Dietrich is a manipulating, austere Spanish vamp who makes it her business to destroy men on a wholesale basis without batting one of her famous eyelashes. Young Romero meets Dietrich and is immediately smitten with her exotic charms. Before seeing her again, Romero encounters Atwill, a
fellow military officer, and he confides his deep affection for Dietrich. Atwill reacts with alarm, telling his younger friend that this is the same woman who shattered his life. Atwill tells of his experiences with Dietrich, and the film goes into flashback, relating how he met the woman on a
train five years earlier, becoming utterly captivated by her. He slavishly follows her and assumes the role of her financial guardian, paying her debts, purchasing a wardrobe for her, and providing elegant living quarters, much to the edification of her harridan mother Skipworth. After she has
drained him, Dietrich insists upon more. Though he has nothing more to give, Atwill, even more excited at her mistreatment of him (a true masochist), goes in search of more riches to give to Dietrich. The vixen rewards his generosity by deserting him. He later finds her dancing in a Cadiz bar. He
lavishes money on her, but, when he is broke, she again vanishes. Still later, when Atwill is an inspector of manufactured goods, he spots the mysterious Dietrich rolling cigarettes in a factory. Again his blood boils with passion, and again she takes his money and adoration and then departs. At
each encounter, Atwill depletes his emotions and wealth for Dietrich and receives nothing, which is what the older man stresses to naive Romero toward the end of the film when the story has come full circle. Romero promises his friend to steer clear of the manwrecker, but Atwill finds him with
Dietrich during a raucous festival abounding with frenetic dancers, thieves, and drunks. Atwill, beside himself with jealousy, challenges Romero to a duel. The two men square off, and Romero seriously wounds Atwill. By then the older man thinks Dietrich loves Romero, so, to save the younger man
for her sake, he fires his shot into the air, then collapses. Dietrich visits the stricken Atwill in the hospital, but he tells her he's finished with her and orders her to leave with Romero. She does, apparently without remorse, heading for Paris with Romero. But she has a change of heart at the
border and turns around, going back to Atwill in Seville. Whether she is there to be with him out of love and comfort or to go on tormenting him is unclear at the fadeout.
Of all the von Sternberg-Dietrich films this is the most unpopular and unsatisfying. The director considered this film the end of his cycle with Dietrich and even undertook the cinematographer's duties to make sure every frame would be as he had envisioned it. It met with critical condemnation and
the public stayed away. The Spanish government at the time banned the film and asked the U.S. State Department to request Paramount to suppress the film. The State Department complied, and Paramount removed most of the prints in circulation. Spain complained that Atwill's role as an officer in the
Guardia Civil degraded that organization and that Horton, who appears briefly in the film as a venal Spanish police chief, was a disgrace, particularly when Horton whimsically suggests that arresting lawbreakers is too time consuming, that it is better to shoot them outright. Scenes showing
besotted members of the Guardia Civil staggering through the festival also irked the Spanish government. Whether or not Paramount destroyed the negative of this film is not known, but a few prints of this film still survive. Dietrich loaned her own to the Museum of Modern Art in 1959 for a von
Sternberg revival, and a few others have been circulating since. Von Sternberg considered this film "a final tribute to the lady [Dietrich] I had seen lean against the winds of a Berlin stage, at the same time planning an affectionate salute to Spain and its traditions. He went on to blame the
failure for this film on an inadequate script caused by writer Dos Passos being ill with fever. He hated the title, preferring to call the film CAPRICE ESPAGNOL. Lubitsch, then in charge of production, according to von Sternberg, "set his seal on it by altering the title to THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN.
This accent is not mine. Though Mr. Lubitsch's poetic intention to suggest altering the sex of the devil was meant to aid in selling the picture, it did not do so" (Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg, New York, 1966, p. 41). The film, however, possesses von Sternberg's wonderful
compositions. It is frozen art without blood pumping through its heart. The same background was used in Bunuel's THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE.
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