When The Scarlet Empress (1934), Josef von Sternberg’s lavish historical epic starring Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, proved to be a critical and commercial disaster for Paramount, the director realized his days were numbered at the studio. So why not go for broke in one last picture? The result was The Devil is a Woman (1935).
Choosing Pierre Louys’s novel La Femme et le Pantin/The Woman and the Puppet as his source material, von Sternberg announced that this would be his final film with Dietrich, ending an unofficial seven-year partnership with her.
While all of the seven von Sternberg-Dietrich films are essential viewing for any cinephile, most film historians and critics consider Shanghai Express (1932) the pinnacle of their partnership. But I am particularly fond of The Devil is a Woman because, of all their films, it showcases Dietrich’s most physically animated and stylized performance. The effect is both slyly amusing and blatantly artificial which is the essence of the deceitful courtesan she is portraying.
Initially titled Caprice Espagnole and later changed to The Devil Is a Woman (1935), the final collaboration between Dietrich and von Sternberg did nothing to turn the tide of their declining popularity. Many critics were openly hostile to the film and audiences avoided it like the plague. Yet Dietrich would often remark that it was her favorite movie “because I was most beautiful in it.” And, for von Sternberg, it was an intensely personal film, one whose central themes of romantic illusion, sexual obsession and personal degradation served as a symbolic representation of the star and director’s off-screen relationship. The storyline of The Devil Is a Woman unfolds as Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), an officer of the Civil Guard, tries to dissuade Antonio (Cesar Romero), a young revolutionary, from becoming involved with Concha Perez, a beautiful but heartless factory girl who makes a game of seducing and discarding her lovers. In flashback, we see how Concha transforms Don Pasqual from a respected member of the community into her willing victim – a puppet she can manipulate for her own pleasure. After subjecting Pasqual to endless ridicule and humiliation, Concha grows bored with her toy and abandons him, though not before ruining his career and reputation. This tale of woe, however, only increases Antonio’s interest in the enigmatic Concha and he soon finds himself yielding to her irresistible sexual allure.
Originally, John Dos Passos had been assigned to write the script for The Devil Is a Woman, but when he fell ill, Passos’s incomplete screenplay was given to von Sternberg’s longtime assistant, Sam Winston, who completed it. There was also a major change in the casting. Joel McCrea was first hired to play Antonio but was soon fired for insubordination.
According to his replacement, Cesar Romero, von Sternberg was a complete tyrant on the set. In Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich by Donald Spoto, Romero said that, “..,von Sternberg made everyone’s life miserable…but he was especially mean to Dietrich. He bawled her out in front of everyone, made her repeat difficult scenes endlessly and needlessly until she just cried and cried. ‘Do it again!’ he shouted. ‘Faster!….Slower!….’ Well, he had been mad about her, after all, and now that their relationship was ending he took it out on her and everybody else.”
The director also closely supervised every visual detail of the entire picture from the opening six-minute carnival scene to Marlene’s flamboyant costumes; he painted the sets white in order to reflect more light, and for the duel scene in the forest, he spray-painted everything with aluminum to get the desired effect.
It was no surprise when the Hays Office voiced their objections to The Devil Is a Woman after they saw a final cut of the film. First of all, they didn’t like the title. They also suggested a different ending, one in which Concha looks into a mirror and sees herself as “a scrawny, impoverished bag.” Luckily, those recommendations weren’t enforced, but the film did lose seventeen minutes of footage in some markets such as New York – including the musical number, “If It Isn’t Pain (Then It Isn’t Love)” – going from a running time of 93 minutes to 76. (Running times for the film continue to vary even today between 85 to 76 or 79 minutes.)The bad luck continued when critics weighed in with their reviews; typical of the majority response was this edict from The Herald Tribune – “almost devoid of dramatic substance.” The ambassador from Spain (the setting for The Devil Is a Woman), however, was quite affected by the film and proclaimed it “an insult to Spain and to the Spaniards.” He actually succeeded in getting his government to issue a warning to Paramount – unless they withdrew the film from circulation immediately, all of the studio’s pictures would be banned in Spain. Eventually, the U.S. government stepped in and ordered Paramount to destroy all prints of the film. For many years, it was believed that The Devil Is a Woman was indeed a lost film until von Sternberg’s personal copy turned up for a revival screening at the 1959 Venice Film Festival.
Seen today, The Devil Is a Woman is the perfect summation of von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich. As Conchita, Dietrich is mesmerizing as the manipulative, self-amused but ultimately inscrutable temptress. And von Sternberg’s gifts as a director were at their height, transforming a melodramatic tale into a rich exploration of the director’s personal obsessions and themes. But the film, not unlike the main character of Concha, brought nothing but bad luck to von Sternberg and his career never recovered from the failure.
Ironically, Dietrich would experience a major career revival four years later with Destry Rides Again (1939), which lasted until her retirement from the screen, while von Sternberg’s association with the actress had the reverse effect on his career – a bitter ending so similar to many of his films like The Blue Angel, for which he had created the Dietrich persona. The Devil Is a Woman was previously filmed in 1920 with Geraldine Farrar and also in 1929 with Conchita Montenegro. Brigitte Bardot starred in a version (The Female aka La Femme et le Pantin, 1959) and Luis Bunuel directed an inspired adaptation of the Louys novel (it was his final film) entitled That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which had the novel idea of casting two different actresses to play Concha; her cool, manipulative side represented by Carole Bouquet and her carnal, passionate side represented by Angela Molina. The definitive performance, however, is by Dietrich, and for anyone curious about the films she made with von Sternberg, The Devil Is a Woman is highly recommended.
For many years the only option for viewing The Devil is a Woman on DVD was Universal Home Entertainment’s 2-disc set – Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection – which was released in April 2006 and also included Morocco, Blonde Venus, The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings from Dietrich’s Paramount years. In November 2011, Universal finally released a single DVD-R of the film with no extras. The image quality on both releases was good but somewhat soft due to the age of the original materials. In July 2018 The Criterion Collection released Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood on Blu-ray which includes six of their collaborations (The Blue Angel is not included) and a pile of invaluable extras such as a 1935 short on Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton . To date, this is the best option for viewing The Devil is a Woman and its extraordinary visual design but if you don’t want to spring for this relatively expensive Blu-ray collection which is priced around $62 or more, you might check out the streaming app Filmstruck, which probably offers the film in its digital library. *This is an updated and revised version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other websites of interest: