Home Video Hovel: A Woman’s Devotion, by Scott Nye
For certain Hollywood films from the 1940s-1960s, their genius cannot be easily identified in especially fine acting, direction, writing, or camerawork. They appear in every way ordinary to the surface. Yet there is an energy running through them that you can’t find in many other pictures. Some strange force burrows underneath and shines from within. They needle at us, shake us a little out of our complacency and assumptions over what we’re seeing, and seem to stand outside of the genre constrictions they establish. Whatever they are, they’re a whole lot more than that.
Robert Hill wrote one of my favorites of these sorts of movies, Joseph Losey’s 1955 film noir Female on the Beach, so I shouldn’t have been as struck by this strange energy in his script produced the following year, A Woman’s Devotion. The film marked actor Paul Henreid’s second as director, and while it isn’t what I’d call a tour de force, something about the simplicity of the visual approach makes the script’s unusual elements stand out all the more. The fact of it being an all-color film noir set in sunny Acapulco alone sets it well apart from its contemporaries; the unsteady moral compass does much of the rest. Newlyweds Trevor (Ralph Meeker) and Stella (Janice Rule) Stevenson have wound up there while traveling South and Central America on their honeymoon, bouncing from place to place. He’s a painter, eager to soak up life, and she’s game for just about anything. They couldn’t be happier.
Then one morning, the police show up. A woman was murdered. Trevor was seen with her the night before; indeed, we saw them dance together and return to her place for some “posing.” He seems completely open to the police in describing what happened, doesn’t seem to show a care in the world. But it’s more complicated than that. Trevor, like many men of his generation, is a war veteran, and spent some time in a mental hospital after the war. There are times when he doesn’t seem altogether present. But there’s also the matter of the murdered woman’s husband (Yerye Beirute), who was two-timing her with another woman (María), both of whom seem happier to extort the Stevensons than find justice. And just what is the deal with the police captain Henrique (Henreid), who seems more than a little eager to get Stella to himself?
The resolution to these various strands is equally complex. Emotionally, narratively, and tonally, A Woman’s Devotion doesn’t allow for the resolution of a crime to resolve how we feel about each other. We all suspect our loved ones of keeping secrets at one point or another, over matters big and small. The title foregrounds the sacrifices Stella makes to assert that certainty, even when she doesn’t always feel it and certainly can’t substantiate it. Rule’s performance searches for exactly the middle ground Stella needs between fulfilling what she sees to be a wife’s duties and letting some of herself out in the open, while Meeker explores a husband’s prerogative to live according to his emotions. He rarely apologizes for his regular disappearances, late nights, and secrets. He may not be a murderer, but he isn’t proving the husband Stella thought she had.
Spinning this into a mystery plot with several credible suspects, all on a location shoot in Mexico, make for an incredibly unusual noir. Henreid doesn’t give us any of the long shadows, the dark nights, the steely dames we too often desire from film noir. The heart of darkness he’s exploring exists in the sunshine, is sometimes punished by it, and hides in plain daylight. Mexican cinematographer Jorge Stahl, Jr. does beautiful work with the natural topography and local decor, accenting the muted colors of Mexican art. There’s no particularly captivating still from the film, no “perfect shot” – like the rest of the film, there’s nothing that calls attention to itself as obviously great. It works slowly, intoxicating us with the feeling of drifting abroad where nobody knows you.
The film is presented in a new HD master from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, and looks absolutely outstanding. The colors come through very well, the depth in the images – so important to conveying the sense of place – is beautifully rendered, and the natural grain and luminance of film come through very strongly.
I was completely caught off guard by this film, and fell for it pretty hard. The disc doesn’t come with any supplements, unfortunately, but the transfer alone makes the disc worthwhile on a production level. If you’re into odd films from classic Hollywood, this is a tremendous example of how much more these artists could pour into simple premises.