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.
The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.
Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.
Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.