We’re studying pre-Codes in my film class, and this week’s movie was a double-feature of this and Trouble in Paradise. It turns out this movie still isn’t a favorite, and the class was generally in agreement. I’ll be reviewing Trouble in Paradise next week.
After two good movies I was bound to get one stinker; The Devil Is a Woman is less devilish fun and more outright demonic. A cold presentation of the bitch that is supposedly the female sex, there’s little to recommend the film. The same premise lifted from Morocco and Blonde Venus is turned upside down by having Dietrich’s character be a despicable human being. As if that’s not enough to get you to root for the men, they aren’t much better, bordering on abusers. At a scant hour and nineteen minutes it’s evident that von Sternberg and company are hitting the bottom of the well.
During Carnavale in Spain, a young man hears the story of Pasqualito (Lionel Atwill), a man ruined by his love for the manipulative Concha (Dietrich). Hoping to spare the young man a similar fate, Pasqualito recounts his story of how he loved and lost.
It’s said that this was Marlene Dietrich’s favorite film, and I wonder if she saw a different version than I did. The Devil Is a Woman is the first of Dietrich’s films (in my set at least) to carry the Production Code’s seal of approval, and that could be what damns the entire picture. Unable to insert nude swimmers or androgynous sexuality, von Sternberg is stymied and that’s reflected in the script written by the acclaimed John Dos Passos. (I’m assuming Dos Passos was in that period where various Lost Generation writers were coming to Hollywood to write scripts, à la F. Scott Fitzgerald.) With a title like The Devil Is a Woman you’d expect a potboiler on the same par as Morocco, but instead we get a misogynistic, spiteful tome about the perils of loving a woman. Of course, there’s little depth to Concha as evidenced by her constant exclamations about only loving a man’s money. In Morocco, Amy Jolly is guilty for her ability to cause trouble, which itself stems from her unrestrained sexuality. As Concha, her character “has ice where others have a heart” and that’s it; there’s no remorse or logic behind her actions aside from pure, unadulterated greed and relish for deception. You have no sympathy for the character, nor can you because there’s no history to her. She is a blank slate written on by a screenwriter who has no real regard for women.
You watch as von Sternberg strains at the boundaries of good taste, and it’s comically ironic that the first Dietrich film to get PCA approval is set during Carnavale, a time of hedonistic pleasure. The stereotypical view of the period doesn’t age well, and for a time of frivolity there’s not a lot of debauchery showcased. It takes on a legendary atmosphere where people mention crazy things happening, but they’re on the fringes of the frame. The cast is made up of non-Spanish actors and Dietrich is comically rubber stamped with a slew of Spanish stereotypes; from the heavy eye makeup and dark lips, she’s also given two curls shellacked to her forehead in an attempt to have her pass for a señorita. All of this simply looks ridiculous considering Dietrich’s severe German features and her total lack of anything resembling a Spanish accent. The other male character are reduced to dyed hair and lengthy names in order to pass for Spanish.
With such a brief runtime the plot takes a long time to build toward anything. Morocco and Blonde Venus have little plot, but uses that to focus on character dynamics; overall, the story builds leisurely out of the established character dynamics. Here, the plot seems absent altogether. Dietrich goes through a routine of being so fickle it borders on lunacy as she plays two men against each other. After the initial flashback – Pasqualito’s warning to his friend to stay away from her – said friend runs into Concha and immediately gets amnesia, or something similar, because he takes up with her. The plot and the characters are so disorganized that they do one thing and then contradict themselves by doing something else. And you can’t necessarily root for Pasqualito considering we get a sequence, shot through a closed-door, of the man slapping and abusing Concha. Yes, she’s evil but what do you want us to think of the men when they resort to abuse?
Overall, The Devil Is a Woman is a lifeless film that thinks all the audience needs is Marlene Dietrich playing a clotheshorse and singing. Seriously, watch how many ridiculous costume changes the woman goes through in an hour and nineteen minutes! The plot is nonexistent, the Latin depictions border on racist, and the views of women are downright reprehensible. The movie is only worth it for hard-core Dietrich fans.
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