All That Money Can Buy ★★★½

Ugh. Someone please fix this title. The movie hasn't been called All That Money Can Buy since well before any of us were born.

I know William Dieterle for his rather staid biopics of Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur [edit: I forgot he made Portrait of Jennie, which fits better], so it surprises me to discover that he went over to RKO and made this batshit dark fable riffing on the Faust legend, which feels at times like an American prediction of Ealing Studios in its almost cruel humor and cinematic ingenuity. Sadly it's also an unholy (hmm) mess; its determination to wrap up with a rather contrived "trial" forces us to spend a lot of time throughout the picture with Daniel Webster, the lawyer-politician played with thundering obviousness by Edward Arnold in what feels like a parody of a Frank Capra character. You can sense where the film goes wrong, even though it inherits all this from the short story, by the fact that it's Webster and not the hapless Jabez Stone whose name is on the marquee. The mixture of idealism and pointed political commentary fits only haphazardly with Stone's story arc, whose most intriguing elements -- the appearance of a temptress played unforgettably by Simone Simon, and the way Stone's soul is infected by capital, ruining the lives around him in ways both obvious and surprisingly insightful -- run afoul of the distractingly overbearing "conscience." The hints of wisdom about American imperialism and organization of workers are welcome but they don't require Webster, whose speechifying just dumbs the whole picture down; you're much happier to see Walter Huston's grinning, delightfully ambiguous (in form, not intent) Scratch. A couple of sequences are absolutely magic, though they're also the most cynical: the nightmarish hoedown in which Scratch sets Jabez up with Simon's Belle with his manic Johnny Belinda-like fiddling; and the menacing, beautifully shot (by Joseph August, taking a number of cues throughout from Murnau) sequence when Jabez realizes that all is lost. Anne Shirley and Jane Darwell are credible as the long-suffering wife and mother, but we spend so much time with them it's hard to get lost in the fun of it all; I hate to sound shallow, but it's a freaking movie about a guy selling his soul to Satan so he can keep his calf, let's not be so bloody serious! Thank heavens it ends with Scratch getting one last dig in there.

Bernard Herrmann won an Oscar for his score, and in the year of Citizen Kane no less -- it's a really strange charade of rather anonymous American folkiness and not what I expected at all. This also shares Kane's editor, Robert Wise, who really does legendary work here.

Nathan liked this review