Vacation-Noir Offers Vivid Scenery and a Disturbing Depiction of PTSD



When I was a little girl in the early 70s I inherited my older brother’s G.I. Joe figure, sans legs.  I can’t remember what injury he’d sustained, but I seamlessly integrated Joe into my Barbie play.  I’m sorry to say, though, that he was stuck in the worst kind of stereotyped roles – always playing a violent, unstable Vietnam vet plotting against Barbie and Ken.  I was many years away from watching Taxi Driver, but somehow from 70s television I’d already picked up the image of veterans as dangerous, delusional, and murderous.  I’m not proud of that childhood belief, and I’m glad that media portrayals of both veterans and mental illness have changed over the last several decades.  A Woman’s Devotion now seems like a curious, if disturbing, artifact of ideas best left in the past.

Trevor and Stella Stevenson are an attractive young American couple, married six months but still frolicking like honeymooners.  They’ve just arrived in Acapulco where Trevor (Ralph Meeker), an artist, plans to paint while Stella (Janice Rule) befriends the locals and the other Americans staying at their hotel.  Unfortunately, the tranquility is shattered almost immediately.  Out for a walk alone, Trevor encounters a young waitress who he wants to paint.  She agrees to pose for him and somehow winds up strangled to death.  Trevor, however, remembers nothing.  He is a decorated World War II veteran who suffers from what the movie calls “soldier’s sickness” (A Woman’s Devotion would later be retitled Battle Shock, offering an even more vivid descriptor for what ails Trevor).  He has terrible headaches and episodes of memory loss which coincide conveniently not only with the death of the waitress, but later with the death of another young local, Maria (Rosenda Monteros).  A Woman’s Devotion becomes a mystery of sorts, with the local police captain, played by Paul Henreid, trying to keep the Stevensons in town long enough for him to determine whether Trevor was involved in the murders.  Meanwhile, the unfailingly loyal Stella first defends her husband then, failing that, tries to escape with him back to the U.S.

There’s little actual mystery to A Woman’s Devotion.  No other suspect is even hinted at:  Trevor is guilty of the murders, but (Stella might ask) is he culpable?  Or is he a good man, tragically ill and in need of treatment?   Stella seems to have an endless supply of sympathy for her husband, hence the film’s title, but precious little for the dead women  – and no evident concern that her husband might continue to kill.  It’s tempting to think that the lives of Trevor’s victims are a little less dear to Stella, and to an American audience in the ’50s, because they are Mexican women of low economic status.  The film opens with scenic shots of Acapulco, and an extended scene of two Mexican women in an open air market having a knockdown brawl.  It seems – especially after watching the entire movie – to treat the women and their small, untold drama as local color; the sort of thing American tourists could laugh about and share in their slide shows back in suburbia.  The Mexicans in A Woman’s Devotion are largely one dimensional and disposable, except for Capt. Monteros (Henreid)  who is professional, courteous, relentless, and still somehow sympathetic to Trevor’s illness.

And that illness, it’s worth noting, is what we now call PTSD:  but the vast majority of veterans who have been diagnosed do not engage in violent behavior.  Those who do are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else, and the notion that PTSD might turn one into a serial killer targeting only attractive young women is especially noxious.

But as for the rest…A Woman’s Devotion is a bit slow, but pretty to look at.  It features bright, slightly grainy Trucolor cinematography, used exclusively by Republic Studios, made even better by Kino Lorber’s new 4k restoration.  Henreid succeeds is creating a picturesque sense of place, even if he’s less successful in crafting a suspenseful film noir.  For the record, he blamed studio cuts for ruining his movie.  Meeker and Rule were romantically involved when they shot A Woman’s Devotion, and had just come from co-starring in a hit Broadway production of Picnic.  Rule is especially good, with natural charm and freshness that fit the location; but she plausibly becomes more steely and protective of her husband as events unfold.  Henreid, an Austrian best known as the noble freedom fighter Victor Lazlo in Casablanca, is persuasive as Monteros, at a time when, unfortunately, whitewashing roles was standard practice in Hollywood.

The new Blu-ray has no special features, aside from trailers for other crimes films:  23 Paces to Baker Street, Night People, A Kiss Before Dying, and Foreign Intrigue.