Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926): USA

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on DVD.

A sizzling affair between returning soldier Leo von Harden (John Gilbert) and bored Countess Felicitas von Rhaden (Greta Garbo), quickly turns to death, despair and regret in Flesh and the Devil.

Leo quickly becomes enraptured with the alluring beauty of Felicitas when first he spies her at the train station while he is on leave from military service.  Later that evening at a fancy dress ball, the two share a smoke and the web of seduction begins as Felicitas slowly places her cigarette into Leo’s mouth, gently blows out the match, and methodically gazes into his eyes with unmistakable yearning and desire.

After consecrating their love, who should walk in but her husband Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott).  The stunned Leo accepts Count von Rhaden’s challenge to a duel, under the guise of a disagreement over cards.

Best friend and fellow soldier Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson), stands by Leo during the duel and after, when Leo is remanded to service for five years in Africa.  The wealthy Ulrich is instructed to be helpful to the new widow Felicitas, but is soon beguiled after their first encounter and marries her before Leo’s return.

With a bit of finagling Ulrich manages to get Leo’s five years in the desert reduced to three, and Leo can think of nothing other than his return to the sublime Felicitas.

Upon discovery of their marriage Leo decides to stay away, which is hurtful to Ulrich, but agonizing for Felicitas.  She begins to tempt and torment Leo, going so far as to seduce him at the alter during Holy Communion, which eventually leads to yet another duel.

The alluring Garbo and the dreamy John Gilbert smolder together and were actually in the midst of a real life love affair.  The camera seemed to love Garbo, with the untouchable quality in her acting adding a mystique to her persona.

Very much a director’s film, Brown leaves much of the imagination, interpretation, and assumption to the audience and rightly so.  The actors do not employ the extravagant theatrical movements often used in silents, but to the contrary their actions and reactions, though highly dramatic, are very much controlled.   The entire film is beautifully shot with the first dueling scene showing only silhouettes, and when the duelists move out of frame only gun smoke appears, which then leaves the audience suspended until the next frame.  Clarence Brown was an eminent storyteller in both silents and talkies.  He directed Joan Crawford in the elusive Letty Lynton, and helmed many other great films such as The Human Comedy, The White Cliffs of Dover, and National Velvet.

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