on March 19, 2002
As this was the last of the seven Dietrich-Von Sternberg films to be released on video, I waited for quite some to see the film for the first time. I had read that this film was Dietrich's personal favorite because she never looked as beautiful. Having seen Shanghai Express, Desire, and most all her other films, that seemed to me to be stretching it a little. When Marlene makes her entrance in the carnival scene, my mouth dropped to the floor.Her face is sheer perfection.
Being primarily a visual film, don't look for an extremely deep plot or witty banter. The visuals alone make this film, and make this film worth seeing over and over. The atmosphere in this film is one of decadence, and that feeling of falling in love kamikaze-style that just can't be helped.
Many felt that Lionel Atwill was nothing more than a stand-in for Sternberg himself, and that this film reflected his obsession/love/frustration with Dietrich. Dietrich herself had no comment, other than "rubbish!"
I say, the truth of the matter is known only to very few, especially now, so long after the fact, but this film presents a relationship so tortured, so alluring, it's easy to compare the movie to real (?) life. The visual texture is so rich, so heavily veiled, many viewings are needed to see all in a scene. The costumes are outrageous, borderline camp, and only Dietrich herself could make them work, and they do. The photography is exquisite, with so much light and shadow that one could almost see it in color.
Finally, this film failed in its initial box-office run in the thirties, mainly due to the public's lack of sophistication, likely. Be that as it may, this film should used to teach cinematography to all film-makers today.
on February 25, 2002
I am not sure if I glimpsed this film when I was a child or not, but if there ws any US distributin before the film was pulled, I probably did. I saw all the Dietich films, long before I knew what they were about.
The crowd scene, the carnival scene that begins the film is one of the most amazing pieces of crowd conrol and deftly choreographed effects ever recorded. It is lengthy and sets the tone of the entire move, for much of the action of the film takes place in the form of flashbacks as two comrades -- one older and one younger -- talk about a 'Certain Woman.' She is the notorious beauty, Concha, played by Dietrich to perfection, in her version of the beauty of Dolores Del Rio.
This is one of those pictures which are really, 'events' in the sense that going to the ballet or witnessing an operatic performance is an 'event.' The detail work in every frame, every face, every costume, every shadow, every highlight on the thousands of baloons and streamers is precisely worked out with super-human skill, and all funciton as a pedestal for Dietrich's fantastic beauty. With this film, and this image, she changed the tradition of Hollywood Beauty to suit herself. Women did not look the same anymore because they did not want to look pre-Dietrich.
The story: A governmental functionary befriends a peasant girl while a train is trapped in a snowstorm. With the girl's mother, he becomes her 'sponsor.' Their relationship is stormy. She uses his money to gain her independence and becomes a successful cafe entertainer in another town. He follows her there and his passion is rekindled. He beats her into submission. Later, he offers to marry her. She avoids that, but manages to get him to buy out her contract with the theatre, and runs off with a handsome young bullfighter. Humiliated by the ensuing scandal, the Official (played with marble dignity by Lionel Atwill) resigns his commisison and settles in town. It is during the carnival that a na tive son of the city (Cesar Romero) returns incognito, and falls for Concha who now appears to be a Courtesan of great renown. It is over coffee that the older man tells the story of his relations with the scandalous beauty, an asks the young man to forsake her for his own safety. He agrees. Concha, however, has other things in mind. She encourages the yong revolutionary to fall in love with her and to agree to take her to Paris with him if she can secure the passports. He agrees, gladly, but their plans are frustrated when Concha's older lover finds them together, and challenges her younger love to a duel. They fight, and the older man is seriously wounded. She visits him in the hospital to say goodbye, and manages to secure passports for herself and her young lover. Preparations are made. Tickets are bought. At the frontier, for some inexplicable reason, she does not join the young man on the Paris-bound train, but returns to her old, wounded lover.
This is one of the sexiest and most passionate, wittiest, driest and most wry and ironic treatments of love and obsession ever filmed. There are thousands of visual jokes, and many verbal ones. There are double, tripple and quadrouple entendres everywhere. This is film has much in common with Italian comic opera -- not because of the Russo-Spanish music on the soundtrack -- but because of the visual music of the entire cinematographic space. I first saw a restored print at the Art Museum in Los Angeles about ten years ago, but have been waiting and hoping for this masterpiece for more than forty years. Unfortunately, the Video medium does not allow for the exravagant luminosity of the beaded screen, but what remains is more than enough to make this one of the gems in any colletion of cinematic masterpieces. And it is wonderful, sophisticated fun. It fizzes!
on December 28, 2001
"The Devil is a Woman" is a wholly artificial film, dealing with wholly artificial people, amidst wholly artificial surroundings. Like "The Scarlet Empress" with gothic Russia before it, "The Devil is a Woman" takes the simple idea of old Spain during carnival, and exaggerates it into a fantastic world choking itself with an impossible amount of streamers, confetti, and grotesquely constumed revelers. Essentially to Spanish to possibly be Spanish, the atmosphere created gives a richly textured visual feel. It becomes a costume as garish as those the Spanish people wear, disguising a series of complex and controversial themes, which could never be used as open plot devices. Director Josef von Sternberg is obviously aware of the conventions and restraints set up by Hollywood, twisting them to his own good. Using the illusion of a typical Hollywood story, he thinly but potently veils these visual costumes, which in themselves hide his rich themes, creating a film so layered its staggering!
At the center of all this is a Dietrich so beautiful, it is not quite possible to believe she ever existed outside this fantastic world created for her. Impeccably lighted, and costumed in the most flamboyant trappings imaginable, she is a toyingly evil creature of film, more alive than ever. Is it any wonder her character ruins so many men, on film alone you could fall in love with her?!
"The Devil is a Woman" is a completely visual film. It's themes and ideas do not come from what you hear, but what you see. The plot, which seems to hide them, is really needed only that these themes and visuals may gradually reach you. I think, essentially, that story for Sternberg was like the cherry flavor in cough medicine, designed only to help you swallow the truly important stuff. Perhaps we may never reach the center of a film like "The Devil is a Woman." If we did would we find the key to everything, or merely emptiness?
on November 15, 2001
This Pierre Louys story is set in Seville of the 1890's, where Marlene - the femme fatale, natch - drives one man after another mad with desire before she ruins them...... The great American author of sociological and political novels, John Dos Passos, was selected to write the script -- presumably because of his Spanish name (!) ---- not a good idea. It is fairly well-known among classic movie fiends that Dietrich considered this her favourite film because she thought she never looked more beautiful than she does here. Elaborately coiffed and loaded with enough make-up to clear out Max Factor's shelves, she is brought close to the edge of absurdity (a Dietrich specialty). Nevertheless, many Dietrich addicts rate this movie highly. Dietrich's leading man, Cesar Romero, had 40 years of films ahead of him; but the best credits were those of cinematographer Lucien Ballard and art director Hans Dreier for the atmospheric magnificence in which they achieved. It was the star's last picture under Von Sternberg's guidance, and its box-office failure ended his eight year stay at Paramount.
on December 1, 2000
Josef Von Sternberg was in love with, and frustrated by, Marlene Dietrich. His obsession reached its apotheosis in "The Devil is a Woman". Miss Dietrich declared it her personal favorite of their 7 films together ("I was at my most beautiful"), and vehemently denied that the film was a reflection of their somewhat strange relationship. Since Miss Dietrich's passing, it has come to light that this film was a reflection of their relationship. Von Sternberg photographed this film himself, and Dietrich does look impossibly beautiful, like an evil goddess. Her costumes (co-designed by Travis Banton and Dietrich) are masterpieces of fantasy Hollywood/Spanish. The sets, lighting, photography, costuming, et al combine to make a glittering vision of a very sad and painful story. Von Sternberg announced that he and Miss Dietrich were to go their separate ways-(their last few films, this one especially, did poorly at the box office-the Spanish government wanted this film DESTROYED!) To call this film "exaggerated" is like calling opera "exaggerated". Oh course it is! This wasn't intended to be a documentary, or a "slice of life". However, under all of its baroque extravangance ,lies "The Awful Truth". I think all of us have either been in a similar situation, or know someone who has been in a similar situation. Maybe the individuals who disliked the movie couldn't admit that the film "touched a nerve"-foreshadowing the critics' violent, horrified reactions to Hitchcock's "Psycho" 25 years later.
on June 25, 2000
The really great movies evoke different reactions with each new viewing, as if somehow absorbing our intervening life experiences and sharing insights we'd not noticed before. "The Devil Is A Woman" is one of those films. Ten, or even five years ago, I might have admired it's "camp" stylized value, and let it go at that, but this 1935 classic offers much beyond the surface glitter (although you could spend ten years just wallowing in that). Sternberg took the well-worn formula of a hundred pre-code sex dramas (many of them generated at his own Paramount studio) and replayed it against the never-never land of his own creation --- a grown-up fairy tale where he could explore modern day relationship wars (including his own with Dietrich) in such a way as was never before attempted, and certainly has not been since. The setting is gloriously unreal, but the dramatic situation is a universal one, and time has not diminished it's power --- never has the theme of romantic obsession been so compellingly depicted --- and who but Sternberg could bring such visual magic to it's telling? To laugh at a film such as this is to miss the point entirely --- Sternberg and his incomparable cast of players knew exactly what they were doing --- and it's the sheer boldness of his unique approach that makes Sterberg an artist for the ages --- not only in his direction, but also in the fact that he is the credited cinematographer. You could blow up any frame of this movie and hang it on the wall. This video is an absolute must --- you'll revisit it often --- and each time come away with something new.
on November 24, 1998
This is the 7th and final film Dietrich made under the direction of Joseph von Sternberg. Set in Spain in the 1890's during Carnival, Dietrich plays a Spanish "wench" breaking mens hearts. As usual, von Sternberg supplied the magnificent photography, while costumer Travis Banton supplied the fabulously outrageous Dietrich costumes. Dietrich was given one song to sing in the film. When the film was released in 1935, the government of Spain was so outraged by the portrayal of Spanish officials, that they asked Paramount Studios to take the film out of the world market and destroy the negatives. They finally removed the film from circulation when the U.S. State Department asked them to do so. Luckily, not all the negatives were destroyed. The film wasn't shown again in public until 1959, when the Museum of Modern Art had a tribute to Marlene. Marlene is quoted as saying this is her favorite film, that she is more beautiful in this movie than in any other. This is a must see for any Dietrich fan! It is the last of the Dietrich/von Sternberg films to be made available on video, and you know what they say, they save the best for last!
on December 16, 1999
Actually this movie goes nowhere, but what a trip! Marlenes' favorite movie because she is absolutely stunning! Take her at her most beautiful (aged 35 at the time) and sprinkle with an attitude and "the most outrageously costumes EVER to hit a screen. She is veiled, sequined, tassled, embroidered....all in spanish style clothes. One spanish comb was wired so close and tight to her skull that it brought tears to her eyes. One look at the white one-shouldered tight dress with this huge comb and the long tassles framing her face is worth the price of the movie alone! "Concha" is absolutely heartless. When caught with her bullfighter lover she turns the tables and ask her sugar-daddy, "Are you my brother?NO! ...my father? NO! Are you my lover?....well I must say you will settle for very little! "A MUST for any Dietrich fan or clothes designer. (Also check out "Blond Venus)
on June 13, 2000
More exotic kitsch from the Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations of the thirties. It's not as good as Shanghai Express but it provides its own pleasures. The operatic plot (shades of Carmen!) features Dietrich as an icy femme fatale who leads her admirers to ruin. Marlene acts as though she's having a lot of fun which is great. With equisite photography by Von Sternberg himself, Edward Everett Horton (non-comic performance) as a frustrated magistrate, Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero as her deliriously entranced victims. Classic line: If you loved me so much, why didn't you die for me? A relic of the thirties that demands tongue in cheek viewing.
on January 21, 2002
A work of sophisticated art posing as entertainment, The Devil Is A Woman is high camp stylisation of an unusually luxuriant kind, relentlessly amusing but not remotely silly. The elusive, unobtainable object of desire has really never been more sumptuously captured.