Of the seven films that paired director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich, 1931’s Dishonored is perhaps the least written about. The film follows Dietrich’s X-27, an Austrian prostitute who is recruited as a spy against the Russians. She meets a Russian soldier (Victor McLaglen) with whom a mutual touch-and-go lust erupts. Where another film would depict their relationship as one of epic romance, it is just the opposite here. They have an undefinable desire towards one another that refreshingly does not trump all, yet they willingly allow it to.
The plot itself is ultimately meaningless, and it goes without saying ludicrous, as von Sternberg has other fish to fry. Von Sternberg is one of the narcissistic giants of the silver screen, so in love with his own fetishistic and thematic concerns that they tend to overshadow anything within the actual story. His collaborations with Dietrich are doubly responsible for this, as he had found a center to his imagined world that represented everything he wanted to convey on the screen. Once you get past the fact that the story is not important, Dishonored becomes a treasure trove of the director’s trademarks.
Not least of which includes showing Dietrich off as the ultimate sex symbol and a stand-in for linking the occupations of prostitution and spy as one and the same. Both require that she use her sexuality to succeed, and her character stands for the patriarchal squashing of female-owned sexuality, even when it comes complete with dignity. Those who need, admire, and lust after her are the same ones who ultimately reject her for using the skills they had previously admired. Women with these kinds of survival instincts will never be accepted. Von Sternberg is saying that there is no room for X-27’s in a contradictory and unfair society.
Not once is X-27 ever seen as a victim and she is in total control of everyone around her, including the audience, every step of the way. Despite her fate, we never feel pity because she clearly doesn’t need it and wouldn’t want it. Her inevitable death at the end is not indicative of her failure, but a matter-of-fact sign that even a force of nature like her is doomed. We learn so little about X-27 because she has deems it so. She is constantly calling the shots, even in the moments before her death when she requests to be executed in the clothes she was recruited in; the clothes she wore as a prostitute. In short, she owns every inch of herself.
Her characterization is almost non-existent, but what we know of her comes to us in a series of key recurring symbols; a piano, a black pussycat she always has with her and the bouncing dancing figurines in her apartment at the film’s start.
Pre-camped out Dietrich never fails to be spellbinding and it all comes down to being a visual showcase for both the director and its star. Camped-out Dietrich is a blast, but there is something fresh, youthful and impossibly fleshy about her that leaps off the screen in the very early 1930’s. Von Sternberg’s penchant for filming her veiled in shadow, curtains, lace and from different angles as a series of poses is, as always, in full effect. The two are really just showing off and it works; there is nothing quite like Josef von Sternberg filming Marlene Dietrich.
Also present are other stylistic adornments we expect from the deliciously flashy Austrian. The party scene, an imperceptible smorgasbord of streamers, confetti, masks, celebration and kinky flirtatiousness emerges as an obsession for him. The majority of his films feature a scene of extravagance like this that he lingers on, unwilling to move on when other directors would.
Something that stands out here is the sequence that has Dietrich posing as a peasant girl who favors cat-like meows and motions in order to seduce a Russian officer. It is at the absolute opposite end of the spectrum of how the icon is normally seen, and is surely one of the most bizarre sequences in any film of its kind. Its nuttiness makes it all the more singular and Dishonored is worth seeing for this alone.
There are times when von Sternberg is unable to form a cohesive whole that binds his decorative self-indulgence, his thematic concerns and an interest in the story he is telling. This is admittedly one of those times; the plot becomes a footnote when in this case it cannot quite afford to. Still, Dishonored has more to say than it gets credit for and is a worthy addition to their pairings. While I much prefer some of the other von Sternberg/Dietrich films, there is far too much to be gobbled up here for its unjustified dismissal.