Memorable, ground breaking and empowering, Dishonored tells a simple story without flair or distraction, while Dietrich remains effortlessly riveting.
Released in 1931 and following on from The Blue Angel which made Marlene Dietrich a star, this espionage thriller finds her as a cloak and dagger seductress. Sexy, sultry and knowingly aloof from the outset she is swathed in shadow, perpetually alluring yet unobtainable to all. Men are manipulated, authority figures disregarded while she demonstrates scant regard for those around her. Dietrich built her image upon ambiguity circumventing traditional gender roles for something more fluid, which made for good box office and better publicity. An image which came to define her persona in public if not privately.
Writer and director Josef von Sternberg shaped this version of Dietrich into a character which he could use to further his artist vision. Although von Sternberg fervently refuted any directorial influence there is no denying his visionary impact on both Dietrich and her career. Dishonored then is a concisely shot old school spy thriller which by contemporary standards might seem clichéd, if not for the fact von Sternberg established that cinematic shorthand before cliché was even a word.
There is no denying the magnetism of Dietrich in this film as her languid portrayal and chameleon like qualities eclipse everyone on screen. A turn of the head, an impassioned musical interlude or vague suggestion of sexual opportunity only add to her mystique. Von Sternberg also works in emotional notes which enrich her performance further as both sides evade capture, escape with integrity and do so with finesse.
Flirtation, conversation and a simple narrative combine with montage to show Dietrich’s Marie Kolverer outwit every man in the room repeatedly without malice. As the political playing field changes she remains steadfast while all around others are choosing to adjust. In many ways this could be construed as a reflection of the actress herself, who refused to work with anyone else apart from von Sternberg when she first landed in Hollywood. Her recognition of his impact on her career can never be dismissed as their run of films ensured reciprocal success for both.
Memorable, ground breaking and empowering, Dishonored tells a simple story without flair or distraction, while Dietrich remains effortlessly riveting. As a period piece, political thriller and character study this is the perfect opener for any Dietrich season.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Josef von Sternberg, Daniel N. Rubin
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Warner Oland
Released: 1931 / Genre: Romance/Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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Dishonored is out now as part of the “Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount” Blu-ray collection.