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DISHONORED (Paramount, 1931), written and directed by Josef Von Sternberg, stars German born Marlene Dietrich in her second Hollywood film, and third under Von Sternberg. Following the enormous success of German made production, THE BLUE ANGEL (Ufa, 1929), and her Hollywood debut, MOROCCO (Paramount,1930), Dietrich was offered the opportunity to not only be the only female in the major lead, but a chance to break away from typically playing cabaret singers to that of a prostitute turned spy during the World War. With spy melodramas being common ground on screen, the best known being Greta Garbo's interpretation of both MGM's THE MYSTERIOUS WOMAN (1928) and as MATA HARI (1931), DISHONORED attempts on becoming something different, different in terms of Von Sternberg's directorial style, giving this production more of a European than American impression. Although this method was hardly new by 1931, it still should leave a lasting impression, especially for film students.
Opening title: "1915 - A ring of steel encircles Vienna ... strange figures emerge from the dust of the falling Austrian empire, one of these, listed in the secret files of the war office as X-27 might have been the greatest spy in history ... if X-27 had not been a woman." The story opens in Vienna on a rainy night where a crowd of people witness a body being carried away into an ambulance. Overhearing a streetwalker (Marlene Dietrich) making a comment, "I am not afraid of life, although I am not afraid of death either," a mysterious man (Gustav Von Seyffertitz) approaches her. Escorting her to her apartment, he offers her a job making some easy money as a spy. After turning him over to the police, the man identifies himself as chief of Secret Service Headquarters, leaving the officer his calling card to give to the girl. Realizing the man's sincerity to his country, and a chance for adventure, the girl arrives at the headquarters where she accepts her new role in spite of possible danger and high risks. Working under the name of X-27, her first assignment is spying on General Von Hindau (Warner Oland), whom she meets at a masked ball, who's suspected of being a traitor passing information to the Russians with a clown being his contact. Her job soon finds her trailing that of Lieutenant Kranau (Victor McLaglen) and Colonel Korvin (Lew Cody) as possible threats to her country. Although she proves herself an exceptional spy, X-27 betrays her trust when she falls in love with one of the enemy spies.
While DISHONORED is slowly paced in true essence of Von Sternberg's direction, a method that tends to bore contemporary viewers, the visuals, however, are outstanding. Overlooking its spy vs. spies scenario, it's interesting pointing out what Von Sternberg does with the camera, especially extreme close-ups of Dietrich's face superimposed by action occurring someplace else between two other characters as she plays her favorite piece on the piano ("The Anniversary Waltz"), or a superimpose of a cat's eyes to reflect the mood of Dietrich's unafraid character. With Dietrich donning several disguises, her best turns out to be the that of giggling shy Russian peasant girl.
While it's been stated that McLaglen's role was originally intended for Gary Cooper (bad casting), Dietrich's leading man in MOROCCO, Victor McLaglen appears to be an unlikely candidate as a Russian spy, a role that should have gone to either Paramount's own leading man of Fredric March, or a European import in the range of Nils Asther, for example. Barry Norton's one brief bit in the firing squad scene where he makes pleas about disobeying orders leaves a lasting impression long after the movie is over. Von Sternberg would reunite Dietrich with DISHONORED co-stars Von Seyffertitz and Warner Oland, in what's considered to be their finest collaboration, SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), featuring Clive Brook.
Commonly shown on commercial television up to the 1980s, cable TV presentations of DISHONORED have been exceptionally rare. Notable broadcasts have been on the Movie Channel (1991) and Turner Classic Movies (January 2002) as part of its "Star of the Month" tribute to Marlene Dietrich. This and other Dietrich productions during her Paramount years have been distributed on video cassette. As much as DISHONORED tends to be more Von Sternberg than Dietrich, it is Dietrich who makes the film much better than it actually is. (**1/2)
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