Old Hollywood icon & sexual anarchist Marlene Dietrich first earned her legendary status through a run of collaborations with Josef von Sternberg, to the point where their names are near inseparable. The actor-director pair churned out seven feature films together in the 1930s — a catalog of sexually daring pictures set in exotic locales, each featuring Dietrich as a classic femme fatale. The Devil is a Woman is far from the most prestigious or technically accomplished of those collaborations. It doesn’t approach the controversial seduction & glamor of better-respected pictures like The Blue Angel, Morocco, or Shanghai Express. Despite the severe, sensational misogyny of its title, it’s a surprisingly goofy film, one that cannot be taken nearly as seriously as the more sublime achievements of the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon. It’s also one that distinguishes itself through the jubilant novelty of its setting: turn-of-the-century Spanish Carnival.
Marlene Dietrich stars as a Marlene Dietrich type: a seductive woman who bleeds men dry for her own amusement while modeling outrageous outfits and enjoying the lawless free-for-all of Spanish Carnival. An older, disgraced military officer warns his young friend about the dangerous seductive powers of all women, then of Dietrich’s soul-draining (and money-draining) villainy in particular. It’s a cinematic trope that dates at least as far back as Theda Bara’s iconic role as The Vamp in 1915’s A Fool There Was, equally as misogynistic as it is aspirationally cool-as-fuck. Dietrich oddly doesn’t approach the role with any of her usual laid-back cool, however. She’s supposed to be a femme fatale, but plays it more like a proto-Lucille Ball sitcom scamp. She empties men’s pockets and manipulates them to fight for her affections (and amusement), sure, but she does so with a dialed-to-11 temper tantrum humor that I’m not used to seeing from her. Her casting as a Spanish seductress is pretty absurd on its face, but I also grew up in a time when Schwarzenegger routinely played an American everyman, so whatever. The real absurdity is in her broadly comedic interpretation of the role.
Of course, the “exotic” (to Hollywood) Spanish setting is mostly interesting for the visual feast of its Carnival celebrations, and the movie starts with a doozy — drunken revelers storming the studio set with giant paper-mâché heads and multi-colored streamers. The masquerade provides an excuse for costumed lushes & outright criminals to run wild circles around the sordid “love” triangle at the film’s center, and that revelry never loses its novelty. It’s also an excuse for Dietrich to model over-the-top Spanish gowns, starting with a show-stopper piece made of cascading black pompoms. It’s a beaut. I would more readily recommend the film for the novelty of that setting than I would for its significance in the Dietrich/von Sternberg canon, but that’s not to say it’s entirely frivolous. If anything, there’s something oddly subversive about how playful & lighthearted Dietrich plays the supposed femme fatale, a point that’s driven home when she admonishes one of her frustrated beaus, “You mistake your vanity for love.” It’s not her fault that men keep throwing all of their money & attentions at her feet, so why shouldn’t she get to enjoy the rewards during the year’s biggest party? Someone’s gotta pay for those gowns.