Set in the centre of a Spanish carnival, The Devil Is A Woman is a story nested within a story. Captain Donald Pasqual (Lionel Atwill), makes the acquaintance of Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero). Against the backdrop of the local carnival, Pasqual attempts to warn the younger man of the horrors of romance by recanting the story of his tempestuous love affair with Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich).
What makes The Devil Is A Woman work is its narrative structure. As the experienced older man tells the story of his life against the surrealist carnival backdrop, the present day sequences sit somewhere between Carnival Of Souls and Chaucer, and Atwill is excellent here, combining tremendous authority with the sort of tired devotion that really marks the romance out as something different.
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This is a man whose love for a woman has been ruined by his life, and yet he can’t walk away from her. It’s a traditional take on the romance story, the self-destructive relationship that refuses to die, but the performance and the restrictions of the time make this work with an unusual delicacy and poignancy.
Needless to say, Dietrich is on top form as Perez. Here she’s an almost static role, an ideal that both men aspire to and yet neither truly want. In many ways a script element rather than a character she still manages to give depth to the role and her intelligence, and occasional malice, go a long way towards explaining why Pasqual is so obsessed and doomed by his love for her.
Playing out in the present tense and with an ending, which is unusually narratively daring, The Devil Is A Woman is an old fashioned romance that has lost none of its bite for that. The superb costumes, unusual structure and well observed characters work as well now as they did then. Recommended.