24 February 2009

Jake and Jabez, Two Stories of Tortured Souls

So yesterday I watched Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) in the afternoon and then took in William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) in the evening. Couldn't have selected two movies that were any more different, could I?

You'd think....

By the middle of The Devil & Daniel I was beginning to notice some strong similarities, notwithstanding the brilliance of both films.

In one we have Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, a gifted boxer of the 1940's and 50's. He had fame, riches, a devoted brother, a loving wife and children. But it all vanished. Jake was his own worst enemy. An uncontrollable temper and a tendency to a jealousy as prodigious as his pugilistic talent, were flames burning at his soul as if straight from hell.

Straight to hell, that's where Jabez Stone was headed after a literal bargain with the devil, in this case assuming the name of Scratch. His own farm, good friends a loving wife and children were not enough for Jabez. The hard work too often ended in frustration and debtors bayed at his door. The seven years of riches promised by Scratch were too good to pass up, never mind the eternal cost down the road.

The money proved an evil master and the kindly and generous Jabez soon became consumed by pernicious greed turning old friends into hardened enemies.

LaMotta ended up very much alone. The glory was a memory. The wife and children gone. The brother alienated. He was clearly a victim of his own internal demons.

Stone's wife remained loyal but his friends were now enemies and all his wealth could not bring true happiness.

Similarities with the two films do not end there. They are both utterly gorgeous. Raging Bull, with all its violence, is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. Actually if you don't already know that I suggest you stop reading this blog right now and go rent yourself a copy. You'll be treating yourself to one of the most critically acclaimed films ever. Go on, I'm not kidding....So those of you who are left doubtless have seen Raging Bull and know what I'm talking about. But there's probably many, many more of you who have never seen The Devil and Daniel.

Folks, they had special effects 60 plus years ago. And for the most part it came in the form of masterful camera work and an occasional slight of hand. CGI? Not necessary. Especially when you've got the luster of black and white.

A few years ago the good people at Criterion dusted off the original print of the movie and worked their magic to restore it to its original form. Shading and lighting are everything (anyone who would consider colorizing this movie should be beaten with a rusty rake). Now if you're among the many who've not seen this film recently, go out and rent it. Pronto. You'll marvel at this vastly underrated film, its wonderful cast, timeless story and breathtaking cinema photography. See for yourself. Anyone left here?

Yes, I got off on a tangent. But as you can see it wasn't so much of a stretch to compare these two seemingly very different films. Both concern an eternal theme that movies can illuminate so well -- the most important war a person can fight, the one within the soul. Jake raged against his opponents and those around him, but let the better angels of his nature get pummelled by inner demons. He did not die in prison or prematurely (the real life LaMotta yet lives) and figuratively fought on. Jabez sold out, as so many have before and since. He was lucky to have the eloquent and devoted orator and statesmen, Daniel Webster represent him "in court" and in victory learned the error of his ways. The ongoing struggles to cleanse or save our souls effect not just ourselves but those around us. It is struggle fought and won or lost in many ways. These two films illuminate that fact.

And by way of a lengthy P.S., don't miss some great supporting performances in these two films. Joe Pesci as Jake's brother in Raging Bull and Walter Huston as Scratch. The Devil and Daniel is also an interesting attack on Republican style greed and individualism and a ringing endorsement of socialist style share the burden, share the wealth. Farmers form a Grange to help support one another. When Stone finds wealth he spurns the Grange and exploits its members with what is essentially predatory lending. In his redemption he sees the errors of having been so greedy.

Hey! I just noticed something else! The central character in both films have a first name that begins with a J! How bout that?

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