Sunday, March 2, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Dishonored

Jean-Luc Godard adored it, Pauline Kael despised it and MGM was so threatened by its success that they offered not one but two Greta Garbo films to answer it. Yet, for all of its power, Dishonored, the third collaboration from the legendary team of Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich has hardly been seen by an entire generation due to Universal’s shameful mishandling of the old Paramount titles in its collection.
Dishonored was the follow up film to the wildly successful Morocco, a film that had introduced most American audiences to the stunning screen presence of Marlene Dietrich and the unmistakable cinematic styling of Von Sternberg. If the German produced The Blue Angel had announced them at the door a few years earlier, then Morocco had completely kicked it down and in 1931 Marlene Dietrich was threatening to overtake Garbo as the premiere European screen Goddess that American film fans were clamoring to see.
The third Dietrich and Von Sternberg film is a spy drama based loosely on the life of Mata-Hari. Dietrich portrays Marie, an Austrian prostitute renamed X-27 after she is inducted as a spy in the Austrian army to infiltrate the life of a certain Russian Colonel named Kranau, played by Victor Mclaglen.

The film is taken from a script by Von Sternberg and a playwright named Daniel Nathan Rubin but this is after all a Von Sternberg film so who really cares about the script? I was a bit surprised to see the script’s weaknesses being complained about in Kael’s original review as frankly when I am watching a Von Sternberg-Dietrich film the last thing I am thinking of is logic or plot progression. Von Sternberg’s films are some of the most thrilling visually one can experience and Marlene Dietrich is one of the great figures to ever appear on a screen so let the rather flimsy plot of Dishonored be dammed, this is a thrilling visual feast for the eyes that feels as inventive and fresh today as it did almost eighty years ago.
With the moody black and white photography of Oscar winning Lee Garmes, the near fetishistic and obsessive art direction by un-credited Oscar winner Hans Dreier and the jaw dropping costume designs for Dietrich by Travis Banton, Dishonored is a real top of the line production that is controlled at every turn by the fixated director and his overwhelmingly powerful muse.

Von Sternberg made a dozen or so films before he met Dietrich and a few after but today is it hard to imagine his lens without her. The two were one of the most thrilling and perfectly suited teams in Hollywood history and Dishonored is one of their major, if often overlooked, works. With its dreamlike super-impositions that connect nearly every scene and its strong feminist attitude, Dishonored must have felt absolutely shocking in its look and attitude to audience goers back in 1931.
Dietrich is particularly fascinating in this role and it is indeed one of the first that really gives notice on how great of an actress she really was. Attempting to build a character for Von Sternberg couldn’t have been easy but Marlene delivers a stirring one here, a woman totally convicted to her country, her countrymen and most importantly herself. While at times she is absolutely playing to Von Sternberg’s camera, one can almost hear him screaming at her behind the scenes, the film is at its most remarkable when she is allowed to be at her most subtle, as in the moments where she is sitting at her piano playing or pausing to lightly pet her cat who goes everywhere with her. Dishonored was the first film that allowed Marlene Dietrich the actress the truly come into her own, and that alone makes its current missing in action status all the more regretful.

The rest of the cast manages to get devoured by Dietrich at nearly every turn so they hardly register. Kranau was originally supposed to be played by Gary Cooper, who wanted no more of Von Sternberg after Morocco, and it is a shame the role went to Mclaglen as Cooper was one of the few who could hold his own with Dietrich. Recognizable face Lew Cody does some good work in the film and is worth noting but the picture finally belongs completely to Dietrich, whether she is silently sitting in her apartment or posing as a dimwitted maid in the late part of the picture. Dishonored is a near one-woman show from the opening credits to its much discussed and rather shocking closing scene.

The film, which rather forcefully questions accepted political and sexual boundaries in nearly every scene, opened up to a surprisingly strong audience and critical reaction in the spring of 1931. The success of the film prompted Paramount to let Von Sternberg and Dietrich go even further into the strangeness with their follow up productions, Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is A Woman (1935). MGM panicked when they saw Dishonored’s box office returns and sent Garbo quickly into production on the exceptional Susan Lennox: Her Rise and Fall in an attempt to show that the Swedish sphinx was as versatile as Dietrich. A year later Garbo would make her own X-27 film with Mata-Hari, a production that has nowhere near the power, style or innovation of Dishonored.
Dishonored appeared briefly on home video in the mid nineties as a part of the Marlene Dietrich collection on VHS and I believe Laserdisc. It has never had a DVD release in America although imports are available. The Blue Angel and The Scarlet Empress are both available as rather disappointing special editions from Kino and Criterion respectively and the other films, outside of Dishonored, are available in an affordable but bare bones Marlene Dietrich Signature Collection from Universal.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

Great article. This is one Marlene Dietrich film that I've never seen. I love her films like The Blue Angel and Morocco. She is stunning in both beauty and talent, plus I always adored her accent. It's a shame that this film isn't really available for the public today. There were so many intriguing films made in Hollywood at this time. She and Garbo both competed in my heart for my favorite Euro actress of the 30's. It's nice to see some blogging about those wonderful films of the 30's.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks Keith...I really appreciate that and I hope to continue to post on some films from this great period...

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Fascinating piece Jeremy. I've only seen clips from the film but I expect I would like it very much since I enjoy Garbo in Mata-Hari a lot. I've loved all the other Von Sternberg-Dietrich productions I've seen so hopefully I'll get a a chance to see this sometime. Dietrich is such a force on screen and many of her films challenged sexual boundaries at the time.