Review: Queer and Queer-Friendly Stars Make 'Devil And The Deep' A Must-See

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 26, 2021

The 1932 pre-code, romantic melodrama/thriller "Devil and the Deep" catapulted British stage thesp Charles Laughton to screen stardom. This was his first U.S. film, and he would immediately go on to great acclaim as the debaucherous Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's controversial "Sign of the Cross" and win the Oscar in 1933 as the titular character in "The Private Life of Henry VIII." The film did not do the same for Tallulah Bankhead who, instead, would soon take a long hiatus from cinema, until Hitchcock came calling, a decade later, for "Lifeboat."

"Devil" is also significant as Cary Grant's second film. Although he is only in it for the first reel, he does make quite the debonair impression. Rounding out the quartet is a young, gorgeous Gary Cooper, hot off the box office hit "Morocco" with Marlene Dietrich.

The plot focuses on respected Navy commander Charles Sturm (Laughton), who is married to the wayward Diana (Bankhead). At least, everyone assumes she's unfaithful; her husband's friends talk trash behind her back, and when she catches them, she confronts them rather indifferently. She's become used to Sturm's unfounded accusations. This time he's certain she's sleeping with Lieutenant Jaeckel (Grant), so he has Jaeckel shamed and transferred. During an argument, Diana mentions his seeing a "brain specialist," clueing us in to Sturm's insanity.

The next "romantic adventure" segment has a desperate Diana turning to the North African streets, where she meets a dashing young man (Gary Cooper). The young man turns out to be Jaeckel's replacement!

The final thirty minutes of the film takes yet another surprising and truly exciting turn, when crazy-pants Sturm decides to trap his wife and her new lover, along with his entire submarine crew, at the bottom of the sea. Will anyone survive?

This is a true hidden gem from the Paramount vault, directed with great verve by Marion Gering and stunningly photographed by the great Charles Lang (Oscar winner for "A Farewell to Arms," the Gary Cooper version).

The erratic screenplay (by Benn W. Levy) notwithstanding, the Mount-Rushmore cast and nail-biting finale make this a mesmerizing watch.

Upon release, Laughton received the lion's share of review glory; seen today, he's good but too over the top.

Cooper's understatement is forever misunderstood. He was a sensual, eclectic actor who wasn't afraid of showing his feminine side. On the audio commentary, film historian David Del Valle discusses how Laughton greatly admired Cooper for being able to internalize his acting.

Bankhead is beguiling and makes a most indelible impression. She commands the screen, despite the fact that the studio was obviously trying to make her into another Dietrich (the two, ironically, were great friends).

The most confounding thing about the film is that a woman like Diana would stay with a man like Sturm — or even be with him in the first place (I'm not being superficial; his lunacy aside, the man is a horror).

Interestingly, the four lead actors include two closeted gay/bi men, an openly bisexual woman, and a man who defied categorization.

I recently saw the DVD version of this film on a Cary Grant box set, and it was a terrible transfer. Unfortunately, the Kino Lorber Classics Blu-ray isn't all that much better. The best I can say is that it's watchable, though with scratches, lines, and fuzziness/focus issues. The audio, on the other hand, is fine. I hope one day a better print can be found.

"Devil in the Deep" is highly recommended for a quartet of queer and queer-friendly stars, as well as an intense finale that is early filmmaking at its finest.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historian David Del Valle
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English Subtitles

    "Devil and the Deep" is available on Blu-ray October 26, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.