The von Sternberg/Dietrich thread

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed
Never saw anything by either of them until last week, when I bit into "The Devil Is a Woman". Classiquay! I decided to use it for a critique I needed to make for an application.

In case you aren't interested in the critique, then just skip it and let's dig into this fab film collab.

Critique follows:

Upon first viewing Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935), I was struck by two things that stood out from the film. The first is the unconventional screenplay structure, wherein the ostensible protagonist, Antonio (Cesar Romero), centers the audience’s attention for the first ten minutes or so until running into an old friend, Captain Pasqual (Lionel Atwill). At this point, the Captain begins to recount what seems to be a quick flashback – but this too is a sly trick, for the Captain’s tale dominates the entire film, taking up a full forty minutes. With a great sleight of hand, the Captain actually steals away the predominating role of the piece until Antonio becomes practically a pawn in the larger picture (which he indeed is).

The sense of haunting is only furthered by the fact that Antonio has not yet met Concha (Marlene Dietrich), who is the centerpiece of the film, the unmoved mover around which the entire universe rotates with an absolute minimum of affect by her. Concha’s first appearance, tellingly, is masked, and thus we are conscious that the Concha being recounted in the Captain’s tale is not necessarily the Concha of reality; thus the desire of Antonio to still see Concha and even believe her when she denies toying with the Captain is reflected within the audience. Finally, the third act in which Pasqual forces a duel upon Antonio inverts the tension by forcing a choice upon Concha with the permanence of death – something even she cannot undo by her wiles. Thus the slight first act (or prelude) of the present runs into the flashbacks of the past in the second act – the future, inevitably, must be tainted with the bile and blood of the past and present.

Concha’s irresistible pull, however, ultimately trumps the Pasqual’s force to control the narrative, and thus she reveals, through her guile and connections, that she is, has been, and will always be the predominant force guiding the story. Perhaps she even leaves Antonio at the end because to give herself to him would be to give up her authoritative stance in the film – and as Dietrich herself is ally and hammer of von Sternberg, Dietrich/Concha can be said to be von Sternberg himself, directing the scenes, working the actors to the performance and response she/he wants.

The other salient feature of the film is the magnificent use of cinematography to further the sense of evocation by Pasqual in the second act, filled with soft focus and cloudiness, both obscuring and sentimentalizing the past and thus, by extension, demonstrating that he still loves Concha, no matter what. A motif that seems to arise frequently is that of eyes and masks, and the sharp angles of the Captain contrast well with the seductive emphasis on Dietrich’s eyes, the most noticeable part of her while masked at the beginning. Antonio’s eyes, even masked, ultimately reveal him as a hopeless romantic, and he never betrays that, even in the duel with his friend. The masking itself helps to hold back any observation about Concha herself, character-wise, prior to the Captain’s flashbacks, and thus re-colors our perceptions of her in closer alignment with Antonio when we do finally meet her as she is and not as she is framed by Pasqual.

Ultimately, the film uses its economy and unusual pacing well to provide for a very brief jaunt that feels more like a vast personal epic and thus transcends its otherwise obvious studio set and production to actually make the audience feel that not only are we in Spain, but that this did indeed happen, and that these are totally and fully fleshed out people. Because von Sternberg allows everyone to retain their humanity without glossing over their flaws and misperceptions, his treatment of his characters can only be said to be magisterial. While I have not seen any other von Sternberg or Dietrich pictures, I am certain that I will be watching many more in the weeks to come.

Girolamo Savonarola, Saturday, 12 July 2003 21:46 (nineteen years ago) link

Damn you, you will speak! :p

Girolamo Savonarola, Tuesday, 15 July 2003 03:11 (nineteen years ago) link

nice critique.

haven't seen any von Sternberg. I've seen Dietrich in a few films - of course, Foreign Affair, Destry Rides Again. all great.

Justyn Dillingham (Justyn Dillingham), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 07:46 (nineteen years ago) link

err "The Blue Angel" was supposed to come before "of course" but it didn't show up for some reason.

Justyn Dillingham (Justyn Dillingham), Tuesday, 15 July 2003 07:47 (nineteen years ago) link

six years pass...

Very little mention of Sternberg in it, but Maximilian Schell's doc Marlene is out on disc -- it's the one where he interviewed her in her Paris apartment for days in 1982, but she wouldn't be filmed. ("I've been photographed to death.") He handles the 'problem' fairly creatively, and she tosses some A-1 shit fits (and also cries). She also dismisses feminism as "penis envy."

A Patch on Blazing Saddles (Dr Morbius), Thursday, 8 October 2009 14:39 (thirteen years ago) link

nine years pass...

Goodness, this Criterion box set.

Your sweetie-pie-coo-coo I love ya (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Thursday, 24 January 2019 03:40 (four years ago) link

I was relieved that it fit in my film shelf

resident hack (Simon H.), Thursday, 24 January 2019 05:57 (four years ago) link

waiting for the next sale to get this

flappy bird, Wednesday, 30 January 2019 19:55 (four years ago) link

one year passes...

Well, an inaugural viewing of Shanghai Express was a helluva way to kick off the new filmic year (particularly since I capped off 2020 with the abysmal King of Jazz, easily the worst Criterion release I've seen). Was pleasantly surprised to discover that Morbs and I gave it the same Letterboxd rating (he'd be so proud!). I've been enjoying the box set (Dietrich is a beguiling delight throughout, Sahara was lightweight but similarly sumptuous, and Dishonored was a better version of Garbo's overly-melodramatic Mata Hari from later that same year) but this is where things really clicked for me. I've been watching so many films from this particular era lately and I haven't encountered anything else that's as visually/compositionally dazzling but in such an understated way. As if I was watching a less tits-out Berkeley production, if that makes sense. It felt truly lived-in and immersive, like Altman's production design. The story was...well, it didn't get in the way.

Telly Salivas (Old Lunch), Tuesday, 5 January 2021 00:49 (two years ago) link

two months pass...

Now streaming on Criterion

The Ballad of Mel Cooley (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 6 March 2021 03:26 (one year ago) link

Blonde Venus was also spectacular, by the way!

Stefan Twerkelle (Old Lunch), Saturday, 6 March 2021 05:25 (one year ago) link

Really? It drags in spots. It's weird to see Cary Grant playing a passive hunk.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Saturday, 6 March 2021 10:35 (one year ago) link

I've been running through Grant's filmography from the start so I'm used to seeing him in a variety of weird roles at this point (the Mock Turtle being the strangest, but watching him savagely whip the tar out of a dude in The Woman Accused was certainly up there).

Stefan Twerkelle (Old Lunch), Saturday, 6 March 2021 12:32 (one year ago) link

Blonde Venus isn't a touch on the 4 (but really 3) masterpieces of the world that preceded it, but it's alright. Too much of a copout to moral groups and vice leagues that didn't like everything ambiguous and "loose" about Morocco, Shanghai Express, etc.

flappy bird, Sunday, 7 March 2021 05:52 (one year ago) link

It's filled to the brim with ambiguity and looseness! Marlene undertakes a seemingly noble act (returning to work in order to pay for her dying husband's travel expenses) and then shacks up with Cary the second he's gone. And then flees with her son when her husband returns. And rather than paint any of her actions as inherently wrong or selfish, the film allows her to be fairly sympathetic throughout while the males pursuing her are given the role of moral scolds. And that ending! Two people who clearly know that their relationship is over sticking together for love of the child, while the kid swaddles himself in warm folds of nostalgia to ignore the wrongness he feels in the room. The very final scene near killed me. Great lush Von Sternbergian setpieces (the cafe where she runs into the detective, the women's flophouse, the utterly bizarre yet strangely beguiling gorilla suit number). And Dietrich was mesmerizing throughout. Yeah, I pretty much loved it.

Stefan Twerkelle (Old Lunch), Sunday, 7 March 2021 12:53 (one year ago) link

Booming post, Old Lunch.

I don't recall viewing the ending as ambiguously as you did, but I find it easy to ignore a most post-Code 30s and 40s films' endings (e.g., Lang's Ministry of Fear which I just watched and ends with an absurdly cheerful wedding preparation joke between two people who should be psychologically shattered by their recent experiences).

I'd add the opening segment where Marshall and friends stumble on the bathing women to the setpiece list. Totally dreamy, which seems like a purely aesthetic choice at first but then makes works perfectly as that meeting story becomes the child's bedtime myth version of his parents.

rob, Sunday, 7 March 2021 14:59 (one year ago) link

Indeed, OL. Now I'm going to rewatch it.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 7 March 2021 15:05 (one year ago) link

Very good point about the opening sequence, rob. It feels even more dreamlike given that the movie shifts hard into another gear just afterwards.

Also flappy, although technically post-Code it's still very pre-Code in spirit (but how many films were really affected by Hays before the studios' self-enforcement in '34?). See the skin on display in that opening scene, por ejemplo.

Stefan Twerkelle (Old Lunch), Sunday, 7 March 2021 17:18 (one year ago) link

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.