Film told in flashbacks of an older man's obsession for a woman who can belong to no-one but can frustrate everyone. The backdrop is SternbergÍs surreal and fantastic Carnaval in Spain. In a café the older man details his encounters with the heart breaker that his younger friend has only just met at the parade. Forewarned, the young man swears he will avoid the fate of his friend, but rushes all the same to his evening rendezvous. A dreamlike story of frustrated, lost romance, spoken in the past tense, never really resolved.Written by
In a 1971 film interview with Swedish television, her first television interview, Marlene Dietrich claimed that this was her favorite film that she had made with director Josef von Sternberg. In later years, she would go on to say that it was her all-time favorite out of all of her films. See more »
Why don't you leave for Paris tonight?
I'll come with you.
You can't. The borders will be watched. Besides, we need passports. Then there's the trifling affair with Pascual in the morning which I have no wish to dodge.
All right, then you'll be killed. Pascual is a dead shot.
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THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN really couldn't be a better description of Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich). Making full use of her considerable feminine wiles, Concha captures hearts everywhere she goes, then breaks them with happy abandon... only to pick up the pieces before she again grounds them to dust under her high-heeled feet. Two of her victims include Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) and a young fellow Antonio (Cesar Romero) who really admires Pasqual. As revealed in flashbacks, Concha has made a complete and utter fool of her 'Pasqualito' (several times!), and even though Pasqual warns Antonio off her, she makes short work of the latter's defences and soon has the two friends pitted against each other in a duel to the death.
With the deliberately provocative title (especially considering this film was made in 1935), one would expect a lot more than what one gets in this film--which is, basically, not all that much, considering the talent involved. Firstly, it's not much of a story, and one only struggles through the pretty short running time (80 minutes!) just to look at Dietrich's fabulous costumes and perhaps find out who she ends up with in the film... if anyone. Secondly, the character development (particularly of Concha's character) is rather slight--one cannot help but come to the conclusion that Concha is either *really* the devil (in which case she's a particularly flighty, empty-minded incarnation) or an extremely flighty, empty-minded... well, the word I'm looking for rhymes with 'witch'. (And 'witch' would work fine too.) There's little to no suggestion that Concha is a human being, and perhaps that's von Sternberg's message in the end, since THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN seems to be a hardly-veiled semi-autobiographical description of his own relationship with Dietrich. Whatever the case, it would have been nice to see some of Concha's internal motivation, whatever it might have been.
Arguably the character study comes into play with the character of Pasqual, played masterfully by Atwill. Pasqual certainly is the best character in the piece--he's a previously solid pillar of the community with one fatal flaw: his foolish, obsessive love for Concha. His fatherly advice to Antonio, tainted by jealousy and mingled with genuine concern, as well as his actions during the duel, suggest a fully-drawn portrait of a man. (Whether that man is a conscious or subconscious depiction of von Sternberg himself is another question to be asked, of course.) Romero doesn't have much to do, and makes neither a positive nor a negative impression, while Edward Everett Horton only occasionally displays flashes of subtly underplayed comic genius as Don Paquito.
What then, of Dietrich? One couldn't see this film and not realise that this film was a Dietrich vehicle from start to finish. As in all of her films with von Sternberg, she is lavishly, beautifully costumed (all her meticulous, perfectionist work with Travis Banton always pays off) and looks simply ravishing. His lighting and filming of Dietrich is probably one of the main reasons she had and still has such an impact on film audiences, considering her varying acting ability (she is decidedly not one of those actors whose work is always top-notch, regardless of the quality of the rest of the film) and average--though endlessly intriguing--singing ability. In this, their last film together, the magic of the Dietrich and von Sternberg collaboration is in full force, and so she looks marvellous. It's a bit of a shame that she doesn't play the character in anything other than the one note however--that of a coquettish flirt. A lot could have been made of Concha's character, even as written. Unfortunately, Dietrich doesn't lend Concha an iota of the mystery she brings to other characters such as MOROCCO's Amy Jolly. In fact, Dietrich plays Concha with a manic (albeit radiant) energy that makes me keep expecting her to start twitching or display other signs of hypertension. Is there a reason Dietrich chose to play this way, or von Sternberg directed her to do so? I hope it's only a misguided reading of Concha, and not a reflection on Dietrich's own character and behaviour. She isn't really irritating in this film (thank goodness) and is still eminently watchable... but I can imagine her wearing on the nerves if the film drags on any longer than its mercifully short running time.
Despite all the negativity I've been throwing in the film's general direction, this really isn't to say that THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN is a bad film. Far from it. It's not a great one, certainly, but there are redeeming factors. One is Dietrich's beauty, of course, for she is truly at her prime in this film, and the costumes are flamboyant, eye-catching, and practically worth the price of the ticket. The other is the production values brought into everything--it's quite evident that no expense was spared on bringing the Spanish carnival to life, particularly in the first moment it joyously bursts onto the screen. You really couldn't tell it was all done on a set (another key attribute of von Sternberg's art), and it's such a visual film that one sometimes feels it's exploding with life and colour even though it's filmed in black and white. So it's an interesting film to watch if you're a Dietrich fan, but particularly if you're a fan of Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations--THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN is a more or less pleasant, undemanding filmic romp, and in the process might throw up a few deeper questions on the fictionality of Concha's character...
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