Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Film Review: The Devil Is A Woman

"The Devil Is A Woman"  *** (out of ****)

It is the old familiar story of a woman bringing down a man in Josef von Sternberg's "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935) starring his greatest collaborator, the screen siren, Marlene Dietrich.

For older movie fans, those with perhaps a better understanding of film history, all I need say is this is a von Sternberg film starring Dietrich and we pretty much know the rest. For the rest of you, I'll do some explaining.

Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich worked on six films together. Their first film together was "The Blue Angel" (1930), where Dietrich played her most famous character, a cabaret singer, Lola-Lola. It is in this movie she has an iconic moment and sings "Falling In Love Again", a song which would become something of Dietrich's theme song. Her character in this movie causes a man to fall from grace as she seduces him and ruins his life. In "Shanghai Express" (1932) she plays a prostitute, though that word is never used (it couldn't be at the time) it is more than implied. And there is "Morocco" (1930), for which Dietrich was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. Here too she plays a temptress of men, who has lead many to their downfall.

So, understanding a bit more of the relationship between von Sternberg and Dietrich, we can tell "The Devil Is A Woman" will be a continuation of the themes explored in their previous films and it is a good bet Dietrich will be "the Devil" referred to in the title.

And that's the problem with "The Devil Is A Woman". It doesn't cover any new ground for this legendary director / actress team. The only thing which may set it apart from their other works together is their is a hint of humor in this movie but I felt its placement was actually one of the elements which hurt the movie. Humor never truly felt appropriate and/or necessary to the story. Though I suppose someone could view this whole movie as a dark comedy, that is if you find the destruction of someone's soul funny. Me, I'm old fashion. I like a Bob Hope comedy.

Dietrich plays Concha Perez, a woman with a reputation as a seductress. Men cannot help themselves around her. They are instantly attracted to her and she uses them for her enjoyment and benefit.

The movie takes place in Spain during Carnival. A young, handsome, Republican revolutionary, Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) sees Concha from afar and a game of flirtation begins between them. He is passed a note which tells him where he can meet her later in the evening.

Before Antonio is able to set off on his rendezvous he notices Capt. Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) in a cafe. Antonio joins him and brags of his meeting with the lady. Don Pasqual is familiar with her name and since Antonio is not, Pasqual explains how he met Concha Perez and the emotional games she played on him which eventually leads to his downfall. She took his money, played with his affection and he resigned from his position as a captain. His days and thoughts were consumed by only one thing; Concha.

The one of the things I don't like about "The Devil Is A Woman" is we never get a clear understanding of who Concha is. We only hear other people's interpretation of her. We never have a moment where we hear her side of the story, where she is able to defend herself and offer an explanation for her actions. As a result, I was never sure how much I should believe Don Pasqual's story. Imagine what a different movie this would have been if told from Concha's perspective.

Don Pasqual's story is a relatable one. I too have fallen victim to the disease of loving the wrong woman. "The Devil Is A Woman" at times hit a little too close to home for me. I perfectly understand why Don Pasqual does what he does. I know why he allows himself to be taken advantage of. It means he gets to see her, hear her voice, spend time with her. Those pleasures are worth something. But it is exactly because of that infatuation one wonders if he has added more to the story than was there. Has love and obsession altered his sense of reality.

What impressed me most about "The Devil Is A Woman" is the acting. I don't know if I have ever seen Lionel Atwill give a better performance. He is a believable character. Cesar Romero doesn't get to do much but listen to the story, still it is interesting to see him in this movie. While I feel we don't get much of an understanding of Concha, Dietrich is mesmerizing on-screen. Talk about a star's presence. Director von Sternberg sure knew how to photograph Dietrich.

Some younger, more modern, more liberal, female viewers may object to the title of the movie and may object to the characterization of the story. The female is made out to be a villain. It is all because of a woman these men have suffered. Female viewers may feel, why does Hollywood have to perpetuate this stereotypes? Hollywood has nothing to do with it. The idea of a woman as a seductress, as being the downfall of man, goes back to the bible. It is the story of original sin in the garden of Eden. The story of Adam and Eve. Eve ate an apple from the forbidden tree, but, it didn't matter. Sin would only be known to mankind if Adam ate it too. Eve tempted Adam which lead to his downfall. That story, more than anything has lead to the characterization of women as being easily tempted by greed and power. Of using men to their advantage. It also doesn't help when some women behave that way in the real world too, but, that's another story. However, Hollywood is not to blame. The characterization of women being seen in such a light is an old story, Hollywood may not have helped matters by using stereotypes but since when was Hollywood known for originality?

"The Devil Is A Woman" lacks the memorable quality of previous von Sternberg and Dietrich collaborations. The movie is nice to look at and the performances by the two leads are very good, but, compared to "The Blue Angel" or "Morocco" "The Devil Is A Woman" lacks the punch of those movies. This is despite Dietrich allegedly saying this was her favorite movie she starred in.

Also the moments of humor are out of place. Edward Everett Horton, plays a governor in the movie. Horton, it is said jokingly, appeared in every comedy made in the 1930s. He had a reputation for playing what was known at the time as a "sissy man". His characters were never directly referred to as homosexual but the implications were there, if you were looking for them. The humorous moments are given to Horton. Horton could be funny but this story is one which should be taken serious. There is great dramatic weight here. Now, someone might say, but, von Sternbern and Dietrich have played this material dramatic before so why should there do it again here. My dear friend, if that is the case, why even bother making the movie in the first place? They've done it all before. The point is don't play against your material.

Could a funny movie be made about a woman seducing money and taking all their money? Sure. But you need to find the right tone. The performances need to match that tone. Atwill is not acting in a comedy. He is taking his performance very serious. Dietrich isn't going for laughs either. Though she could be funny. Watch her in "The Lady Is Willing" (1942). Only Horton is acting in a comedy.

"The Devil Is A Woman" shouldn't be avoided. There are pleasures in watching it. It is always wonderful to see Dietrich act. Younger movie fans should also become familiar with the work of von Sternberg (a two-time best director Oscar nominee). But, there is no way around it, "The Devil Is A Woman" is entertaining but a minor effort.