The Devil Is a Woman [1935]

20Jan12– 8 – The Devil Is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg: 1935)
Charles Silver of the Film Dept. at MoMA writes that THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935) is “a translation of the Sternberg/Dietrich relationship into visual poetry and metaphor”, and maybe he’s right about the relationship angle. It’s a stylized, highly artificial, and extraordinarily beautiful evocation of a provincial Andalusian town at the turn of the 20th century as filtered through Josef von Sternberg’s sensibility and built on Paramount soundstages in the mid 1930s. Sternberg’s fingerprints are all over it. (IMDb credits him as producer, director, co-cinematographer, and co-art director.) It’s unfortunate that I saw this movie hard on the heels of Cocteau’s ORPHÉE, a film that is usually referred to as if it were pure poetry on celluloid; Cocteau’s film looks threadbare and half-realized in comparison, with very little of Sternberg’s all-encompassing, strangely beautiful unreality. (Yes, I know Cocteau was doing other *stuff*. ORPHÉE still looks thin, cheap and self-consciously “poetic” and obvious in comparison.)

That this was Marlene Dietrich’s own favorite of her films is another reason to distrust actors’ self-evaluations. Dietrich is allowed (encouraged, even) to indulge in coy simpering and she will not stand still or stop bobbing her head for a second. She’s at her best in her opening scenes as a gorgeously dressed and exquisitely made up and coiffed “peasant woman” on a train and slightly later as an even more exquisitely dressed and made up worker in a cigarette factory (à la Carmen). After that I wanted to slap her, although she’s good in her sole musical number. Indelible moment: when Concha (Dietrich) shows Don Pasqual (the excellent Lionel Atwill), a gentleman she’s allowed to pick her up, into the apartment she shares with her mother (the reliable Alison Skipworth), she hikes her gown up to her knees and high-kicks the door open. If only there were more touches like that! Edward Everett Horton as the governor is excellent, even though (or is it because?) he uncharacteristically underplays his part. This should have been at least a 9 out of 10. 8/10. [1/20/12]

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