The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/21/2018

“If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love)” is an excised musical number by Marlene Dietrich, trimmed from Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. It’s an apt conceit for what the film portrays, which many have read as a thinly veiled interpretation of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s relationship, with Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual standing in for the director. Dietrich, as Concha, is as always, herself.

Cut down and re-titled, The Devil Is a Woman isn’t as successful as other films of Dietrich and von Sternberg. The director also shot the film, and the sequences of the carnival are lush and vivid as anything from his earlier films. But the story and the writing, told in a large part in flashbacks as Atwill regales the young, good-looking Cesar Romero of the way that Concha has strung him along, feels less sophisticated than perhaps it should.

While the film portrays something romantic and dramatic, there is also something farcical running through it. A tone I took as intentional, a self aware sense of irony, perhaps?

The Devil Is a Woman isn’t my favorite, Dietrich-Sternberg film, but as always, Dietrich’s wardrobe is amazing.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.



Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 06/19/2017

Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starts out with a rape and murder of a pretty shop owner by a vicious outlaw. For 1952, this suggestion is hardly detailed and yet more explicit than implicit. This is the event that spurs Vern (Arthur Kennedy) on a long, lonesome road to revenge, tracking through Indian territory on the trail of an outlaw, and finding himself at a secretive ranch run by a former showgirl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who now harbors criminals for 10% of their loot.

The bandits that meet up there range broadly in the crimes and characters, and Vern comes to hide among them but also to identify with some of them, most significantly Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), Keane’s long-time semi-beau. This is familiar territory for Lang, a criminal underworld, but one with its own ethics, honesty, and sense of fair play.

Really, it’s Vern who is the deceiver, playing a wanted outlaw to get close to the criminals who killed his girl. Though he joins them on a bank robbery, tying himself to the criminals, it’s his betrayal of Keane’s rules that allow him to eke out his revenge.

This is late Lang, a period somewhat disdained by his fans and critics. Produced and re-named by Howard Hughes, this is a cheapie by Hollywood standards. But Rancho Notorious was a film that Lang developed more fully than most, from conception to completion, and it bears the qualities of the work of one of the true auteurs in Hollywood.

It’s also got Dietrich, right at the top, a meta-legend in the story, and an aging movie star still relatively youthful at her age of 51.

I always seem to find Lang’s films sit with me, develop more and more in retrospect, and I sense that Rancho Notorious will as well.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 09/01/2015

My Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg double feature followed Morocco (1930) with 1932’s Blonde Venus.  Since it was the other film on the disc.

Blonde Venus is another melodrama, waxing and waning throughout in qualities and oddities, but ultimately is lifted by Dietrich herself from something potentially middling to something quite touching.

In this one, she’s the German bride of a research scientist who contracts radiation poisoning and has to travel to Germany to get cured.  The two of them have a small boy and live humbly in New York, so Dietrich gets a job as a cabaret singer to earn enough money for her husband’s cure.  Only she takes up with Cary Grant, a rich bigwig.  When her husband comes back, she and her son go on the lam around the country.

You can see, it’s a pretty convoluted melodrama.

It features a trio of songs by Dietrich, somewhat more seemingly outside of her range ideally, jazzy uptempo numbers with lots of American hep slang.  And one of them is a pretty notorious “jungle-themed” tune, which she starts singing after taking off a gorilla suit.

Somehow the movie manages to transcend the corny and campy aspects and turns out to be really quite good.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco (1930) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 09/01/2015

A couple years back I got really into Pre-Code Hollywood films and binged through several of them.  Since then, they sprinkle along in my viewings.  But I never got around to watching any Marlene Dietrich films, though I’ve had them in my queue for some time.  Since then, I’ve also come to really like the films I’ve seen by director Josef von Sternberg, like Underworld (1927) and The Docks of New York (1928), though those were from the silent era.

von Sternberg and Dietrich made several films together, including her breakthrough German film The Blue Angel (1930).  Morocco was her first American film and features some of her most famous images and moments.

It’s an odd film, at times full of bloated cliche, featuring some stiff-sounding dialogue from some very American-sounding actors, including star Gary Cooper.  And then it has flashes of brilliance.  Dietrich is by far the film’s real star, powering every scene she is in with an aura of cool.

Her key moments, appearing in a man’s tuxedo, is still a fresh and striking image, so much so it’s probably very hard to appreciate how audacious it was in 1930.  If the suggested sexual identity play wasn’t potent enough, she plants a kiss on the lips of a woman in the scene, and a gay and lesbian icon forevermore.  It’s fantastic.  She’s fantastic.  It’s a great moment still.

She’s great in it throughout.  When we first see her, a passenger on a ship, she is approached by a man who is interested in her and she blows him off with a world-weary nonchalance, affirming her independence.  It’s a subtle but significant moment of power.

And of course she sings, echoes of the era just passing.

My favorite image, though, is perhaps at the very end.  The story is about a love affair between Dietrich and Cooper, set in Morocco (of course).  He’s with the Foreign Legion, trooping all around the country, followed often by a team of women and children, the lovers tailing the soldiers.  And Dietrich takes off her shoes and walks forth in the sand, following the troops and her love.  It’s a wonderful image and she’s perfect in it.