William Dieterle | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Films: The Devil's in Love | From Headquarters | Fog over Frisco | Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet | Elephant Walk

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William Dieterle

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:

William Dieterle: Structure and Story Telling

Story Structure:

William Dieterle: Visual Style

Design and Geometry: Costumes:


Here are ratings for various films directed by William Dieterle. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.


I find the paranormal claptrap of "Portrait of Jennie" very hard to take.

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).

Social Commentary

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

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 through solution.

Scientific Detection

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 work.

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 message.

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.

Location Filming

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.)


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:


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:

Elephant Walk

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 story.

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.