Dishonored (1931)

“I am a soldier — but you bring something into war that doesn’t belong in it. You trick men into death with your body.”

Synopsis:
The head of the Austrian Secret Service (Gustav von Seyffertitz) enlists a prostitute (Marlene Dietrich) to serve as a spy against the Russians, and successfully corners a man (Warner Oland) she’s seduced at a masked ball — but she may have met her match when she falls for her next prey, wily Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen).

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Review:
Josef von Sternberg’s third collaboration with Marlene Dietrich remains a surprisingly effective “Mata Hari”-like spy thriller, one which allows sexy Dietrich to put all her unique attributes — including passionate piano playing — to use for the love of her country (though there’s also a highly enjoyable sequence in which she boldly goes without make-up as a peasant girl!). For the most part, she’s dressed in an array of stylish outfits, and is filmed in typically gorgeous lighting. I’m less-than-enthused with the miscasting of McLaglen as the source of her downfall, but Dietrich more than carries the film on her own shoulders, proving once again that she can hold her own in a male-dominated world. This one is worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlene Dietrich as “X27”
  • Lee Garmes’ atmospheric cinematography

  • Effective use of piano playing as a character trait and plot device

Must See?
Yes, once, as a finely crafted entry in the von Sternberg-Dietrich oeuvre. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Dishonored (1931)”

  1. First viewing. Agreed: a once-must; for Dietrich’s performance and von Sternberg’s direction.

    Low-key but engaging. Not all that much happens – and it’s not as showy as the average von Sternberg flick – but it has a solid-enough script for the story it’s telling.

    It might be seen as little more than a Dietrich showcase but it’s certainly more effective than what was concocted for Garbo for ‘Mata Hari’ (which is dull). In her own take on espionage, Dietrich is marvelously removed yet always silently observant. She may suffer from ennui but she’s also loathe to losing the upper hand. As well, there are fewer actors like Dietrich who are able to deliver lines like “You’re so powerful.” and “Perhaps I can persuade you to stay.” with such uniquely cool disinterest. Even if her X27 were to fall in love, we’d never know it.

    Of the seven films von Sternberg made with Dietrich, this seems to be the one talked about the least – which may lead some to think it’s something of a piffle. That’s not the case. It’s not all that ambitious a movie but it needn’t be. It’s slight but rewarding.

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