To love and excitement.
Marie Kolverer (Marlene Dietrich) never asked to be a spy. The widow was merely mentioning to a police officer standing guard at the latest death-by-gas-asphyxiation suicide that she wouldn’t be following in the victim’s footsteps like he remarks most women will. She tells him that she’s not afraid of life before clarifying that she’s not afraid of death either. The sentiments catch the ears of the Austrian Secret Service Chief (Gustav von Seyffertitz) as those of someone with a strong enough constitution to recruit for an assignment none of his male operatives could complete. He’s the one who puts the idea of clandestinely using her sexual charms to infiltrate the offices of traitors and find proof of their misgivings. He assumes Marie will redeem a self-labeled inglorious life.
The opening scene to Josef von Sternberg‘s Dishonored (written by Daniel Nathan Rubin from the director’s original story X-27) is great because neither Marie nor the Chief knows who the other is. He’s trying to gauge her loyalties by cajoling her into joining the Russian spy force while she feigns interest, hooking him to her line while he believes he’s hooking her to his. She instead escorts a police officer back to arrest him as a traitor only for him to inevitably reveal his credentials to the cop and leave a card for Marie to meet him at central command. It’s there that she earns her first assignment: gain access to Colonel von Hindau’s (Warner Oland) private quarters and search his room for incriminating evidence of his deceit.
One mark leads to another, one success to possible catastrophe as the usual womanizing brutes in both the Austrian and Russian armies can’t hold a candle to the always-smiling Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen). Everything that occurs does so to get his and Marie’s (by this time code-named X-27) rapport going. There’s a mutual respect between them as well as the earmarks of a burgeoning love if only they weren’t so good at their jobs. What builds instead is a cat and mouse game of capture and escape. Maybe the latter occurs because they’re both that good. Or maybe it’s because both would rather continue the chase than mark their victory with the other’s execution. They play with each other for laughs and proof of superiority. And why not?
What I really enjoyed about the first two-thirds of Dishonored is that these characters are allowed the leeway to act under their own volition. As long as they retrieve the information they were tasked to lie and cheat their way into procuring, their job would have been a success. But this is the 1930s and respect for one’s opponents had long since evaporated in war. The men sitting behind the scenes to send soldiers to their deaths didn’t care about humanity as much as power and righteousness. It wouldn’t therefore matter how much good X-27 does for Austria. She’s a tool the country uses knowing that they can unjustifiably abuse her too. One wrong step and they won’t hesitate to make her into a cautionary tale.
That’s why every scene between Dietrich and McLaglen is so much fun. A big part is Dietrich’s wry humor and comedic timing (when seducing unsuspecting marks) hitting a wall with McLaglen’s smug ego, but you cannot deny the script’s ability to put them in a situation that allows for a victor without also singling out a loser. Kranau wins the first encounter because he gets away (not before rubbing it in her face first). X-27 wins the second because she also gets away … and without him knowing that he didn’t stop her from collecting what she came to steal. It’s never about love or hate or even duty. It’s about winning and gloating with the knowledge that a rematch won’t be too long a wait.
It’s no wonder that von Sternberg hated the title mandated by the studio. He built a film with the specific goal of showing that X-27 was a woman of honor whether she was following orders or disobeying them. To therefore call it Dishonored was a slap in the face of her character. It makes it seem that what she ultimately does was wrong and that she deserves the punishment coming. With the Hayes Code floating about, you must wonder if the studio saw the ending as one where acts of immorality must be punished rather than what it actually was: an accusation that the government was the one being immoral. von Sternberg is making a political point (albeit sloppily with an eleventh-hour declaration by Barry Norton‘s “Young Lieutenant”).
The sloppiness initially ruined the whole experience for me. The picture is somewhat slight narratively anyway, but X-27’s sharp turn in motivation came so quickly that it appeared to have no reason beyond cementing her fate. It’s only while writing this that the reasons come through clearer because hindsight reveals her decision wasn’t made from love like those holding her life in their hands believe. That’s merely what they think because she’s a woman and they refuse to provide her the complexity of choice that they would themselves. Marie said in the beginning that she wasn’t afraid to live or die and she ultimately proves both by having fun and being true to herself for the duration. Helping her country was a means to an end.
And as soon as you get your head straight about the last third of the run-time, you can get that sour taste out of your mouth and enjoy the rest for the comedic thriller it is. Some of the laughs are of the incredulous sort (von Sternberg setting a lengthy scene dense with exposition at a New Year’s party of visual and aural chaos almost completely devoid of dialogue) and some a product of pure performance (whenever Dietrich’s character is surveying a room, she takes snapshots with wide darting eyes that later prove she has something akin to a photographic memory). von Sternberg replays many moments as though memories inside his leads’ minds too, their calculations seeking an upper hand. It’s all a stylishly seductive game of espionage.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.