Not all of director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s seven collaborations are great films. They had their ups and downs like anyone, but the one thing you can always count on from their films is a high quality in their individual crafts. “Dishonored” (1931) isn’t one of their best films, but neither Marlene nor von Sternberg are really to blame. Their work here (as we have come to expect) is impeccable. It’s the story, or rather the lack of depth to the story, that is the real problem.
“Dishonored” revolves around an Austrian woman (Marlene Dietrich) completely loyal to her country after the death of her husband during WWI. The Austrian Secret Service Chief (Gustav von Seyffertitz) poses as a regular man, earning himself an invitation back to her home, in an attempt to see if she has any inkling to become a traitor. Not only does she thwart his attempt, she has him arrested. Convinced that her loyalty to her country, combined with her beauty and hypnotic sexual energy, is exactly what he requires, the Chief exposes his true identity and convinces her to become an Austrian spy, know only as X27.
Her first assignment involves an Austrian Colonel (Warner Oland) who is a suspected traitor. X27 proves her seductive powers are more than enough to get the job done, and she is moved on to a bigger assignment involving a Russian Colonel (Victor McLaglen). Things begin well for her, but after spending some time with the Colonel, X27 has a hard time carrying out her orders.
It’s not that the story is really that bad, it’s just not very original, even for 1931. The script has nothing very interesting to add to the slow, tedious plot, and there are several points that it isn’t difficult to begin to lose interest. That, however, is when Josef von Sternberg works his magic. It’s his ability to pull together all the seemingly superfluous pieces of this production, and still make a film worth watching. He knows better than most how to frame a character, especially Marlene. The lighting in a von Sternberg movie has a life all of its own. Every glint of an eye can be exciting, every dissolve (yes, even the drawn out ones) adds a life to the film. What could quickly become a movie that will put you to sleep, is instead transformed into something intriguing and exciting. The cinematography by Lee Garms is also a much inspired piece of work, and it’s is his ability to work with von Sternberg toward a shared vision that helps complete the visual splendor.
Of course it would be a great injustice to not give a fair amount of credit to Marlene Dietrich, as well. After all, the entire film revolves around her, and without an actress that can be convincing, even von Sternberg couldn’t save this film from disaster. (Perhaps one of the reasons his career went downhill is because they stopped making films together.) Marlene completely embodies everything about her character, X27. She is extremely sexy, sassy, confident, manipulative, cunning, and strong. These men are no match for her and her various charms, not to mention her legs. She owns everyone, and plays with them like putty in her hands, as illustrated in the last scene with the young Lieutenant (Barry Norton). It’s not hard to believe that there is nothing that X27, or Marlene herself couldn’t accomplish if she really wanted too.
This was only the third of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s seven films together, and as they continued their ongoing partnership, they continued to capitalize on the same stunning aspects of their films- mostly Marlene Dietrich being placed on a pedestal, while the world revolved around her. The stories themselves always seem to be the weakest point of each and every one of their movies, but they all still have much to offer, and even a few, such as “The Blue Angel” (1930), “Shanghai Express” (1931), and “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), have something substantial to share, leaving a lasting memory with their audience.