William Dieterle | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling
| Visual Style
Films: The Devil's in Love
| From Headquarters
| Fog over Frisco | Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet
| Elephant Walk
Classic Film and Television Home Page
William Dieterle began and ended his career in Germany, but made many of his movies in Hollywood.
William Dieterle: Subjects
Common subjects in the films of William Dieterle:
Science and Technology:
- Respect for racial minorities and oppostion to racism (Arabs: The Devil's in Love,
Jews: The Life of Emile Zola, Gypsies: The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
Asian translator: A Dispatch from Reuter's)
- Defence of reactionaries in US Civil War era (slavery apologist Daniel Webster: All That Money Can Buy,
white supremacist President Andrew Johnson: Tennessee Johnson)
- Europeans living in the Tropics (North Africa: The Devil's in Love, Africa: Another Dawn,
China: Peking Express, Sri Lanka: Elephant Walk)
- Churches as refuges (The Devil's in Love, The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
- Safes (From Headquarters, Fog over Frisco, All That Money Can Buy)
- Manipulating news (reporter holds back info: Fog over Frisco,
hero refuses to hold info: A Dispatch from Reuter's)
- Finance (1929 crash: The Crash, bond swindles, financial firm: Fog over Frisco,
stock market, crash: A Dispatch from Reuter's, crooked contracts with farmers, grange: All That Money Can Buy)
- Fund raising (medical research: Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, news agency: A Dispatch from Reuter's)
- Heroes who defend themselves from false charges before legal tribunals (The Devil's in Love,
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, hearing in House of Commons: A Dispatch from Reuter's,
trial before supernatural jury: All That Money Can Buy, impeachment: Tennessee Johnson)
related (beggars' court: The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
- Women who help men in their causes (The Devil's in Love,
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, wife: A Dispatch from Reuter's)
- Doctor heroes (The Devil's in Love, Dr. Socrates, The Story of Louis Pasteur,
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, Peking Express) nurses (The White Angel)
- Medical research (The Story of Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet)
- Battles against epidemics (The Devil's in Love, cholera: Elephant Walk)
- Technological advances (forensics in crime investigation: From Headquarters,
printing press: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, telegraph, telegraph-based world news: A Dispatch from Reuter's)
- Large complex buildings, often full of technology (police headquarters: From Headquarters,
mansion: Fog over Frisco, Cathedral: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, bungalow: Elephant Walk)
William Dieterle: Structure and Story Telling
- Strange variations on the whodunit (The Devil's in Love, From Headquarters, Fog over Frisco)
- Biographical films (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The White Angel,
The Life of Emile Zola, Juarez, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, A Dispatch from Reuter's,
William Dieterle: Visual Style
Design and Geometry:
- Circular environments (airplane gunner, bullring: The Last Flight, night club: Fog over Frisco,
lecture platform: Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, circular balcony over stairs: All That Money Can Buy,
lighthouse spiral steps, arched museum ceiling at end: Portrait of Jennie)
- Tuxedos (The Last Flight, Lyle Talbot: Fog over Frisco, Elephant Walk)
- White tie and tails (All That Money Can Buy)
The Devil's in Love
The Devil's in Love (1933) is a tropical adventure movie, a fairly
well defined genre, in films, books and comics. The Devil's in Love focuses
on a doctor in the French Foreign Legion. Like many such tales, it concentrates
on white people who live in a tropical clime, here somewhere in North Africa.
Dieterle would make another tropical adventure with Elephant Walk.
The Devil's in Love combines other genres with tropical adventure: it is also a
whodunit, romance, medical drama, courtroom drama, and anti-war film. Its plethora of plot is an endearing feature.
The whodunit aspects are at the beginning and end; they are absent in the middle.
Links to Shanghai Express
The Devil's in Love was based on a screen story by Harry Hervey, who also did the
story for Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
the previous year. Both film's male lead is a noble doctor, a macho, determined man
who serves in the armed forces in the tropics. Both films also have him encounter a
"bad woman with a heart of gold".
The Devil's in Love looks like a straight-out attempt to do an imitation Sternberg
movie - and a pretty good one. There is gorgeous photography, by Hal Mohr, which is full
of dreamy, elaborate lighting effects. The image threatens to dissolve into beautiful patterns of
light and shade, as in Sternberg. There are many scenes of languid romance, as in Sternberg.
Both films' army doctor heroes are in gorgeous uniforms, increasing their glamour appeal.
In addition to Shanghai Express, one suspects the creators had seen Sternberg's own
Foreign Legion film, Morocco (1930).
Years later Dieterle will do a remake of Shanghai Express: Peking Express (1951).
Dieterle would do other films about noble doctors. These include his medical research
film biographies, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940).
These films emphasize their doctor heroes' work ethic.
The Devil's in Love also includes anti-war commentary in its opening sections.
The film's concern for and respectful treatment of Arabs, recalls that Dieterle would
make the anti-racist The Life of Emile Zola and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
The way the doctor finds refuge and a new home base at the mission, anticipates the cathedral
and its occupants in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
From Headquarters (1933) is entirely set in police headquarters
in New York City. It is a whodunit, a popular genre of the era,
in which we follow a single murder mystery from its inception
From Headquarters is a remarkably
complete and pioneering look at scientific crime detection. It
anticipates the many semi-documentaries about police work that
would be made starting in the late 1940's. It has a look at Hollerith
machines being used to search through police databases of criminals.
It shows police radio dispatch and phone rooms, the center of
police communications. It goes to the police lab, with a thorough
guide to ballistics analysis. And we see a sociological study
of a large police station as well, and the many different types
of people who interact there.
The FBI will use punched cards and Hollerith machines to identify
a suspect by his fingerprints in William Keighley's
The Street With No Name (1948). In Anthony Mann's
He Walked By Night (1948), the LAPD use similar machines
to identify criminals by their modus operandi. Hollerith machines
are used to search out bank robbers in From Headquarters,
an approach identical to Mann's film. The police also find criminals
with certain fingerprints in their files in From Headquarters,
but we do not see the mechanism they use in that search.
From Headquarters was made two years after Fritz Lang's
M (1931), which also was an early look at scientific police
American prose mystery novels that showed scientific detection
and police procedure in the early 1930's also tended to be about
the New York City homicide squad, such as those by Anthony Abbot
and Helen Reilly. Reilly's McKee
of Centre Street (1933) will depict the radio room at police
headquarters; we see radio dispatches in From Headquarters.
Mary Roberts Rinehart will depict police
radio cars in her short story "That Is All" (1932);
the police radio dispatcher in From Headquarters will use
the standard phrase "That Is All" to conclude each radio
From Headquarters resembles Elephant Walk in that
it focuses on one large building, and the complex organization
that takes place inside. Both films show a crisis in the building
as a finale: the alarm at the police station, the elephants at
the bungalow. The mansion in Fog over Frisco also has a
complex layout, with a basement garage and an elevator, and high
tech internal organization, with a house telephone and safe.
Narrative Structure and POV shots
The narration never physically leaves the station. We do see the
crime scene in two ways. 1) We think we are seeing the apartment
where the killing took place. Then Dieterle pulls back his camera,
and we realize we are looking at a still photograph of the crime
scene and body, taken by the police. We are still at headquarters,
with the police studying the photo. (Fog over Frisco will
contain a scene in which a photograph is taken of the dead body,
our first and only look at the murdered corpse.) 2) Various suspects
give eye witness accounts of what they saw during the murder night.
These are shown as flashbacks. These flashbacks are most unusual.
They are mainly Point of View shots, single-take, moving camera
shots, which represent what the suspect saw during the murder
night. The camera movements are high conspicuous to the audience:
they are definitely not the "invisible" camera movements
sometimes found in films that quietly follow along with walking
actors. Even the most naive spectators would realize that something
unusual was going on here with the camera.
The flashbacks break POV paradigm at least once. That is when
the camera tastefully avoids showing the actual corpse. Instead,
we see the action conveyed through shadows on the wall. Old films
had the idea that violence was to be avoided - apparently in might
upset and audience, or be in bad taste. How times have changed
- and not for the better! The constant gyrating camera movements
persist in this shot. But they no longer represent the actual
Point of View of a character. It is an odd effect.
In the police station itself, Dieterle will include a shot of
a suspect taken from a very low angle. This shot seems somewhat
unusual in the world of 1930's Hollywood. High and low angle shots
will become standard in the film noir of the 1940's and 1950's.
Fog over Frisco
Fog over Frisco (1934) is a mystery thriller. In some ways
it is an absolutely typical 1930's film, with a large cast of
Warner Brothers regulars going to town with a juicy story. But
several aspects are untypical of 1930's films.
Fog over Frisco is full of location photography of San
Francisco. 1934 was right in the center of the studio bound era
of the 1930's. Films often had a few establishing scenes of stock
footage of some city; they also often had exteriors shot on studio
back lots that represented a "typical New York street"
or "average London set of houses" The studios maintained
standing sets of their lots that represented such familiar locations.
Fog over Frisco is completely different. It actually takes
us out on the streets of San Francisco, in a way that is typical
of 1970's TV crime shows, but which looks utterly unlike most
30's films. The city revealed in its images looks at once much
like modern Frisco, with its distinctive buildings on steep hills,
and also much different from the modern town, with old cars, clothes
and 1930's style building facades everywhere. These scenes make
a fascinating historical document. The old Three Stooges shorts
of the era often took us out to exteriors in Los Angeles, in a
way that revealed a whole bygone era; but most Hollywood feature
films of the time were very stingy with such location work.
What is Dieterle's "motivation" for such location work?
For one thing, the scenes all seem to be chosen to convey the
unique appearance of San Francisco to the viewer. We see cable
cars, steep hills, architectural landmarks, the docks. It is almost
like a miniature travelogue of the city.
Is this a Whodunit?
The genre of Fog over Frisco also seems hard to place.
While many of the characters in the film are crooks, no one seems
to be an actual gangster. There is a shady night club owner, but
he is involved with crooked society types, not actual gangland
figures. These people are plenty murderous and tough, but there
is no underworld milieu. The characters are respectable people
who have gone utterly bad, not men with mob ties. In this they
resemble the murderers in the whodunits that were popular in the
1930's. Including Dieterle's own whodunit From Headquarters,
in which the murder victim and some suspects are also well-to-do
types involved with crooked activities on the side.
However, Fog over Frisco is not exactly a whodunit, either.
For one thing, there is no central detective figure, no Philo
Vance or Nick Charles dedicated to tracking down the killer. Instead,
we see the relatives and friends of the criminals dragged into
their orbit, trying to cope with their crimes as best they can.
There are police in the film, but they have the same peripheral
role they often have in a whodunit. They are always on hand to
engage in a shoot-out, a chase or an arrest, but they never actually
solve much of the crime. In a Philo Vance picture, the police
weave in and out in support of Vance's investigation. The police
have a similar on and off role in this film, but there is no actual
detective at its center for them to support. It is like a whodunit
without a detective.
There have been several negative comparisons of whodunits with
the later film noir. One might point out some things in the whodunit's
defense. For one thing, its bad guys seem to be motivated by pure
greed. By contrast, many film noir villains tend to have psychological
problems. This makes for great drama. However, a dimension of
social criticism has been lost. Whodunits are full of respectable
members of society whose sheer greed has pushed them into crooked
schemes. They have no excuse for their crimes. They are simply
people whose love of money has trampled on the rights of everyone
around them. These people tend to be at least as violent as the
film noir bad guys. They lie, cheat, kidnap and kill, and will
do anything, no matter how extreme, in pursuit of their goals.
Certainly Bette Davis' bad girl in this film has few compunctions;
neither does her criminal partner.
The Strange Treatmnent of the Protagonist
Fog over Frisco differs from the whodunits in that much
more emphasis is placed on the bad guys in the film. Here the
evil woman played by Bette Davis is clearly the central character
of the film. Or is she? Her good sister played by Margaret Lindsay
also has much screen time. The film has an utterly unusual construction
in the treatment of its apparent protagonist. Such films as Alfred
Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Michelangelo Antonionni's
L'Avventura (1959-1960) became famous for their avant-garde
treatment of their casts, with their apparent leading ladies vanishing
halfway through their films, never to be seen again. The sheer
strangeness of these films' strategies, and the way they violated
all traditional Hollywood norms, were conspicuously underlined
by the scenarists. Every audience member of the time was aware
that these films were flagrantly defying traditional norms, in
a way that marked them as explicitly avant-garde works.
Fog over Frisco does something almost as avant-garde as
these later works. However, its thriller construction does not
rub its audience's nose in its strangeness. Instead, it attempts
to arouse audience emotional interest in the storyline, and the
feelings of the characters on screen. This disguises the avant-garde
nature of the proceedings.
Sets and Geometry
The rooms of Bad Gal Bette Davis and Good Gal Lindsay are decorated in
contrasting styles. The bad sister has Art Deco; the good sister has
Contemporary Cozy. These are two styles that dominated Hollywood in the
1930's, with Art Deco being popular in the first part of the decade,
and Cozy in the second. Here they are unexpectedly co-existing in a single film,
something I don't recall much elsewhere. And they are linked to good vs. evil, too.
They also might be linked to sophistication vs. naiveté: Bette is totally knowing,
while her sister Margaret Lindsay is utterly naive, gullible and girlish.
Her room looks "traditionally feminine", with flounces and frills.
Various sets have contrasting geometry, too:
The wavy lines in the bedroom doors are quite unusual. They remind one of the "Zener cards"
used by J. B. Rhine to test for ESP in the early 1930's. (By the way, I do NOT believe in ESP.)
- Bette's Art Deco room is full of large diamond shapes: both the mirror
and the bed head are in this form. A chair also has a back with slanting sides.
The room also has doors with a sea motif, of large wavy lines.
- The night club is full of circles. It has a circular bar, inside of which
is a large circular stand, with layers of platform on it like a large Lazy Susan.
The club also has arches in the background, behind the band.
- The mansion has a large circular staircase. There is a camera movement, following
Lindsay up it.
- The garage at the mansion is highly rectilinear. The garage room is like a large
box. Off of it, is a tunnel which is also like a long rectilinear box of a tube.
The garage doors are notably large and rectangular, as is the elevator at the
far end of the tunnel corridor.
As one might guess of the director of From Headquarters, the police
use technology. We see them using boats and planes in the finale. There is also a
brief glimpse of the police switchboard.
Many other areas are also technological:
- The finale takes us to a bridge and a dock. Both look shot on location.
- The mansion has a house telephone.
- An airplane is seen at the start.
- A radio broadcast is briefly shown.
Fog over Frisco is unusually sophisticated about money and financial
transactions. We see both the crooks at their double dealings. Then how the honest
characters in the story try to cope with the aftermath of the thefts. The whole account
is unusually detailed.
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) is another Dieterle movie that
celebrates scientists and scientific progress.
Sets and Geometry
The lecture platform where Dr. Koch announces his results about tuberculosis
is filled with circular forms:
- There are three large circular windows.
- The walls are curved.
- A curving row of built-in benches forches a concentric ring.
- There is a circular step down to a platform floor, making a third concentric ring.
- A chandelier has a ring of light bulbs.
Although Elephant Walk (1954) has mainly British characters,
everyone beyond the camera was American, and it should be considered
as a Hollywood film.
John Lee Mahin: Script
John Lee Mahin, the screenwriter for Elephant Walk, was
a Hollywood fixture from 1931 to the 1960's. Many of his films
resemble Elephant Walk, in that they are romantic dramas
set in exotic places; he especially likes hot steaming jungles
in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. Most of these films involved
love stories, as well as adventure; a classic Mahin plot was two
men vying for the love of the same woman, as in Red Dust,
and here in Elephant Walk. Mahin also set several movies
in frontier boom towns; these films include North to Alaska,
Lucy Gallant, and Boom Town itself. In all cases
there is a lot of human activity in Mahin's locations; his characters
are not isolated explorers, but people knee deep in some human
society. Most of his characters are gainfully employed in some
venture, whether as the planters of Elephant Walk, tour
guides, reporters, or manufacturers. Few are idly rich, and most
seem to relish their jobs and pursue them with gusto. There is
always a note of economic realism to Mahin's tales; they take
place in the real world of business and jobs and marriage, not
in a Raiders of the Lost Ark never never land.
People in his films are often at a point where they have to make
some key decision about their lives; the process of making the
decision is what the film is all about.
Several of Mahin's films involve religion, which is always treated
as a positive force in Mahin's world. This tends to be Roman Catholicism,
as in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, and My Son John,
but there is also a sympathetic portrait of the Protestant medical
missionary played by Gena Rowlands in The Spiral Road.
Elephant Walk continues this tradition with its reverent
portrait of the Buddhist monuments of Sri Lanka. Mahin's films
tend to involve encounters between religious women and skeptical
or even atheistic men. In Elephant Walk, the Elizabeth
Taylor character is pious, and stresses prayer, whereas both the
men in her life are skeptical of this.
In addition the European characters, Mahin's exotic films usually
involve sympathetic portraits of the local, non-white inhabitants;
he was not a racist, and I cannot remember any racial slurs or
stereotypes in his films. Elephant Walk is structured virtually
as a documentary about Sri Lanka, and what life is like on one
of its tea plantations. It takes us into the living quarters,
kitchens, fields and factories of a great plantation, showing
us a genuinely impressive spectacle in the process.
Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson: Art Direction
The production design on the film, especially the giant bungalow,
is truly remarkable. The art directors Hal Pereira and Joseph
MacMillan Johnson worked together on a few films in the 1950's,
including Hitchcock's equally spectacular Rear Window,
with its giant courtyard set. Both films feature multi-storied
sets, which have a real three dimensional quality. Johnson falls
off the map at this point, having no more film credits, whereas
Pereira made 150 Hollywood films. Perhaps as an in joke, the doctor
character in Elephant Walk is named Dr. Pereira.
Loyal Griggs: Photography
Loyal Griggs, the cinematographer, was mainly employed on spectacular
color films. He did not begin photographing until 1951, after
the main age of black and white, and he is not a veteran of the
early days of cinematography, unlike so many great Hollywood cameramen.
In addition to its documentary aspects, Elephant Walk contains
two plot elements that recall famous books that were turned into
famous movies. Much of the romantic plot of the film recalls Daphne
Du Maurier's Rebecca. Elizabeth Taylor plays a middle class
young woman who marries into a wealthy family, and arrives at
her husband's estate, where she is overwhelmed by the pre-established
routine of the large household. This is the same situation as
in Rebecca. Everything in the estate in Rebecca
is dominated by memories of the dead first wife of the husband;
in Elephant Walk, the hero's dead father is the overwhelming
presence that still controls all aspects of life on the estate.
Both estates are run by all powerful housekeepers; in Rebecca
this is the sinister Mrs. Danvers; in Elephant Walk, the
housekeeper is a more sympathetic Sinhalese man, Appuhamy. In
both films the heroine and her husband finally gain freedom from
the past when the estate burns to the ground, at the end of the
Another influence on Elephant Walk is Louis Bromfield's
novel The Rains Came, which was made into an excellent
1938 film by director Clarence Brown.
The Rains Came takes place in India, and the hero and heroine
work to exhaustion fighting an epidemic among the local population.
Elephant Walk takes place in the neighboring country of
Sri Lanka, and its couple also spends a good portion of the second
half of the film battling a cholera epidemic.
How would I rate the three main plot elements of Elephant Walk?
The documentary and spectacle aspects of the film would get an
A+. They are shot in an eye popping style, and will fascinate
anyone interested in foreign countries. The romantic plot about
the heroine battling against the control of her husband's dead
father gets a B. It is slightly contrived, but it is never boring,
and well handled by the talented cast and crew. The cholera epidemic
gets a C. These sections are over the top, and there are even
hints of self parody at some points, as if the director were saying,
I know this is Camp, and what the heck!
What about the elephants themselves? The hero's father built his
house across their walkway, and killed the head elephant's mate
in the process. His son has been trying to keep up the same fanatic
fight ever since. In one symbolic package, the male macho code
of dominance over women and over nature is evoked. The film most
successfully wages a feminist fight against this vicious ideal.