Flesh and the Devil: Review
Ever since Thomas Edison recorded The Kiss, sex has been in movies, but it may never have been quite so obviously displayed in any movie before Flesh and the Devil. While director Clarence Brown certainly meant sex to be an important element of his film about two best friends betrayed by the love of one woman, even he probably didn't foresee the explosive chemistry between his two leads, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert were at the beginnings of a love affair and (in her case) the start of international stardom, and Flesh and the Devil is that rare experience where you get to watch the clouds of love, lust, and Hollywood star making converge into a maelstrom of a movie.
Considering the fact that this is a 1926 silent film, when the Hays Code was nominally in effect (if not actually enforced), Flesh and the Devil gets away with murder. The plot is slightly ridiculous in that heightened way unique to silent melodrama. Gilbert plays a young officer who falls madly in love with a married woman. When he kills her husband in a duel, he is forced to leave for Africa for three years, only to discover upon returning that his love has married his best friend played by Lars Hanson.
The plot is just an excuse to throw Gilbert and Garbo together in a series of sexually charged scenes. From her first hooded glance at him in a train station, to their seductive shared cigarette at a garden party, to their manic brawl in her bedroom, no onscreen couple has ever exuded sex quite so much while still keeping their clothes on. And adding to the romance of the movie is the fact that it was real.
This is the real appeal of Flesh and the Devil nearly 90 years after its release: watching while a legend is born onscreen. The movie is ostensibly written for Gilbert, with Garbo as the simple vamp, but there is nothing simple in her performance or her magnetic dominance over the film. Flesh and the Devil establishes many facets of the Garbo image - the conflict between overt sexuality and Scandinavian iciness, the posed love scenes sitting over her lover, the stylish self-confidence. Under Clarence Brown's direction, her acting improves as well, and Garbo begins to give sardonic, sweet, and sad glances with a subtlety often missed in silent melodramas of the era. Garbo is the epitome of less is more in Flesh and the Devil.
In 2015 we have many varied examples of sex on celluloid, but it's still rare to watch a movie and see all the pieces - actor, image, style, plot - fall together to create a legend. That's what Flesh and the Devil did for Garbo, and for the pair of Garbo and Gilbert as well. Their love affair, captured on film just as it started, is permanently memorialized on film. Watching Flesh and the Devil, even 90 years later, it's hard to see how the screen didn't light on fire.