Saturday, March 16, 2019

Pomp and Circumstance: Josef von Sternberg's "Dishonored"

Of the half dozen Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich vehicles I've seen, "Dishonored" is perhaps the least mentioned of their collaborations but the one that feels most honed into the exuberant, twisted path they would travel over the next few years together. Filmed in 1932 (immediately after their breakthrough "The Blue Angel" and the quite mellow "Morocco" both in 1930), it's a film that exists just to see how many lurid poses and buoyant backdrops Dietrich can be placed within. And did I mention it's also a spy thriller? A film of many themes, insinuations, and fait accompli acceptance, "Dishonored" makes the buried sadomasochism of "The Devil Is a Woman" look like child's play for the way Dietrich bends men to her will, even at times of outright war.

After picking her up on the street as a prostitute, Dietrich becomes X27, a secret agent for the Viennese government trying to ensnare a high ranking officer (Warner Oland) from passing secrets to the Russians. After (somewhat) accomplishing this mission, she's given the task of finding this officer's other informant, played by the staunch-jawed Victor McLaglen. Their relationship becomes a coy, shifting perception of allegiance that finds X27 disguising herself even further and tracking McLaglen to a country estate as the war limps to its finale.

Though the plot machinations are firmly intact, von Sternberg and Dietrich lace "Dishonored" with a positively loopy sense of humor and visual flair. The New Year's Eve party attended by X27 and McLaglen is so cramped with graffiti and streamers (coupled with each of their diabolical costumes that feel like something out of a Kenneth Anger picture of the radical 60's), that the scene threatens to be overrun by the background of pomp and circumstance. It's downright delirious and remains my favorite scene of the von Sternberg canon. And when the film does kick into gear towards the end with sleight-of-hand spy skulduggery and flared-up sexual tension, "Dishonored" becomes just as fascinating for the tempestuous betrayals that lead to a crushing finale.

It's tempting to not judge "Dishonored" on its own, but instead as a cog in the majestic wheel of an actress-and-director spinning a maelstrom of ideas, images and perfected glances outward from a burgeoning Hollywood studio system that wasn't quite sure what it had. They just knew Dietrich sold pictures and von Sternberg was adept at making them. "Dishonored" proves both of these points and then goes beyond to reveal the duo were probably having more fun skewering the genre into their own perverse plaything. Yes, this was 1931, but it feels like 2031.

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