The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.
As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.
Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.
Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.
There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.
It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.
There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.
What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.
Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.
However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.
Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.
What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.
This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.
However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.
The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.
We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.
It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.