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One up front negative: Victor McLaglen as a dashing, adventurous Russian
officer is very badly miscast.
This is a World War I Mata Hari genre film with Marlene Dietrich recruited by the Austrian Secret Service to spy for them against the Russians. Like the other Von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations this is all about visual texture and Marlene's incredible persona (which is very much due to her equally incredible talent). Both come together perfectly in the amazing masked ball scene full, full, full of confetti, long twisted streamers, costumed revelers, and uncurling paper party-horns that you blow through to make a high pitched little squeal.
In one remarkable scene Marlene is hypnotic just saying, "No." "Yes." "Noooo." and "Maybe." In another her dialog is a hilarious and inimatable series of "Meowwws." I don't remember her singing in this one but she plays the piano with abandon. Nevermind the plot, this is a film you watch because it is a great vehicle for one of film's greatest, if not the greatest, stars and because it is great cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the 3rd of the 7 von Sternberg films to star Marlene Dietrich (here, she plays a spy known as x-27) based on a story written swiftly by the director to capitalise on the success of 'Morocco'.
If von Sternberg didn't 'write' all of his films he certainly 'rewrote' most of them, as 'Dishonored' replays a theme recurrent in many of his films, that of sexual desire as the overriding driving force behind behaviour. That 'Dishonored' is a lot less successful a film than 'Morocco' might be down in part to its leading man Victor McLaglen - unconvincing as the spy that Dietrich falls for a grinning rictus unable to convey charisma. Gary Cooper was the original choice for the part and, based on this, it's a shame that he refused to work with von Sternberg here. Cooper was certainly a Sternberg actor: his performances tended to be those of brooding but ultimately dignified types, internalising emotion: here, McLaglen doesn't give the impression of having any emotions at all. Coincidentally, it's this very Sterbergian aesthetic (of performers moving stolidly and glumly among highly Expressionist scenery) that is least to the fore in 'Dishonored'; Sternberg struggles to make much of 're-creations' such as the Austrian Secret Service headquarters and a Russian military base, instead depending on elongated dissolves between scenes (some of the double images achieved are Surreal). Likewise, the drawn out delivery of the dialogue, reminiscent of a school nativity play at times, would certainly be intolerable for a modern audience explaining the non showing of von Sternberg films today. Indeed, Dishonored could quite easily be a silent film (with a piano accompaniment) were it not for the final scene -
SPOILERS * * *
Dietrich's execution at the hands of a firing squad in which the echoing sound of military drums, soldiers' voices and guns, catapult the viewer to a different level than almost everything experienced before. This climactic scene isn't achieved by pyrotechnics alone however, so much as for the fact that the young lieutenant responsible for escorting X-27 to her death is the same soldier who had previously escorted the then new recruit to the office of the Head of the Austrian Secret Service on her first day.
Back then, he had accompanied her along a long marble corridor.
'Quite a walk, isn't it?' he'd remarked. To which she'd replied: 'I don't mind walking.' By the time they had reached the office the soldier confessed: 'I must tell you, I could walk with you forever.' In the final scene, upon entering X-27's cell and requesting that the spy follow him, X-27 asks: 'Are we going to walk together again?' - managing a disdainful laugh on 'together'. Finally, as she faces the firing squad it is the same young soldier who has the responsibility for giving the order to fire. Thus follows a remarkable sequence: A shot of the hesitating lieutenant; shot of the Head of the Secret Service; shot of Dietrich smiling benignly; shot of reflection of guns on the skin of a drum. The lieutenant cracks. 'I will not kill a woman. I will not kill anymore men either. You call this war? I call it butchery. You call this serving your country? You call this patriotism? I call it murder.' This would be unremarkable in itself were it not for the fact that throughout this impassioned speech X-27 is seen retouching her lipstick.
Would does it mean?
For me this final gesture mocks crocodile tears, mocks the sentimentality of the traditional Hollywood ending, mocks the very notion of Hollywood glamour itself. And it mocks those things for the very reason that those things are not real.
The artificiality of Joseph von Sternberg's cinema (this most studio bound of all directors) is actually only a means to an end.
It is best to write first about von Sternberg's aesthetic as some have
not grasped it so well in my opinion. When I first watched his "The
Scarlet Empress" my initial feeling was that it was very silly; as a
historical portrait of Catherine the Great of Russia it's ludicrous, in
every palace scene these grotesque and implausible Russian Orthodox
inspired gargoyles and paraphernalia loom out of the darkness. The
palace sets reek of congenital insanity and cobwebbed decay that is
decadently overblown. This is not the point though, for what we are
seeing is not Tsarist Russia, but childhood dreams of Tsarist Russia.
Who as a child if they read of Rasputin or Mata Hari, or Jack the
Ripper didn't fully over-egg the pudding in their mind? My favourite
dream is of an insomniac Russian court listening to those inestimable
gifts of Bach, the Goldberg variations. You will never see my fever
dream as I am not Josef von Sternberg, one of the greatest artistic
geniuses (I really mean that word) of the Twentieth century.
Dishonored I am told is the least of the Dietrich/Sternberg collaborations, if that is so, then it is the least of the great peaks of the Himalayas in filmic terms. It is almost pure dreamscape. The film is in some respects an elaborate parry and thrust duello between Dietrich's X-27 and Victor McLaglen's Colonel Kranau, an Austrian and a Russian spy during The Great War.
It has been said that McLaglen was miscast in this movie. That for me is palpably false. McLaglen is mainly known for his stock character roles in John Ford movies, usually playing slightly oafish but well-meaning fellows. It may be the case that folks have been unable to disentangle that persona from what they saw in this film. My own personal blind spot is that I can only see Norman Bates when I see an Anthony Perkins movie, which ruins them every time. For me Victor's smile, which is all you see in the masked ball, is perfect for the role, his lifestyle and way with the women positively makes James Bond look like a rank amateur. There is an almost balletic moment in Dietrich's (why not say Dietrich when we are dealing with such an artificial delight?) bedroom where Victor effortlessly catches her hand as she whirls away from him; how can a movie be so controlled yet seemingly effortless? What this film leaves you with, which is the way of life of both Kranau and X-27, is the feeling of being neither afraid of life nor of death. These are two super-people leading exorbitantly fulfilled existences. Frankly I was overcome by this film. The masked ball, with Kranau grinning and hobbling away on his crutches will stay with me until I am dribbling and senile.
It is right and honest and proper to dedicate something you enjoyed doing. So I dedicate this review to Claire B, who is wonderful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most will dislike Josef von Sternberg's Dishonored. The plot is often
ridiculous, and that's what most people like to comment on. I found it
hypnotic. The inconsistencies didn't annoy me so much as entertain me. In a
way, this could be called a camp classic. Whatever type of classic it is,
though, it is an amazing film. Confer the scene nearer the beginning when
Marlene Dietrich walks right up to the camera, within inches of its lense.
How about the scene where she plays a Russian peasant girl to infiltrate the
Russian army (she's an Austrian spy)? She climbs up on a high ledge and
starts meowing at the man whom she is seducing. The final sequence is
stunning and audacious.
I'm skipping a few lines in order to give sufficient room to write this
Who else but Marlene Dietrich would insist that her lipstick were on straight before she was executed by firing squad?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Marlene Dietrich plays Marie, the widow of a decorated Austrian WW I soldier down on her luck, recruited for the secret service by a dour secret service chief (Gustav von Seyffertitz) to become spy X-27. Her first assignment is to trap a mole for the Russians (Warner Oland, playing the first non-pseudo-oriental role I've seen him in), which she does with ease. Her next adversary is the wily Russian spy Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen), and the two of them keep stalemating each other. Ultimately, her gesture acknowledging love though she doesn't say it aloud, she allows him to escape the Austrians who have captured him, and she is tried and executed for treason. In this movie, von Sternberg makes the most of Dietrich's enigmatic bearingshe's not much interested in living, and not much afraid of dying, so she might as well die for her country. No reproach for her country's neglect of the widow of a hero. Von Sternberg also gives plenty of examples of his famous eponymous lighting, making Dietrich look even more alluring, jaded, insouciant, and enigmatic than ever. McLaglen is an odd choice for a romantic hero. Most of his parts emphasize bluff, even cynical good humour or vicious toughness. Here he smiles knowingly and moves with ease in uniform. Perhaps he grins too much, but the balance of his joviality with Dietrich's pallor is intriguing.
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
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)
Having just viewed this movie for the first time, I must say that from what I've seen written about Dishonored it seems somewhat unappreciated. While perhaps not a masterpiece on the level of other von Sternberg/Dietrich pairings, such as the two greats The Blue Angel and Blonde Venus, like them both it oozes with the unmistakable marks of its director: the stark dialogue, the lavish attention to atmosphere (such as all the wonderful interiors), and a pervading sense of marvelous oddness. Von Sternberg shows us that the real triumph of his cinema is not one of the reality it affords, but one of style, of which Dishonored has enough to spare.
A beautiful woman whose mystery provokes and rivets all viewers, a
vamp, a spy, a seductress, a temptress, a woman of many faces and many
names, desire embodied where just a look suffices to magnetize the
strongest men. How predictable and 'kitschy' it may seem; nevertheless,
how accurately it recalls a tendency widespread in the heyday of silver
screen: make female celebrities as attractive as possible so that
viewers can flock to see them in their most weird roles. They will
become the dream of 'husbands' and envy of 'wives' And while Greta
Garbo, the queen of MGM, appeared to stun many viewers as a spy
lighting up the candles in THE MYSTERIOUS LADY, the burning desires
really burst out here at Marlene Dietrich as a spy X27 playing the
piano (manipulating everything) on the verge of climactic insanity.
DISHONORED, quite often compared to some other films of the time and treated in the inferior position to others, is undeservedly quite an underrated production. And sadly so because the cooperation of Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich boasts of some really valuable moments here. Set in the early 20th century Austria, the sets seem to stun equally as the music. The whole movie still occurs to be a visually and atmospherically arousing achievement. The use of classical music, which combines the traditional tunes of Johann Strauss's "The Blue Danube" waltz with the unconventional "Waves of the Danube" by Iosif Ivanovici, seems to manifest the core of the storyline: all those contradictory emotions, plans, events provoked by a woman with her black cat.
The woman who is not afraid of life nor death; the woman of many masks who selects within a broad spectrum of roles needed in closely-knit expectations: from a prostitute to a housewife. Consequently, she is a woman who prefers not to give her true name and appears as a mysterious cipher, X27. Besides, she is the woman who hunts for men and ... slowly goes on undressing...not so much driven by the flesh but the duty. There is no need to say more about the character because everything is rewarded by one name - MARLENE DIETRICH. Her marvelous performance is a purifying combination of conventional acting and unconventional ideas, a lovely manifestation of juxtaposing personality. She does a flawless job as a delicious teaser, a sophisticated woman, a masochistic pianist, an extremely funny little housewife but foremost a foxy spy greatly absorbing. Her character stands for a cat no matter if it is a humorous meow or sensual wow. Among her very best roles, many critics recall the finale, the execution when she stays cold mentally and delicious visually (even the lipstick). The moment, though considerably different, is sometimes compared to or rather contrasted with Garbo's walk filled with 'holy bliss' in MATA HARI. Though great is the moment, I prefer another one: seduction of Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen) where Marlene embodies desire. "I have a feeling we've met before" appears literal and metaphorical. Moreover, the source inspiration for the the manner the scene is shot, Picasso's "Les Damoiselles D'Avignon," is a worthwhile effect on the screen (Keith Uhlich analyzes it accurately in his 2003 review). And the men?
Warner Oland as General Von Hindau gives a terrific performance in his short but crucial moments for the storyline. Acquainted with X27 at the mask ball (a scene also filled with associations: note the bird and the balloon, for instance), he invites her to his room and there...so much happens, so much is revealed, such a tension grows... Victor Mc Laglen is also captivating as Colonel Kranau who does not merely come to see her for a kiss but... Nevertheless, the man who remains, to me, most memorable is Gustav Von Seyffertitz (also an accurate example for recalling THE MYSTERIOUS LADY).
An interesting film thanks to Marlene and the mysterious lady she portrays. A little bit shocking film like most of Von Sternberg's films but what would it all be if the director were not present, somehow? All in all, no masterpiece but a worth seeing pre-Code production! Highly recommended for silver screen lovers. 7/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Dishonoured' comes off to me as perhaps one of my favourite among Von Sternberg/Dietrich's movies together, his style and treatment of black and white shading adding enormously to the film's whole atmosphere and cinematography.It also encompasses the continuous creation of Dietrich's movie 'persona' around this time,the femme fatale who apparently betrays everything but her final, ultimate love, paying the price for it with her own life. The film also shows Dietrich or the director's increasing concern with her own image and the result is so irresistible one can't avoid thinking of it as a masterpiece.Dietrich also transforms herself into something quite different, a plain waitress, almost unrecognizable, showing how through image and acting talent something like that could be achieved in the 30s, once again reminding us how Dietrich was such an incredible actress when it was allowed or wanted. Dietrich's final scenes, after the character's detention and sentencing, are unforgettable as is the cinematography and direction of the movie by Von Sternberg.The scenes leading to the execution scene and the final execution scene itself are unforgettable and leave a lingering effect of sadness and melancholy after the word The End appears on screen. The film's beauty is furthered by the exceptional musical score, and as Dietrich courageously faces the execution platoon arranging herself and retouching her make up the simultaneous surrealism and reality of the scene is a true example of the director and actress's talents and pure magic.
Dishonoured is an under-appreciated masterpiece. Frequently omitted from lists of collaborations between Dietrich and Von Sternberg, the film is absolutely essential to an understanding of the director's artistic technique and the actor's evolution into her status as an icon for every subsequent femme fatale. Von Sternberg applies a rich sequence of layers of style and character that embellish Dietrich's icily stunning allure as an intelligent woman engaged in a deadly quest for more temporal power in the form of top secret military intelligence and empowerment over the men she manipulates. Along the way, his penetrating interpretation of social conventions depicts a chiaroscuro of surrealistic fantasy in contrast with the gritty reality of doom that engulfs his heroine who is ultimately transformed into a martyr to her own - and universal - femininity.
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