The Devil is a Woman [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - America - Criterion Collection
Review written by and copyright: Rick Curzon (28th August 2019).
The Film

The collaboration between filmmaker Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich is one of the most enduring in all Hollywood cinema. Tasked by Paramount bosses to find ‘the next big thing’, director von Sternberg lighted upon German silent star Dietrich and brought her to Hollywood. Successfully transitioning from the silent to the sound era, together they crafted a series of remarkable features that expressed a previously hitherto unbridled ecstasy in the process of filmmaking itself.

Marked by striking cinematography, beautiful design and elaborate camerawork these vibrantly sensuous films redefined cinema of the time, while Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous on-screen personas caused a sensation and turned her from actor to superstar and icon. Lavish, lascivious and wildly eccentric, the films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made for Paramount Pictures in the 1930s provide a unique testimony to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The six films that von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood are presented here in new restorations on Blu-ray for the very first time in the UK. Containing a wealth of new and archival extras – including new appreciations, interviews, audio commentaries, rare films, outtakes and deleted audio, documentaries… and more! This stunning box set is strictly limited to 6,000 units.

Video

The films in this set were shot in two aspect ratios; those shot in the Movietone ratio, 1.19:1 - Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931) - and those shot in the wider Academy ratio, 1.37:1 - Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1964) and The Devil is a Woman (1935). All six of the dramas in Powerhouse Film's deluxe boxed set are luscious, exotic, visually glowing romantic adventures (see IMDB synopsis below); I've also copied from the booklet the sources for each films picture and soundtrack as being from the 1930s the elements are more problematic than most of Powerhouse Film's Indicator series titles.

Morocco (1930)
"A cabaret singer and a Legionnaire fall in love, but their relationship is complicated by the results of his womanising and due to the appearance of a rich man who wants her for himself."
(scanned and restored in 2K from a 35mm safety finegrain preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The original mono soundtrack was remastered using the same element)

Dishonored (1931)
"The Austrian Secret Service sends its most seductive agent to spy on the Russians."
(Scanned and restored in 4K from a 35mm nitrate print preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The original mono soundtrack was remastered using the same element.)

Shanghai Express (1932)
"An opulent romantic adventure that focuses on a diverse group of passengers traveling by express train from Peking to Shanghai."
(Scanned and restored in 4K by Universal Pictures from a 35mm dupe negative and a composite finegrain. The original mono soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm optical negative by Universal Studios.)

Blonde Venus (1932)
"A cabaret singer takes up with a millionaire to pay for her gravely ill husband's operation."
(Scanned and restored in 4K from a 35mm nitrate print preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The original mono soundtrack was remastered using the same element.)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)
"A German noblewoman enters into a loveless marriage with the dim-witted, unstable heir to the Russian throne, then plots to oust him from power."
(Scanned and restored in 4K from a 35mm nitrate print preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The original mono soundtrack was remastered using the same element.)

The Devil is a Woman (1935)
"A young man is warned by a captain about a temptress; nonetheless, he finds himself falling in love with her."
(Scanned and restored in 4K from a 35mm dupe negative. The original mono soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm print.)

All six films in this set were made in stunning monochrome; 35mm cinematography shot through with a glowing, dreamlike ambiance which has been difficult to get 100% on home video formats with lower resolution but these Blu-rays handle the sources very well. I've heard tell the marvellous contrast and inkiness of films of this era was down to the nitrate film stock which has been described:

"Nitrate film stock has been praised for the beauty of its images and for truly allowing cinematographers to paint with light — whites pop off the screen, blacks are deep and rich, and grey tones shimmer."
- photo.stackexchange.com

I find that images on these six films are inherently soft with glowing, diffused highlights that give the contrast settings a hard time but it's been expertly handled. There are some intended mild blown-out highlights as part of the seemingly desired dreamy look. Details are generally pretty good, but very fine detail is weak, especially the further away from the camera the object is. Skin and fabrics look healthy; best in closeups. Black levels are velvety and cloying with a lovely texture and richness; shadow detail is decent but there are fleeting moments of intended crush; part of the shadowy style on show. Gamma is expertly handled with not a shred of any colour bias creeping in.

The encoding from David MacKenzie and Fidelity in Motion is as good as it can be with a very healthy, even grain field across all six films. These aren't going to look as sharp as 35mm B&W films lensed from the '50s onwards as film stocks and technology improved; however, the technicians of the day made a virtue and style out of what they had. Nitrate film gave everything a very specific look and short of UHD Blu-ray in 4K with HDR grading we aren't going to see any major improvements. These films have been afforded maxed out bitrates on dual layered discs and take up the lions share of the space.

Stunning image quality that simply can't be beat for these difficult titles with expert encoding making the most of the very fine source masters.

Disc 1 - Morocco - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.19:1 / 92:09
Disc 2 - Dishonored - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.19:1 / 91:27
Disc 3 - Shanghai Express - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.37:1 / 82:20
Disc 4 - Blonde Venus - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.37:1 / 94:02
Disc 5 - The Scarlet Empress - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.37:1 / 104:48
Disc 6 - The Devil is a Woman - 1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.37:1 / 79:38

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
Subtitles: English HoH

Von Sternberg uses silence especially well in the early sound films with lengthy passages of little or no dialogue. It's an old track from a time when sound on film was new. There's little base and plenty of hiss, but that's to be expected and desired. When Universal used noise reduction on Frankenstein (1931) in the early days of DVD they removed all of said hiss and caused the soundtrack to become this bizarre beast with little or now life.

Happily, that isn't the case on these transfers. They're about as good as it could ever sound on these discs; albeit sound aficionados will find that it has very limited range and sound effects are much less than we've become used to. Tinny, narrow and occasionally boomy but very much of their era these tracks are nonetheless as good as they can be and therefore deserve full marks.

Subtitles for the hearing impaired are present and correct on all six films.

Extras

Audio commentary on Morocco with journalists Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger
Audio commentary on Shanghai Express with journalist David Thompson
Audio commentary on Blonde Venus with journalist Adrian Martin
Audio commentary on The Scarlet Empress by journalist Tony Rayns


A collection of chatty, informative tracks from journalists and historians all of whom have prior experience. Lots and lots of detail about the key players obviously focussing heavily on Dietrich and Von Sternberg but we get plenty of other bits and bobs about tangential figures like Emil Jannings and how he disliked working with Von Sternberg who could be difficult to get along with. I found the stories about Von Sternberg's feud with Gary Cooper in Morocco and how he favoured Dietrich and on occasion shot Cooper looking up at Dietrich amusing. Both have plenty to say on the sexual politics of the working dynamic betwixt Von Sternberg and Dietrich.


"Nicholas von Sternberg Introduces Morocco and it's Antecedents" featurette (10:36)
"Nicholas von Sternberg Introduces Dishonored" featurette (11:28)
"Nicholas von Sternberg Introduces Shanghai Express" featurette (4:04)
"Nicholas von Sternberg introduces Blonde Venus" featurette (6:35)
"Nicholas von Sternberg Introduces The Scarlet Empress" featurette (6:46)
"Nicholas von Sternberg Introduces The Devil is a Woman" featurette (8:27)
"The Art of Josef von Sternberg Presented by Nicholas von Sternberg" featurette (9:22)


Several pieces in which Von Sternberg's son discussing his dad's work. The introductions focus on each film and on his colourful personality and his perseverance, his ego and his dynamism in doing things his way. Also how he developed the style for which he was best known; how he came to work with Dietrich etc. "The Art of" featurette covers his art - sculpture and paintings - and is essentially a slideshow with voiceover.

"Josef von Sternberg: An Introduction - Von Sternberg's biographer John Baxter discuses the director's career at London's BFI Southbank on 1 December 2009" (plays as an alternate audio track over the film (74:56)

Another of the invaluable audio recordings made by the BFI over the years that play as an alternate audio track; an ersatz commentary if you like.

"Josef von Sternberg: A Retrospective" 1969 documentary (77:55)
"The Twilight of an Angel" 2012 documentary (54:03)
"The Fashion Side of Hollywood: A Style Preview of Forthcoming Motion Pictures" 1935 featurette (10:24)


A couple of valuable vintage documentaries one from the late '60s and the other much more recent. We also have a 1930s style EPK featurette that would've been a promo piece screened in cinemas

"Trouble in Hollywood: Jasper Sharp on Anna May Wong" featurette (24:08)
"I Did What He Told Me to Do: Josef von Sternberg & Marlene Dietrich" featurette (16:46)
"Dietrich, a Queer Icon: So Mayer on Dietrich's Impact on Gender in Film" featurette (24:38)
"Styling the Stars: Nathalie Morris on Travis Banton's Costume Design [The Devil is a Woman]" featurette (22:42)


A collection of new featurettes covering various aspects of the films in the set. Anna May
Wong was a big star at the time and gets a piece. The second one above focuses on how Sternberg directed his iconic star. Mayer discusses the iconic status of Dietrich amongst the gay and lesbian community and how this image has affected female roles subsequently. Morris focusses on the unique styles created for Dietrich.

"If it Isn't Pain (Then it Isn't Love)" (deleted song from The Devil is a Woman audio only) (2:52)

What it says on the tin; the audio for a deleted song sequence.

"Lux Radio Theatre: The Lady and the Legionnaire" 1936 radio adaptation (59:22)

Vintage radio adaptation has solid, lossless mono sound. Again, like the features it is of limited range and has some hiss. It's also muffled and tinny but that's typical of recordings of this age.

Morocco Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (62 images)
Dishonored Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (17 images)
Shanghai Express Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (40 images)
Blonde Venus Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (43 images)
The Scarlet Empress Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (48 images)
The Devil is a Woman Image Gallery: Original Promotional Material (26 images)


A decent collection of HD images plenty of which have become iconic over the decades.

120-page book with a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson, archival interviews and articles, an overview of contemporary critical responses, film credits and more

The usual stunningly comprehensive companion to the features; definitely use this side-by-side with the discs for the greatest symbiotic, supportive contextual appreciation. Stunning and indispensable.

Overall

A great looking series of films from Hollywood's Golden Age get the deluxe treatment from Powerhouse Films and they hit bullseye with topnotch picture on all five films; sound is from technologically limited sources as is typical of the period but is as good as it can be. Extras collectively prove extremely valuable and contextually supportive; bravo all round.

I seem keep saying this about Powerhouse Film's products but this set easily trumps the Criterion and will be appearing on many lists of discs of the year.

The Film: A Video: A+ Audio: A Extras: A+ Overall: A+

 


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