Thursday, July 30, 2009
The Devil is a Woman
Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman (1935) was based on La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet) by Pierre Louys, an 1898 novel that was also the basis of Luis Bunuel’s 1977 masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire. Louys is also famed for his more explicit erotica such as Trois Filles de Leur Mere, published anonymously in 1926, a year after his death in Paris. Bunuel’s version was co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere and starred Fernando Rey as Mathieu and both Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet in the role of the bedeviling tease Conchita. In Von Sternberg’s version, which was written by John Dos Passos, Marlene Dietrich plays the Sevillian flamenco dancer Concha Perez, a fiercely independent woman with “ice for a heart” who beguiles Lionel Atwill as “Pasqualito” and Edward Everett Horton as “Paquitito,” as she affectionately nicknames them (look for Cesar Romero in a small role as well). The film, like Bunuel’s, is told in a series of flashbacks, here to the tune of "El Gato Montes" and other pasodobles. Much of the story was told visually through the bars of iron gates and fences as well as in the presence of caged birds, reinforcing the theme of Atwill's imprisonment by becoming more and more elaborate as the movie progresses. As they return home together one night, Dietrich declares “Look mama I caught a fish,” holding up a goldfish in a glass bowl. Even as she repeatedly rebuffs Atwill's amorous advances, she ensnares him deeper and deeper into an intricate emotional plexus; he offers protection from worry (and cash to her mother) but she insists that she does not want a father or husband or any man to control her. Yet when he violently beats her, she returns to him in the morning happier than ever. Though difficult to accept Dietrich as Spanish, the film features the memorable song “he gives me butter and carrots and onions that no other farmer would . . . and other things that are so good.” Filmed in Hollywood, this was Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s last film together, ending a famed collaboration that included Morocco (1930), The Blue Angel (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), and Shanghai Express (1932). Von Sternberg later made the sly Shanghai Gesture (1941) with Gene Tierney and Victor Mature. La Femme et le Pantin was also filmed by Julien Duvivier in 1958, starring Brigitte Bardot and Antonio Vilar, though it plays considerably more dated and straightforward than either the Von Sternberg or Bunuel versions of the same novel.