he was working with. Left to his own devices, “Star Wars” may have well fizzled out into the one-shot 20th Century-Fox executives felt it was going be before its release.

Mill Creek debuts “Icons Unearthed: Star Wars” on Blu-Ray (unless you watch the “Vice” Channel on cable, you’ll be forgiven for not having known this series existed previously) this month in a multi-disc set, the episodes split between two discs, all with 1080p transfers and 5.1 DTS MA sound. The best news is Mill Creek has also included the full, uncut interviews with Marcia Lucas (192 minutes) and Anthony Daniels (173 minutes), which each provide an additional six hours of material for fans (there’s also Billy Dee Williams’ uncut 37 min. interview on-hand as well). Strongly recommended!

NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER 4K Ultra HD/Blu-Ray (103 mins., 1970; Blue Underground): It seems like the late ‘60s were filled with “Grand Inquisitor” styled horror romps, be it the likes of Vincent Price in “Witchfinder General” or another cool, “rural” horror outing from around the same time, Piers Haggard’s “Blood on Satan’s Claw.” Not to be outdone, prolific producer Harry Alan Towers recruited cult auteur Jess Franco for their own outing in this horror niche: “Night of the Blood Monster,” which puts Christopher Lee through Price’s paces as “Judge Jeffreys,” a 17th century witchfinder into sadism himself (of course), which becomes clear after he keeps alive – for a depraved price – the sister (Maria Rohm) of a woman he burned at the stake.

Franco’s movies are typically an acquired taste and “Night of the Blood Monster” is no different. This one is filled with the kinds of raunchiness typical of Franco’s efforts, though to be fair, this isn’t a low-grade exploitation picture like a lot of Towers’ output – between Bruno Nicolai’s score and the overall production quality, it’s like a pricey B-movie cash-in on the Price picture, yet I would be certain you’re into Franco fare before indulging.

Blue Underground has served up yet another of their sterling 4K UHD presentations with this one, also known as “The Bloody Judge” in some circles. The Dolby Vision HDR presentation and 4K master have been preserved from “Various European Vault Elements” resulting in the (re)discovery of even more nudity and, as Lee himself put it, “scenes of extraordinary depravity!” The 2.35 widescreen image is particularly accomplished for a Franco film as well, with extras including three different historian commentaries: one sporting Troy Howarth & Nathaniel Thompson, the second with Kim Newman & Barry Forshaw, and the third with David Flint & Adrian Smith.

Extras in the 4K UHD/Blu-Ray combo pack include interviews with Franco, Lee, critic Stephen Thrower, and the latter alongside Alan Birkinshaw for a look at Harry Alan Towers’ life and times. Deleted/alternate scenes, trailers, TV spots and a still gallery are also on-hand plus a clear mono (1.0) soundtrack.

THE INSPECTOR WEARS SKIRTS 2 Blu-Ray (96 mins., 1989; 88 Films): Second in the Jackie Chan-produced series of female cop vehicles from Hong Kong, this Wellson Chin film offers Sibelle Hu, Sandra Ng and Amy Yip in another mix of comedy and martial arts action. The downside to this 1989 follow-up is that the action choreography isn’t quite as elaborate as its predecessor, yet the appeal of the stars and a high laugh quotient make it a worthy sequel just the same. 88 Films’ Blu-Ray of “Inspector Wears Skirts 2” includes a limited-edition slipcase and poster; a 2K remaster (1.85) from the original negatives; both Cantonese audio with subtitles or an English dub; a commentary from the ever-reliable Frank Djeng; an interview with Wellson Chin; a conversation with stunt man Go Shut Fung; the trailer; and a stills gallery.

WEDNESDAY: Season 1 Blu-Ray (389 mins., 2022; Warner): Tim Burton produced this off-shoot of “The Addams Family,” focusing on the clan’s eldest — a teenage Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) — who heads to “Nevermore Academy” where her parents (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Luis Guzman) hope she can cultivate her latent physic abilities. Also on the docket: a mystery involving a killer haunting the local town outside Nevermore and issues with classmates (and local boys as well). Solid production values and Ortega’s performance push this teen-oriented series from writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville”) over the top though, truthfully, I found it pretty formulaic and not all that engaging. Warner’s Blu-Ray (1.78, 5.1 DTS MA) offers the first season of the Netflix series on home video this week, in lieu of “Beetlejuice Beetlejuice”‘s trailer being issued — an upcoming sequel reuniting “Wednesday”‘s creative team (Burton, Ortega, Gough and Millar).

THE IRON CLAW Blu-Ray (132 mins., 2023, R; Lionsgate): The life and times of early ‘80s wrestlers the Von Erich brothers is told in writer-director Sean Durkin’s 2023 biopic from A24 – a compelling if decidedly depressing true story about a family beset by suicide and tragedy, yet also some family triumphs that are able to emerge from the wreckage. Zac Efron leads the cast in a well-acted, convincingly staged picture which failed to find much commercial traction (no surprise given its rampant sadness) but is poised to find more of an audience on video. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray (1.85, 5.1 DTS MA) includes a Making Of, cast/crew Q&A, the trailer, DVD and Digital copy...From History Channel comes ANCIENT EMPIRES (aprx. 5 hours, 2023), a three-part mini-series focusing on the respective conquests of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, with battle scenes and filmed recreations interspersed with contemporary historian/expert interviews (16:9, 2.0).

NEXT TIME: Kino Lorber New Releases! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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I cannot agree more with the recommendation of Star Wars: Icons. I watched this series on Vice channel and when I saw Marcia pop up...I was floored. And her recollections, feedback and honesty...almost shockingly refreshing. And she still is feeling the pain from their divorce. And Anthony Daniels/C-3PO does NOT mince words. And lastly...Ive heard for years from fans, websites, etc about how after Garty Kurtz's "departure" led to the decline in maturity and or quality of the rest of the films...that is now very apparent fan speculation and wishful thinking. Highly stress that anyone interested in more details about how the original 3 were formed, produced, etc, check this out. Very eye opening and entertaining. Good stuff.

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