Screening on Film
Directed by Josef von Sternberg.
With Marlene Dietrich, Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz.
US, 1931, 35mm, black & white, 91 min.
Print source: Universal

The third picture in the most effulgent streak of brilliance in Hollywood history—seven features between 1930 and 1935 created by collaborators Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg—Dishonored is perhaps the best introduction to this mother lode running from Blue Angel to Devil is a Woman, packed as it is with the most beautiful painting-with-light b&w photography of the studio era, weirdo formally mannered performances cooked up between director and leading lady for their worlds, the unsuspected moral seriousness of their proto-kitschy projects, and novel end-around tonal tricks from a playbook more eccentric than any other in the business. Dietrich plays an Austrian prostitute recruited to use her body to spy for her country, all Mata Hari-like, and since it’s wartime, she does her dangerous duty courageously. But she’s human and falls for one of her enemy dupes, Victor McLaglen, the future star of John Ford’s The Informer. But this is not Ford country, and McLaglen, like everyone else in the film, from Warner Oland to Gustav von Seyffertitz, speaks in those Sternbergian cadences suggesting irony-laden freight trains slowly gathering steam. A wonder the director so confidently adopted such an aggressively strange dialogue style the instant that films learned to speak. The alchemically romantic admixture of Dietrich, Liszt, pussycat and firing squad at the end is an especial wonderment. See this and have fun trying to iron your gooseflesh flat afterward!

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