Sunday, February 5, 2012

#416: The Devil Is a Woman

1935, TSPDT Rank #575

The fourth film in my Josef von Sternberg marathon.

After the peak of enormous proportions that was The Scarlet Empress, it seemed quite inevitable that the next (and final) collaboration between Sternberg and Dietrich would be a fall from grace, and indeed, it is very much a minor film, especially by the standards of Sternberg's previous track record. In fact, I'm a bit confused by its inclusion on this list instead of some of the other Sternberg-Dietrich films that were left out. Maybe it's because some people prefer the relative simplicity of this film as an antidote to the complex, overpowering madness of The Scarlet Empress. Also, this film does contain some very visually pleasing cinematography, with many excellent frame compositions, but there's nothing that lights the screen ablaze quite like The Scarlet Empress did. And although Marlene Dietrich is still extremely alluring and luminous (it's impossible to take your eyes off of her) whenever she is on the screen, her performance is nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as her Catherine the Great. But even though the fantastic cinematography and smoldering presence of Dietrich are enough to at least make this worth a watch, the rest of actors are terrible, the script is second-rate at best, and the film often threatens to collapse under its own weak foundation, although it never does. The only other good point about this film is that it seems to be another one of Sternberg's contributions to the later film noir movement (the overall feel and look of his silent film, Underworld, laid much groundwork for both the gangster genre and film noir's style), in that Dietrich's character might as well be a template for the classic femme fatale character that appears in a grand majority of the films noir in cinematic history. Watch Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity from about 10 years later when the movement was really in full swing and you'll see what I mean. But for The Devil Is a Woman itself, the two things it should be known for are its status as the last of the great run of Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations, and its contributions to the great collective of classic films we enthusiasts label film noir. Without it we would still have The Scarlet Empress, but we might not have all of those beautiful and icy women to watch ruining mens' lives.

Next up I have Sternberg's first true contribution to the film noir movement proper. Coming soon.

(Rating: 6/10)

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