The other night I went to the Smithsonian for the last installment of their series on the work of Josef von Sternberg. I’m disappointed I didn’t make it to any of the other films in the series, but I was lucky in one respect: the night I went they were showing an extremely rare print of von Sternberg’s wonderful romantic comedy Dishonored.
This was von Sternberg’s third film with Marlene Dietrich, and in some ways it’s the most fun. The Blue Angel (1930) was iconic and set the Marlene myth in place, and Morocco (1930) was a good follow up (with Marlene at her most androgynously beautiful in a tux and top hat), but with Dishonored von Sternberg created opulent goof, a film as silly as it is beautiful. The Scarlet Empress (1934) might be von Sternberg’s best—and most baroque—film, but Dishonored is his most entertaining.
The film begins with Marlene in the rain pulling up her stockings. She’s doing what she has to get by in WWI Austria, and we infer that what’s she doing involves befriending gentlemen for the night. She befriends just such a man (Gustav von Seyffertitz), but it turns out he’s not after sex. He wants to recruit her to spy on the Russians. Marlene figures “why not?” and starts befriending Russian spies for the night. Her assignment eventually involves her getting mixed up with Russia’s top spy, Col. Kranau (Victor McLaglen, in a fun performance). The two carry on an affair—stretching back and forth between their countries—while trying to have the other thrown into jail or shot of espionage. Ah, love.
Josef von Sternberg was an odd man, a control freak and famous misanthrope who alienated many of the people he worked with. His control of Dietrich was legendary, but Dietrich herself never seemed too disturbed by it. She knew that von Sternberg had molded her into an international star, and she further knew that having this brilliant director obsess over crafting sumptuous visual feasts with her at the center was a good thing. As von Sternberg once said, “The thing you have to understand is that Marlene is not Marlene. I’m Marlene. No one understands that better than her.”
This film is in love with her. The camera and light caress her—von Sternberg essentially worked as his own cinematographer—but the story allows her moments of unadorned goofiness. Watching Marlene get a Russian officer drunk is a joy to behold. Dishonored also keeps the tragic element of the Marlene persona in place—she will, of course, sacrifice all for her one true love—but this movie contains hands down the funniest execution ever put on film. How could anyone resist that?